Table of Contents
- The Basics
- The Position of な-adjectives in a Sentence
- Beyond the Basics
- Common Mistakes
- Grammar Points Related to な-adjectives
な-adjectives are one of two kinds of adjectives in Japanese (the other being い-adjectives). The main function of な-adjectives is to describe nouns. For example, a famous person is 有名な人, a convenient tool is 便利なツール, and a safe place is 安全な場所. な-adjectives earn their name from な, which is used to attach a な-adjective to a noun. Unlike い-adjectives, な-adjectives cannot be conjugated to show tense—present or past—and truth value—positive or negative. This is a trait that な-adjectives share with nouns, and is one reason why they are often called “nominal (noun-like) adjectives” or “adjectival nouns” in linguistics.
- Trains in Japan are very convenient.
- If we’re talking about a weekday, the train will be more convenient than a car.
We can also choose to end a sentence with the な-adjective itself, which is common in casual spoken Japanese. In this case, present tense is assumed, even though there is no explicit marker of it, like だ or です:
- This is convenient.
When you want to indicate that the quality described by the な-adjective is in the past, you’ll use だった or でした to make it happen. This means that the quality was true before, but is no longer true at this point in time. For example:
- When I was a child, this town was quiet, but now it’s lively.
- In my parents’ day and age, disco was super popular.
Making a な-adjective negative tells us that the quality described by the word is not true. To do this, you can choose from a few different negative markers, such as じゃない and ではない. Take a look:
- That teacher’s handwriting isn’t very neat, is it?
- I’m not good at chess, but I’m not bad at it either.
The Position of な-adjectives in a Sentence
Just like い-adjectives, な-adjectives can be used in two positions to describe a noun: at the end of a sentence, and right before a noun. な-adjectives can do a little more than い-adjectives though. Some な-adjectives can function like a noun, and serve as the subject or object of a sentence.
At the End of a Sentence
When a な-adjective comes at the end of a sentence (or more specifically, in the predicate of a clause), it describes the subject of the sentence. Let’s take a look:
- Lately, cat videos are popular, aren’t they!
In this sentence, the な-adjective 人気 (popular) comes at the end of the sentence, and it is describing the subject noun phrase, 猫のビデオ (cat video).
It’s very common in Japanese for the subject to be left out of the sentence if what you’re talking about is clear from context. In this case, the な-adjective still describes the subject, you just have to figure out what that subject is.
- Lately, (these) are popular, aren’t they!
Perhaps you’d utter this if you’re in a room full of people on their phones, oohing and awwing over a video of a cute kitten in a teacup. In this case, you’re assuming that the person you’re talking to will understand that you’re referring to cat videos, and not something else. We do something similar in English, when we replace a noun with a pronoun, like “these” in the example sentence.
Before a Noun
When a な-adjective is used directly before a noun, you need to use な directly after the adjective. な is what attaches the adjective to the noun, forming a short noun phrase.
安全 + な + 場所 = 安全な場所
safe place a safe place
These words joined together can be used anywhere that a noun can be used:
- Please look for a safe place.
In this sentence, 安全な場所 is the object of the sentence - it’s what we’re looking for. It could just as easily be used as the subject of the sentence, as in the next example:
- There isn’t a single safe place.
As a Noun
In addition to their ability to describe nouns, some な-adjectives can be used as nouns themselves (Hint: this is why な-adjectives are called “adjectival nouns” in linguistics). These nouns refer to abstract concepts, like “safety” (安全), “peace” (平和), or “freedom” (自由). When used as a noun, these words can take many roles in a sentence, including the subject or object.
- Safety comes first.
- We’re hoping for peace.
- Let’s protect our freedom.
Beyond the Basics
The Origin of な-adjectives
Modern な-adjectives in Japanese have several different origins. The earliest な-adjectives originated in Japan. These are usually recognizable by the fact that have a hiragana ending, such as 〜か or 〜やか, as in 静か (quiet) and 賑やか (lively).
As contact with China increased throughout Japanese history, many new descriptive words were imported into Japanese as な-adjectives. な-adjectives of Chinese origin make up about two-thirds of all な-adjectives. They’re generally quite easy to recognize, because they can be written entirely in kanji, such as 綺麗 (beautiful), 安全 (safe), and 健康 (healthy).
Today, new words continue to enter Japanese from other languages (including English), and these tend to become な-adjectives as well. Like most foreign loan words from non-kanji using languages, these words are written in katakana. For example, ユニーク (unique), オリジナル (original), and クレージー (crazy) are all used as な-adjectives in Japanese.
The Historical Development of な
So the question remains: why do な-adjectives take な before a noun? In Old Japanese, にあり was used to show an adjective-like relationship between two words. The adjective-like word came first, and then connected to the noun it describes using にあり. You might recognize the two parts of this phrase, the particle に, and あり — the stem form of the verb ある.
Slowly, over many years, the way にあり was pronounced shifted and simplified, first becoming なる, and then eventually, becoming な, which is still in use today. The fact that these ancient な-adjectives used a verb ending (あり) when they came before a noun to describe it explains the traditional grammar name for な-adjectives - 形容動詞, or “adjectival verb”. While な-adjectives no longer resemble verbs, the ancestor of な itself is a verb. With this in mind, “adjectival verb” starts to make a little more sense, doesn't it?
What are の-adjectives?
In addition to い-adjectives and な-adjectives, some dictionaries and resources list a third kind of Japanese adjective: the の-adjective. If you’ve learned about particle の, you might know that it is used to describe the relationship between two nouns. This can be possession, as in お母さんの誕生日 (my mother’s birthday), or it can express identity, as in トヨタの山田さん (Mr. Yamada of Toyota). So in a phrase like 本当の幸せ (true happiness), why does の come after “true”, which is seemingly an adjective?
It comes down to the fact that な-adjectives possess traits of both adjectives and nouns, and many can take either な or の to describe a noun, depending on the nuance or meaning that the speaker wants to convey. We like to think of な-adjectives as existing on a spectrum, with some words favoring な, and others (like 本当) favoring の. Interest piqued? We wrote a whole article about this — read it here.
This is a small note, but beware of 同じ (same)! It feels like it should be a な-adjective, but it doesn't function quite like others.
When used at the end of a sentence, it’s no different than any other な-adjective:
- Those shoes are the same as mine!
When you use 同じ immediately before a noun though, な is not used:
- Did you buy the same shoes as me on purpose?
Ok, so easy enough to remember that 同じ doesn’t take な before a noun, but…
- Our shoes might be the same, but they look better on me.
As you can see in the example above, when 同じ is used before a conjunction particle, like のに, it does take な. So the moral of the story is, watch out for 同じ, because it isn’t the same as other な-adjectives… get it? 😂
Treating な-adjectives like い-adjectives
Some な-adjectives are easy to mistake for い-adjectives. For example, きれい (clean) is a な-adjective. However, it ends in い, so you could be forgiven for thinking it's an い-adjective, and try to mark it as past tense with 〜かった or negative with 〜くない. Just remember — な-adjectives use words like だった and じゃない to accomplish this!
- The car was clean before a bird pooped on it.
- ❌ 私の部屋はきれ
- My room is not clean.
If you’re not sure whether an adjective is an い-adjective or な-adjective, check how it’s written in kanji. Unlike い-adjectives, the final 〜い of these な-adjectives is not in hiragana. For example, the kanji for きれい is 綺麗, not 綺麗い. The only exception to this is 嫌い (hateful), which is a な-adjective in spite of the い hanging off the end. 🤷🏻♀️