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”:

Yamada-san likes her.
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:

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:

I like rice.

Incidentally, it is not incorrect to say:

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 it into a noun) to create more complex structures.

To eat [verb].
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!

Hiroko likes eating.
Sachiko walks fast.
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.

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.

I decided to go to tomorrow’s presentation.
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.

Suzuki-san will wait for her friend to come.
I will give up drinking.
Robert is good at tennis.
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…

Daichi likes her.

… into…


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.

A wallet is something in which you put money.
A pencil is something with which you write.
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.

I have been to Nagasaki.

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

I have eaten at this restaurant.
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!

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:

FatherHave you done your homework?
SonYes, I’ve done it.

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


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:

You May Also Like

ばかり vs だらけ

So what’s the difference? Both phrases have a negative connotation and both can be used to say there…

“As Soon As” in Japanese

The easiest way to say “as soon as A, B” with the grammar already introduced is to simply…

The Object Particle (を)

The object particle を lets us move from being able to say, “Robert ate” to “Robert ate an…

Negative Tendency

ありがちな考え方。 A typical way of thinking. ありがちな誤解。 A common misconception. メンバーが大勢いると結論のない議論になりがちである。 xxxxx