5 Common Types of Japanese Mistakes (and How to Correct Them!)

It’s a trap!

Yes, you’ve encountered another one of those sneaky little tricksters in the Japanese language.

The ones that lure us learners in every once in a while.

They might be parts of Japanese grammar that seem weird to non-native speakers.

Sometimes it’s even just a misreading of a word or slight miscomprehension that results in a devastating mishap.

But fear not, even minefields can become harmless, if you know where and how to step on them.

In this post, we’ll look at some of the most common mistakes made by Japanese learners, the parts of the language they revolve around and how to avoid them.

So, my fellow Japanese learner, if you’re ready to take this minesweeper course, by all means, do continue reading.

Let’s deactivate those annoying little pests 2g4!

Japanese Mistakes: 5 Tricky Japanese Language Traps

Before we start, let me just say that all these explanations and rules I’m about to write out will focus strictly on allowing you to easily remember how to use certain structures correctly. In other words, we may not go very deep into the grammatical definitions. Instead, we’ll try and take the shortest possible route and create a sort of fun, educational cheat sheet for avoiding certain errors.

1. The で or に Dilemma

A Brief Explanation of the Particles で and に

Particles で and に have various uses. However, right now, we’ll be focusing only on their use as a particle that defines a place of action. In other words, the one use that’s a bit tricky and tends to lead to some mistakes.

That being said, the particle で is, for our purposes, a particle which defines a place of occurrence or an action. In this case, で marks a place of—bear with me now, I know it’ll sound stupid—an active action. Yes, you read that right.

When I say “active action,” I’m referring to the type of verb and the whole context of the sentence. If we’re talking about a certain type of active verb and sentence, we’ll use this particle. You’ll understand this better after these examples.

彼はあの店でテレビを買いました。(かれは あのみせで てれびを かいました。) ー He bought a TV at that store.

プールの中で指輪を見つけました。(ぷうるのなかで ゆびわを みつけました。) ー I found a ring in the pool.

私の馬は競馬で勝ちました。(わたしのうまは けいばで かちました。) ー My horse won at the tracks.

代々木公園で丸一日を過ごしました。(よよぎこうえんで まるいちにちを すごしました。) ー I spent the entire day in Yoyogi Park.

Now it’s time for the に particle.

The explanation is pretty much the same but the opposite. The previous particle was connected to active cases, and this one is connected to passive cases. Or, in some cases, a very short action. That’s it. Let’s check out the examples.

この池にいる魚は綺麗ですね!(この いけにいる さかなは きれいですね!) ー The fish in this pond is beautiful!

その棚にある本は彼女からのプレゼントでした。(そのたなにある ほんは かのじょからの ぷれぜんとでした。) ー The book on that shelf was a present from my girlfriend.

マルコさんはドイツに住んでいます。(まるこさんは どいつに すんでいます。) ー Mr. Marco lives in Germany.

車がぬかるみに引っ掛かりました。(くるまが ぬかるみに ひっかかりました。) ー The car got stuck in the mud.

Common Mistakes with で and に

Now, let’s go through some common mistakes that happen with these two particles.

X 私はイタリアで住んでいます。(わたしは いたりあで すんでいます。) ー I live in Italy.

This one is wrong because the verb 住む requires the particle に and only that particle. You can avoid confusion by remembering this verb together with this particle. So instead of 住む, you’ll remember に住む and avoid this error.

O 私はイタリアに住んでいます。(わたしは いたりあに すんでいます。)

X 池でいる蛙は黄色です。(いけで いる かえるは きいろです。) ー The frog in the pond is yellow.

This is not only wrong, but also very hard on the ears. To avoid it, do the same as with the previous verb.

O 池にいる蛙は黄色です。(いけに いる かえるは きいろです。)

Remember them as one and you’ll be good to go.

Just remember that で goes with action while に goes with a short-term or passive action. Mind you, that’s passive context, not passive as a grammar structure—don’t mix up those two!

