The ability to nominalise verbs is arguably the single piece of grammar that lets us move away from simple clauses to more fluid expressions. The word こと translates as “something” in English, but this belies its importance to grammatical structures in Japanese. At the moment, for instance, we can say “I like pizza” but we can’t yet say “I like to eat pizza”. This is where こと comes to the rescue. But first let’s take a look at it’s most basic usage, as a noun that means a generic “thing”:

山田やまださんは彼女かのじょこときです。
Yamada-san likes her.
かれこと心配しんぱいしています。
I’m worrying about him.

こと is used here to express some non-physical or conceptual thing, e.g. her “things” (looks, personality, etc.). We cannot, for example, say:

わたしこめこときです。()
I like the thing about rice.

This is because rice is a physical object—it doesn’t have traits like a personality, etc. In this case, we would just state it factually:

わたしこめきです。
I like rice.

Incidentally, it is not incorrect to say:

山田やまださんは彼女かのじょきです。
Yamada-san likes her.

However, using こと makes it a more endearing expression (emphasising that it’s not just her physical being!).

Grammatically, こと is essential to Japanese because by appending it to the standard form of a verb we can nominalise the verb (i.e. turn them it into a nouns) to create more complex structures.

べる。
To eat [verb].
べること
The thing that is eating [noun].

Thus far we have only been able to say, “He likes (noun)”, and not, “He likes walking” or “She likes watching movies”. But now that we have nominalised the verb we can apply the grammar for “He likes (noun)” again!

寛子ひろこべることきです。
Hiroko likes eating.
幸子さちこあることはやいです。
Sachiko walks fast.
看護師かんごし仕事しごと患者かんじゃ介護かいごすることです。
The job of a nurse is to look after patients.

Literally the last example sentence would translate: “The job of a nurse is the thing that is to look after patients”.

こと also lets us “join verbs” to express sentences such as “to stop smoking”, “to wait to go”, “to decide to do”, etc.

鈴木すずきさんは友達ともだちことちます。
Suzuki-san will wait for her friend to come.

Note that the が particle in the sub-clause directly connecting “friend” to the verb “to come” so it’s clear that Suzuki-san is doing the waiting.

明日あした説明会せつめいかい参加さんかすることめました。
I decided to go to tomorrow’s presentation.
さけことをやめます。
I will give up drinking.

Very often こと will be changed to の when you are using it to nominalise a verb. This の is not being used as the possessive particle we met before, but rather a shorthand form of こと. This abbreviated form is used in both written and spoken Japanese.

鈴木すずきさんは友達ともだちちます。
Suzuki-san will wait for her friend to come.
さけをやめます。
I will give up drinking.
ロバートはテニスする上手じょうずです。
Robert is good at tennis.
わたしほんきです。
I like reading books.

Incidentally, the these structures will very likely come up in the N5 JLPT.

〜のが上手じょうず or 下手へた or きです。
(He/she) is good at (or) not good at (or) likes 〜

To be clear, we can only use の in this way when it is being modified by an adjective or verb. We cannot change…

大地だいち彼女かのじょこときです。
Daichi likes her.

… into…

大地だいち彼女かのじょきです。()

Finally, it’s worth comparing こと with its counterpart もの, which also translates as “something” in English, but the critical difference in Japanese is that もの is used to refer to a physical object.

財布さいふはおかねれるものです。
A wallet is something in which you put money.
鉛筆えんぴつものです。
A pencil is something with which you write.
包丁ほうちょう台所だいどころ使つかものです。
A kitchen knife is something you use in the kitchen.

We cannot replace もの with こと in any of the above sentences.

Expressing an Experience

The ability of こと to nominalise verbs also lets us express experiences, e.g. I have been to India. To do this we nominalise the past tense of the verb and add がある, the verb “to have” with its particle.

わたし長崎ながさきったことがあります
I have been to Nagasaki.

Translated literally, the sentence would become: “The thing that is went to Nagasaki, I have”.

このレストランでべたことがあります
I have eaten at this restaurant.
沙織さおりはブラッド・ピットにったことがありません
Saori has never met Brad Pitt.

こと is the most general of nouns as well as the most common way of expressing an experience of something but equally we could use another noun like たいけん (personal experience) with this structure. Remember, all we’re really doing in modifying the noun!

わたし長崎ながさきった体験たいけんがあります。
I have a personal experience of going to Nagasaki.

Although it is translated as “have done”, “have been”, and so on in English, the emphasis is really on whether you have an experience of that thing, i.e. “Have you ever done…?” This is a very important distinction. For instance, in English we could have the following conversation:

Father Have you done your homework?
Son Yes, I’ve done it.

In Japanese, the following would not be a faithful translation.

ちち 宿題しゅくだいをしたことがあるの?
息子むすこ うん、したことがあるよ。()

The father isn’t asking the son whether he has ever done homework; he’s asking him whether he’s done his latest homework. In Japanese the dialogue would simply be:

ちち 宿題しゅくだいをしたの?
息子むすこ うん、したよ。

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