Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond the Basics
Always used with a transitive verb that can convey intention, 〜てある describes the current state of something with the implication that someone did something earlier to it and left it that way.
For example, the phrase そうじがしてある, which uses the noun そうじ (cleaning) and the verb する (to do), when used to describe a room 部屋, implies that its being clean is due to somebody having cleaned the room earlier, rather than simply remarking that it is clean. Here, ～てある adds that extra descriptive element.
Similarly, メモが置いてある, which uses the noun メモ (memo) and the verb 置く (to put), describes the situation where a memo has been placed somewhere by somebody for some reason.
As you can see there isn't a spot-on equivalent in English that expresses the subtle nuance and implications of 〜てある. In fact, the above phrases would usually simply be translated as "It's clean," or "There's a memo," in English.
"So when is it appropriate to use 〜てある?," you may ask. Actually, 〜てある comes in handy in various situations.
Imagine you're planning to clean up a messy living room, but when you open the door, you notice the room is already cleaned up. Here, you could say そうじがしてある to show your appreciation for someone who's already taken care of it.
Next, when you walk in the room, you find a memo on the table. Then you could say, メモが置いてある. Since 〜てある indicates that someone left the memo there, using it can express your curiosity about who left it there and why.
Let's say the memo was left by your partner. It says そうじしてある meaning you don't have to clean the room, and in using 〜ある, your partner is showcasing his initiative for what he did.
Catch the drift? SOMEone did SOMEthing, and left it that way for SOME reason…!
This unique nuance can be applied in a number of other situations as well; you can give a heads-up to others about an odd situation you created and left for some purpose, or you can even generate an air of purposeful ambiguity that implies a hesitation or unwillingness to assign blame, too.
Either way, 〜てある has a convenient catch-all sort of function that can be applied in a lot of different situations. We'll go into more detail about all the interesting functions 〜てある has on this page, so keep reading!
Conjugating Verbs to Take 〜てある
Putting a verb into the てある form is as simple as conjugating it into the て form and adding ある on to the end.
The てある form can then itself be conjugated like other godan verbs. Here are a few basic conjugation patterns for 〜てある.
Patterns of Use
In a sentence with 〜てある, you commonly use particle は, が, or を to denote the thing that has been affected by the action.
Particle は is a topic marker. It works similarly to "as for…" in English and it's often used to indicate a topic that's been brought up before, or one that the speaker thinks the listener is somehow aware of.
For example, if your colleague asks you about the location of a memo, you can use は with 〜てある and say:
- The memo is on the desk.
(Nuance: As for the memo, it's on the desk.)
In this case, it's obvious that your colleague knows about the existence of a memo as they've just asked you where it is. So you use は to refer to the topic of the memo, saying "As for the memo…" and explain that it's on the desk.
Particle が is used to mark the subject of a sentence. So when using が with 〜てある, it calls attention to the thing that someone left in a certain state in a way that simply describes the situation before your eyes with no particular implication. It's a good way to express a sense of realization or recognition.
For example, the sentence below sounds as if you've just noticed that there is a memo placed by someone else on the desk, like "Oh, there's a memo!"
- A memo is on the desk.
(Nuance: Oh! A memo has been left on the desk.)
Particle を is an object marker. When を is used with 〜てある, it stresses that the subject has created the situation on purpose. The subject is often the (unmentioned) speaker themselves. This can be inferred because the subject — like 私 ("I") — tends to be omitted when you are talking about your own action or an action you've been involved in. In other words, when you hear sentences using 〜を〜てある, even though the subject may not be explicitly stated, most likely the speaker is talking about something they themself have intentionally done.
So in the example below, メモ (memo) is the object that someone has placed on the desk, meaning it would be followed, or marked by, を, indicating that the speaker is describing the act of having placed the memo there themself.
- The memo is on the desk.
(Nuance: I/we placed and left the memo on the desk.)
〜てある can also be used in a relative clause, which is a phrase that modifies the noun that follows it. In this case, the object can come after 〜てある.
- the memo that is on the desk
(Nuance: the memo, which I/someone placed and left on the desk)
As you can see, the English translation leads with the noun, "memo," which in this case is the thing being described, whereas in Japanese it comes last. While this is typical of Japanese grammar structure, it can sound quite mysterious or lend a sense of anticipation for second-language speakers who may be used to knowing what is being described before launching into the description.
This can sound quite funny sometimes, especially in the case of an anti-climactic "reveal." To get a better sense of how this might work, let's take the same example and remove the noun. Say your friend is describing the situation where something is on the desk. They would begin with:
Your mind is racing. What is on the desk?! Someone left something there, what on earth could it be?!