You can review the topic with the help of this video if you want.

2. The Deceptively Tricky は or が Choice

A Brief Explanation of the Particles は and が

This one seems like it’s simple enough, right? Well, not exactly. I’ve seen these particles being used incorrectly a lot of times. Let’s check this out together.

Right now, we’ll focus only on their roles as subject defining particles. That way we won’t cause any confusion.

Particle は is the basic topic marker particle. It defines a subject or an object, and it emphasizes a part of a sentence. The emphasized part is the one that comes after the particle. If you say “I am John,” you’d emphasize the “John” part, thus stating your name. Let’s move on to the examples.

この人は私の兄です。(このひとは わたしの あにです。) ー This is my elder brother.

焼酎は強いです。(しょうちゅうは つよいです。) ー Shochu is strong.

あの道は安全ではありません。(あのみちは あんぜんでは ありません。) ー That road is not safe.

When we’re talking about the が particle, it pretty much has the same use as the previous one, in our case. However, there’s an important difference between the two. That difference is emphasis. We’ve said that は emphasizes the sentence part after it. が on the other hand, does the opposite. It emphasizes the part before. If your friend is in trouble, for example, you might say “I’ll help you,” and emphasize the “I” part, not because you’re egotistical but because you’ll be the one to lend him a hand.

Time for some more examples.

お金がありません。(おかねが ありません。) ー I don’t have money.

この森に狼がいます。(このもりに おおかみが います。) ー There are wolves in these woods.

ケーキが大好きです。(けえきが だいすきです。) ー I love cake.

Common Mistakes with は and が

As far as common mistakes go, in the case of these particles, there are a lot of them. We’ll go through a few.

X 私がロンです。(わたしが ろんです。) ー I am Ron.

Though technically correct, this is a bit weird to say when you’re introducing yourself. In fact, try to avoid using が when introducing yourself or others. The only time when it’s right to use this particle in this case is when you want to point out someone in particular, as we did in our previous example with the elder brother.

O 私はロンです。(わたしは ろんです。)

X 頭は痛いです。(あたまは いたいです。) ー My head hurts.

Once again, some nitpickers would say this is technically not wrong, and that’s true. However, I’ve never heard Japanese people say this with は instead of が in real-life conversation. I’d say you should avoid reproducing this example and just use が instead.

O 頭が痛いです。(あたまが いたいです。)

In order to avoid mistakes, your best bet is to remember this: If you want to emphasize the part after a particle, use が; if you want to emphasize the part before the particle, use は, and you’ll be safe!

Here’s a video tool that can help you with this topic.

3. The Evil Katakana Twins

Katakana is dangerous. It seems harmless and simple but it hides its true dark and ominous nature. Why is it dangerous, though? There are two reasons.

The first reason being, katakana is very rarely used in real life. This means you don’t get a lot of contact with it, which tends to make you forget some characters. As we all already know, exposure to a language we’re studying is the most important condition that needs to be met if we want to improve our skills.

The second reason being, katakana words are often very similar to each other and sometimes they don’t even resemble the original word borrowed from a foreign language. Take a look at some of these tricky katakana words.

クロス (くろす) ー Cross, cloth.

“I can’t make a dress using a cross!”

クローズ (くろおず) ー Crows, clothes.

“Sweet, you’re buying crows!”

“No dude, clothes.”


カラー (からあ) ー Color, collar.

“Put a collar on your dog.”

“You want me to paint my dog?!”

トラック (とらっく) ー Truck, track.

“The Rolling Stones make cars?! Oh…”

バス (ばす) ー Bus, bass, bath.

“I love to relax in a bath.”

“Relax in a bus, what?”

バット (ばっと) ー Bat, bat.

“Fear the Batman for he will win third base!”

バレー (ばれえ) ー Volleyball, ballet.

“I just love it when ballerinas serve! Such a dynamic sport…”

バルブ (ばるぶ) ー Valve, bulb.

“Change that bulb, please.”

“OK, give me a wrench.”

