の can be a tricky particle for non-native speakers to learn because it has a lot of meanings that don’t translate into English in nice, simple ways. But hey, that’s what I’m here for. To translate の into nice, simple ways for you.
Today we’re going to look at four main uses of の. We’ll only cover the basics here, because の can also be combined with a lot of other things to make unique grammar structures. So we’ll stick with plain old の for now.
The Japanese Particle “NO”(の) :Phrase Modifier
The way I initially learned how to use の was as a “possessive” particle. That’s part of it, but not quite the whole picture. And I want you guys to be better than me as you learn Japanese, so I’m going to explain what の really is.
When you have “の” between A and B, it is showing that B somehow modifies A. This could be possession, such as
“Tanaka-san no hon”
or “Tanaka-san’s book.” In English, you would translate の as the ’s at the end of a noun. But this is only one part of how の can modify a phrase or noun.
You could say
“Resutoran no denwa”
meaning “The phone at the restaurant.” You could say
“Reikishi no shiken”
or “The exam on history.” You could say
“Momo no ki”
or “Peach tree.” That one doesn’t even have a word in English that translates to の. の can also show what something is made of, what attributes it has, or any other modification you could make to A.
“Peach tree.” That one doesn’t even have a word in English that translates to の. の can also show what something is made of, what attributes it has, or any other modification you could make to A.
Overall, there are a lot of uses for の as a phrase or noun modifier. This is definitely how you’ll hear it used the most in Japanese, and you’ll be able to pick it up through careful listening.
The Japanese Particle “NO”(の) :Pronoun
Sometimes の is used as a pronoun to mean “one.” You can put it directly after i-adjectives, with a “na” after na-adjectives, or after verbs that are either in their dictionary form or past tense. You can’t put it by itself, because whatever comes before it determines what it is.
This is a lot easier to understand with examples. If you are being asked to choose between cupcakes, and you want the blue one (see, there’s the word “one” in English), you can say
to refer to “the blue one.” If you buy the cupcake, and want to refer to the one you bought, you can say
meaning “The one I bought.” It’s important to note that you don’t say “cupcake” in these sentences. That’s what the の is. The cupcake.
The Japanese Particle “NO”(の) :Nominalizer
This next use can be a little difficult to differentiate from the pronoun use. But don’t worry. I’ll explain it.
“Nominalizer” is a fancy grammar word for something that turns another part of speech into a noun. We have these in English, but a lot of times they are baked into the word. Let’s use that as an example. “Bake” is a verb, but “baker” is a person who bakes. The “er” at the end turns the verb into a noun.
の can do this in Japanese. You could add it to a verb like “Manabu” to say
or “The thing I learned.” But it can get more complicated than that.
For example, “Nihon e iku” means “to go to Japan.” But saying “Nihon e iku no” is more like “The thing that is going to Japan.” It’s a bit clunky in English, but it can be very useful to turn entire phrases into nouns with a language where the verb generally ends the sentence. To add onto this, we could then take our now “noun” phrase and add “Nihon e iku no wa takai desu” (日本へ行くのは高いです). This would literally be “The thing that is going to Japan is very expensive,” but, more reasonably, “It is very expensive to go to Japan.”
Using の as a nominalizer will allow you to make more complex sentences. Instead of having to break that sentence up, it all became one smooth idea.
“Koto” (こと) can also be used as a nominalizer, but there is a minor difference. “No” tends to be more concrete while “koto” feels a bit more abstract. It’s a subtle difference, but you’ll get to the point where you know which to use based on how it feels.
The Japanese Particle “NO”(の) :Sentence-Ending Particle (Feminine)
This last use is mostly limited to feminine speakers, though I have heard many different types of people use it (it all depends on the region you’re in). Feminine speakers can use の at the end of a sentence to add emphasis, or even ask a question.
You could say
“Totemo genki na no”
and the の would emphasize the fact that they are genki.
With a questioning tone, you could ask
“Genki na no?”
and it would make the question feel a bit softer. This is really quite feminine, so be aware of that if you want to try to use it.