Anticlimactic, am I right?
But now you can see how that works!
Transitivity With 〜てある
〜てある implies someone has caused a situation, so you can only pair it up with a transitive verb.
For example, imagine your neighbor's front door is wide open. You see a door stopper, so someone must have left it that way.
To add the nuance "someone left it open," you can combine the transitive verb 開ける with 〜てある and say:
- ドアが 開けてある。
- The door is open (because someone left it open).
In this example, you don't know who opened the door and your focus is more on the door being open. When not focusing on who did what, you'd usually go with an intransitive verb, like ドアが 開く (The door opens).
However, 〜てある always implies that someone had a direct hand in the action earlier, which conflicts with the intransitive nature of 開く. Thus, 〜てある only attaches to a transitive verb.
〜てある for Good Surprises (and Expressing Gratitude for Them)
Now that we know how to use ～てある functionally, let's get into why you might want to use it depending on the situation you wish to describe.
First off, good surprises! People often use 〜てある when they find out someone's already taken care of something they were planning to do.
Imagine you quarrel with your partner one night. Although you two haven't reconciled, you find a bento prepared for you the following morning.
- Oh, the bento has been made.
Here you use 〜てある because you want to describe not just that the bento is there but you also want to imply your partner has put in the effort to make it. It expresses not only your surprise but also some gratitude towards your partner who prepared it for you.
Next, say it's a snowy morning and you expect to have to shovel the driveway before going to work. However, when you go out, you realize that the snow has already been cleared from your driveway. So you say:
- Oh, the snow has been shoveled.
In this case, you don't know who did it, but you're sure someone did it and you just are not 100% sure who did the nice thing for you. But keep in mind that 〜てある can sometimes make a sentence sound standoffish so if you want to acknowledge the person who did it, it's more common to use 〜てくれる as in 「あ、お弁当、作ってくれたんだ。」to mean "Oh, you made a bento for me!" or "Oh, he made a bento for me!" — depending on who you know did it.
〜てある for Showing Initiative
People also use 〜てある to show that they are well-prepared. In this case, you often combinethe word もう (already) or 既に (already) with 〜てある.
For example, say you are an eager beaver who finished their Christmas shopping before Halloween; you can say:
- I've already bought Christmas presents.
Here, 〜てある suggests that you completed your Christmas shopping in advance. You can use it to show off how well-prepared you are or simply to express your relief that you won't have to worry about it at the last minute.
Let's have a look at another example. Imagine you are arranging a company Christmas party. One day, your boss tells you to reserve a venue ASAP before all the good places are booked. If it's already done, you can use 〜てある and say:
- I've already reserved a place.
In this example, 〜てある can express the message: "Don't worry, it's already been taken care of and we are in a good place." It showcases that you are proactive and ready for what waits around the corner.
You can also use 〜てある to show that you're impressed with someone else's proactivity. Say you ask your assistant to print out a poster for the Christmas party by the end of the day. Then, after a lunch break, you notice that the poster is already on your desk. At this moment, you may think:
- Oh, it's already printed out.
Here, もう〜てある indicates that your assistant has done the task ahead of schedule and demonstrated their initiative. It shows you are impressed and pleased with the prompt work, just like the situations described in 〜てある for Good Suprises.
〜てある for Unusual Situations
Another situation in which people might use 〜てある is when describing an unusual state that they suspect has been intentionally created by somebody else.
For example, let's say you are a detective investigating a murder. It's mid-summer, but when you enter the room where the crime took place, you notice that the heater is on. To describe this atypical situation, you may say:
- It is the middle of summer, but the heater is on.
Since 〜てある implies that someone did something intentionally, it can be used to describe unusual situations like this. The heater wouldn't have turned itself on in the summer for no reason, right? Someone must have done it on purpose. Using 〜てある in this situation can convey your sense of curiosity as to who might have done it and why.
But what if you do know who did it? You can still use 〜てある, which in this case would simply express your bafflement that the person devised the situation. For instance, you come home and find a banana on the toilet and say:
- There's a banana placed on the toilet.
Here, 〜てある indicates that the banana has been intentionally placed there by someone. Say you know your mom did it because she was the only one in the house that day. Then, 〜てある would express your realization that she did it as well as your wonderment as to why she did it.
Your mom could also use 〜てある to notify you that the situation is intentional. For example, if she didn't want you to mess with the banana she placed on the toilet, she may send you a heads-up, like:
- I've left a banana on the toilet for a reason, okay?