ボール (ぼおる) ー Bowl, ball.

“One bowl of soup, please.”

“A soup ball? That sounds awesome!”

サイン (さいん) ー Sign, autograph.

“Check out that sign, dude.”

“Whose autograph?”

サッカー (さっかあ) ー Sucker, soccer.

“I love soccer.”

“What, you love suckers? Are you a swindler?”

サークル (さあくる) ー Club, circle.

“Want to join our club?”

“What circle, the circle of trust?”

コール (こおる) ー Call, coal.

“You’ll get a coal from Santa if you’re bad!”

“Really, he’ll call me!?”

コート (こおと) ー Coat, court.

“Let’s play tennis on this court.”

“How? What, on a coat?”

ランプ (らんぷ) ー Ramp, lamp.

“Lift the ramp.”

“OK, and point it where?”

ラム (らむ) ー Lamb, rum.

“I love drinking rum.”

“How do you drink lamb?!”

You might’ve noticed that these examples are here primarily to entertain you. Come on, we had to cut the tension and seriousness of this post!

But the truth is, this section has a clear objective, as do all the others. Here, we’re showing the importance of context. This is especially important with katakana words, which is why we used them as examples and the main subject.

Always determine the context first!

Immersion programs can help you through contextual learning. For example, FluentU uses native Japanese videos with subtitles that can help you spot katakana words and learn them in context.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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Translate the sentence idea first, and then move on to word-by-word translation.

That way, the evil twins will never get you!

Fun part over, we’re going back to Seriousland right away in the next section!

4. Four Majestic, Lovable Conditionals

I love conditionals in Japanese. At first, they’re hard and complicated, making you go crazy and stuff like that. But once you figure them out they become just loads of fun. And, according to my personal experience, Japanese natives usually respect you even more once they notice you using them properly in a conversation. Here are the basics of conditionals.

A Brief Explanation of Conditionals

The ば conditional is your basic textbook example of a conditional. If A, then B, and nothing more. You set a condition and then state the result afterwards. It’s as simple as a conditional can be. Next up are the examples.

りんごが安ければ、買います。(りんごが やすければ、かいます。) ー If apples are cheap, I’ll buy them.

元気になれば、学校を休みません。(げんきに なれば、がっこうをやすみません。) ー If I get better, I won’t miss out on school.

お金が十分あれば、タイに旅行します。(おかねが じゅうぶんあれば、たいに りょこうします。) ー If I have enough money, I’ll travel to Thailand.

When it comes to the なら conditional, you can pretty much call it a recommendation and assumption conditional. If A, then should/probably B. This one is easy to remember because it’s basically your own opinion or statement, as a conditional. Let’s see some examples.

ペットなら、犬が好きです。(ぺっとなら、いぬが すきです。) ー If it’s pets you mean, I like dogs.

加奈子さんが望むなら、手伝ってあげます。(かなこさんが のぞむなら、てつだってあげます。) ー Kanako, if you wish, I’ll lend you a hand.

日本の歴史なら、戦国時代が一番面白い時代です。(にほんの れきしなら、せんごくじだいが いちばんおもしろい じだいです。) ー If we’re talking about Japanese history, the Sengoku era is the most interesting era.

Next up is the と conditional. This one is very straightforward, since it marks a determined rule or a certain result, one which is always as it is and is never prone to changes. A certain consequence, to put it briefly. Time for the examples.

雪が降ると、道は危険になります。(ゆきが ふると、みちは きけんになります。) ー If it snows, roads become dangerous.

春になると、桜が咲きます。(はるに なると、さくらが さきます。) ー If it’s spring, cherry blossoms will bloom.

風船を刺すと、空気が出ます。(ふうせんをさすと、くうきが でます。) ー If you pierce a balloon, air will come out.

Last but not least is the たら conditional. OK, anecdote time!

My Japanese teachers at college, or more precisely, my Japanese teachers who were Japanese, never actually spoke to us in a language other than Japanese. Well, maybe not never, but three or four times tops throughout our studies. This method turned out to be quite effective in my opinion, but that’s not really the point now.

