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  5. 元気な vs. 病気の


元気な vs. 病気の

When I studied Japanese at the university, I remember one thing that really confused me was why you say 元気な人 but 病気の人. As this was in the days before Google (even before Alta Vista, in fact), I couldn't easily look it up.

I did have A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar (vol I and II), but it only offered general information on the particles な and の. I asked my Japanese friends, who looked at me like I was weird for even asking. No real satisfying answer from my professor either.

But now I wonder, does anybody have any good explanation. My Japanese is a bit rusty, but IIRC, な is an adjective marker, for the group of adjectives that sometimes are called な adjectives, whereas の is a general noun marker with several purposes, often used to indicate possession.

The use of な makes a lot of sense: 元気な人, a healthy person, a person who has the trait of health.

But how to explain the use of の in 病気の人? I tried to imagine it as something like "a person of sickness", but nothing I came up with really felt satisfactory.

I still wanted to understand why the particles would be different in the two expressions, so I began to speculate that maybe there was a time when the distinction between の and な wasn't so clear; that perhaps they were used interchangeably. However, that would still not explain why there would be a difference in modern Japanese.

Then I went to Japan and came to accept what the Japanese believe: some things you can only understand if you are Japanese. So I left it at that.

However, I was going through my Japanese Anki deck earlier, and and expression with 病気の came up and reminded me. So, I'd like to know, how do you understand the difference between 元気 and 病気? Why does one seem to behave like and adjective but the other like a noun, when they both, from my point of view, seem to be the same class of word (the healthy person, the sick person).

Before you remind me that Google is my friend, know that I am actually not that interested in merely looking a fact up. I am more interested to understand the different ways that people think about and ultimately resolve situations where something seems odd in a language when you come from the perspective of another language.

Or perhaps you don't find this confusing at all, which leads me to other questions: does my native language (Italian) help to explain why this was difficult for me to grasp? Do I think too much? And we might as well throw in "am I dumb?" for good measure, just so that we have a nice little set of possible explanations.

March 24, 2019



Hi! I think you had your answer when you said that from your point of view, they seem to be the same class of word. You feel that way because in English, and I’m guessing in Italian too, they are the same class of word, i.e. an adjective. It’s very common for percieved antonyms to be the same part of speech.

For Japanese people, it's highly confusing why in English we say I'm bored, but we also say I'm having fun (insted of their fave embarrassing mistake, I'm funny). Why express one thing with an adjective, but the opposite with verb + noun?

There are endless examples of concepts that are expressed by one part of speech in one language, but another (or a combination of others) in other languages. Even more so when the two languages are unrelated, like English and Japanese. And every time that happens, learners feel a strong dissonance. They get stuck looking for a translation using the same part of speech as their mother tongue. They brand the new language “illogical.” They look for explanations and justification. And in the end, they just remember it as it is. It’s an absolutely natural part of learning a new language and happens to all students at some point.

That’s one of the great benefits of learning a new language - you learn that there is no one true logical way to express something, and what matters is the intention, not the part of speech. :) I hope you have fun with Japanese!


Thank you for that! I think you nailed it. You're example of "I am funny" contrasted with "I am having fun" made brought my attention to other examples, that would seem illogical: "you are hungry", but «io ho fame», that is I have hunger. The Spanish on the other hand «tienen hambre», which sound hilarious to my Italian ear, but I understand it perfectly well.

If you were to ask me why we Italian have hunger instead of just being hungry, I would probably get confused. The same way that my Japanese friends got confused when I asked them about the apparent contradiction.

An English friend of mine once told me she thinks it sounds funny when I say "here with me there is Enrico" and it probably does as an English person would express the same as "I am here with Enrico". But, to me "qui con me c'è Enrico" sounds much more natural (and warmer) than "Sono qui con Enrico". Does that make sense?

Thank you again!


Hi again. Yeah, sounds just about right to me. :) It's called negative language transfer (aka linguistic interference) in SLA and you can look it up. There’s a lot of information and examples out there. Good luck!


I don't have a real explanation to that, as you said, の has a tons of usages, you can make a sentence full of it that Japanese people will still understand you (if you have used them correctly of course).

But to answer your question, の is used in this case to indicate the relation between the two nouns. Here are some examples

教師の父親 (My father which is a teacher)

医者の母 (My mother which is a doctor)

緑色のカープ (The cup that is green...)

進撃の巨人 (The titans that are attacking - well known here as Attack on Titans)

And so on... I'm not the best at explaining things so I hope it helps you.


Thank you for taking the time to answer. Yes, you have a good point that の has a lot of usage and I am sure that from the Japanese person's point of view this clearly explains something that to a person coming from English (or Italian) sounds strange and contradictory.

In English we say "the healthy person" In Japanese, 元気な人. This maps perfectly well, な being an adjective marker.

However, to the English/Italian ear (or eye ;), 病気の人 sounds wrong. Not is wrong, but sounds wrong. Why? Simple! "the sick person". We would expect it to be 病気な人. So much so that several Japanese courses written by non-Japanese people incorrectly use な instead of の. I don't know if I make myself clear. I am also not good at explaining, and English is my third language so I struggle a lot.

Anyways, thank you for you contribution. It was very helpful.


I think I just filed away 病気 as more relating to the noun "sickness" or "illness" without much thought, and thus you would use の to connect the two nouns. And 元気 I just thought of as a descriptive adjective-type word. I think that's how it made sense to me.

But now that you mention it and I actually think about it, it would seem logical to assume 元気 and 病気 as the exact same class of word with opposite meaning. Just gotta make sure not to think too logically when it comes to languages ;)


Yes I got what you mean, I'm a French native speaker so it also sounded strange to me at first, but, well I guess it is not the strangest thing I've seen in Japanese because you also have verbs that are translated in English or French as an adjective.

For example, to say I'm hungry you'll say お腹が空いた、お腹がペコペコだ The first one is a verb 空く すく and the second is an onomatopoeia...

I guess Japanese people didn't want to make 病気 an adjective but a noun, and that's all, it's completely a different language, in a different family while French, Italian, English or even Russian are in someways different they don't sound that much "weird" for us because of their common roots.

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