By using 〜てある, she can convey that she is leaving the banana there on purpose. Maybe it's part of an initiation ritual for the banana cult she just joined or something. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ The "don't touch it," isn't explicitly stated, but it's implied in the message.
〜てある for Blaming Someone for Their Actions
You can also use 〜てある to call people out for their (perhaps innocent or unintentional, yet still blame-worthy) actions.
For example, imagine you have an untidy roommate who always leaves their dirty clothes around. Nobody really takes off their clothes and chucks them on the floor for a particular purpose, right? But when you find yet another pile of wrinkled up clothes lying around, you can use 〜てある and grumble:
- They left their clothes on the floor again!
(Literally: Their clothes have been taken off and left as is again.)
Notice 〜っぱなしにする is used here. It's an expression that adds the nuance of "leaving things as is," or "leaving things unfinished," and it perfectly matches the objectionable tone we are going for here. For this reason, it's often paired up with 〜てある to blame someone for their inconsiderate action.
Beyond the Basics
〜てある VS 〜ている
Learners often mix up 〜てある and 〜ている because they look very similar and both express a state that is the result of a past action.
The difference is simple though. 〜てある always describes a state while implying someone did something earlier to create the state, but 〜ている simply means an ongoing situation that started in the past without necessarily implying someone's involvement.
For example, when you see an open door, which you believe someone left open, you would use 〜てある to say:
- ドアが 開けてある。
- The door is open.
(Nuance: Someone left the door open.)
If you use 〜ている, it simply describes the door being open without further implication.
- ドアが 開いている。
- The door is open.
Notice the verbs in the above examples are also slightly different. The example with 〜てある is 開けてある while the one with 〜ている is 開いている. The first verb is the transitive verb 開ける and the second is the intransitive verb 開く.
As mentioned earlier, when not focusing on who did what, you'd usually go with an intransitive verb. However, 〜てある can only attach to the transitive verb because it implies someone did something earlier and left it that way. On the other hand, 〜ている doesn't have that restriction, so it can take the intransitive verb to simply depict that the door is open.
〜てある and 〜ている become very similar when talking about who did what, though. For example, if you're talking about the door you left open, you can use the transitive 開ける either with 〜てある or 〜ている and say:
- ドアを 開け [てある・ている]。
- The door is open (because I left it that way).
Then, what's the difference between the two?
Although 〜を 開ける1 indicates that a specific person (you) is leaving the door open, 〜ている still simply conveys the situation as-is. So the ている version sounds like you are just explaining that you opened the door and left it that way, and that's what's going on right now. 2
On the other hand, 〜てある emphasizes your intention behind the situation, like "I've opened the door and left it that way because I intended to do so." So this version is commonly used when you want to give a heads-up to others, like "please be aware that this situation may be unusual, but I'm purposefully leaving it that way."
When Transitive Verbs Don't Work With 〜てある
As we have discussed, 〜てある works with transitive verbs, but it doesn't mean you can freely combine them anytime. Let's take knocking on a door, for example. Although ノックする (knock) is a transitive verb, it would be strange to combine it with 〜てある:
- ❌ ドアがノックしてある。
- The door is in the state of having been knocked upon.
Because knocking does not generally alter the physical state of a door, there is not much of a reason to remark on it using 〜てある, so it sounds strange to add it.
However, if there is more context to show that someone having previously knocked on the door resulted in it being in its current state, then ノックしてある becomes more logically, and grammatically, acceptable.
For example, say you visit a friend's house. You walk up to the door and you notice that a certain part of the door is very worn out. You assume it's from knocking on the door very strongly. Then it's possible to say:
- ⭕ ドアが傷むほどノックしてある。
- The door is in the state of having been knocked upon to the degree of being damaged.
Since it's not a typical situation, this sentence still sounds slightly odd without some very specific context. For example, if your friend were consulting you about strange occurrences, like a ghost trying to open the door to their room every night, then noticing this unique state of the door and describing it with 〜てある may sound more appropriate.
In this example, the particle marking ドア also gets switched from the subject marker が to the object marker を to indicate that there is an unmentioned subject (you) who left the object (door) open. In these situations, を would typically be paired with the verb to denote that you did something intentionally, while が puts the focus on the object in question rather than who did something to it. ↩
Here 〜ている can also describe a progressive state. So ドアを 開けている can mean the state of the door that is left open, but it can also mean that someone is currently in the middle of opening the door. You can usually tell from the context which way 〜ている is used. ↩