The point is that there was this one time when our teacher used an English word which got ingrained in my mind. It was at the time we learned about the たら conditional. Explaining its use, she said that this conditional is オールマイティ (おーるまいてぃ). Almighty. But even so, she said, if there’s a possibility for using another conditional, you should probably use that one.

So to cut things short, in theory you could use this conditional in almost any situation. However, its primary characteristic is that with it, you emphasize the outcome. That being said, use it when other conditionals aren’t an option, or when you want to point out the outcome and that it’s somewhat unexpected. Moving on to the examples.

起きたら、店に行ってください。(おきたら、みせに いってください。) ー If you’re awake, please go to the store.

退屈だったら、帰ります。(たいくつだったら、かえります。) ー If it’s boring, I’ll go home.

薬を飲んだら、お酒はだめです。(くすりをのんだら、おさけは だめです。) ー If you took medicines, alcohol is no good.

Keep in mind that this conditional is the only one that can have a result in the past!

Common Mistakes with Conditionals

Let’s have a look at some common mistakes in the field of conditionals.

Xを飲めば、死にます。(どくをのめば、しにます。) ー If you drink poison, you’ll die.

This is wrong because death is certain if you drink poison. Therefore, と should be used.

O 毒を飲むと、死にます。(どくをのむと、しにます。)

X 綺麗だと、買います。(きれいだと、かいます。) ー If it’s pretty, I’ll buy it.

This is wrong since the と conditional can’t be used this way. This would mean you buy all of the pretty stuff in the world. In this case, ば should be used.

O 綺麗であれば、買います。(きれいであれば、かいます。)

I haven’t seen as many mistakes with the なら and たら conditionals, so we’ll skip those two. But just remember, たら is almighty, and it can be used for past results, while なら is pretty much your suggestion or a probable result.

If you’re still having trouble figuring out conditionals, this video and this video should help you out.

5. To Be or Not to Be (Transitive)

Transitive or intransitive? This question sometimes causes quite a few mistakes for a number of Japanese learners. But in reality, it’s not really that complicated. Let’s go through this topic together.

A Brief Explanation of Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

When talking about transitive or intransitive verbs, just remember this: If I or someone else did it, it’s transitive. If it happened by itself, it’s intransitive. (Not passive, though!)

Let’s take a look at a few transitive verbs:

止める (とめる) ー To stop.
始める (はじめる) ー To commence.
切る (きる) ー To cut.
動かす (うごかす) ー To move.
満たす (みたす) ー To fill.

Now let’s see how these verbs should be used.

田中さんはタクシーを止めました。(たなかさんは たくしいを とめました。) ーMr. Tanaka stopped a taxi.

社長は会議を始めました。(しゃちょうは かいぎを はじめました。) ー The director began the meeting.

お母さんがりんごを切りました。(おかあさんが りんごを きりました。) ー Mother sliced an apple.

姉は椅子を動かしました。(あねは いすを うごかしました。) ー Sis moved the chair.

用務員はプールを満たしました。(ようむいんは ぷうるを みたしました。) ー The janitor filled up the pool.

And now for their intransitive counterparts.

止まる (とまる) ー Stop.
始まる (はじまる) ー Commence.
切れる (きれる) ー Cut.
動く (うごく) ー Move.
満ちる (みちる) ー Fill.

Examples of proper use for the intransitives are next.

車が止まりました。(くるまが とまりました。) ー The car stopped.

授業が始まりました。(じゅぎょうが はじまりました。) ー The class has begun.

糸が切れました。(いとが きれました。) ー The thread split.

犬が動きました。(いぬが うごきました。) ー The dog moved.

穴が水で満ちました。(あなが みずで みちました。) ー The hole filled up with water.

Common Mistakes with Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Common mistakes usually go something like in these examples:

X 僕はタクシーを止まりました。(ぼくは たくしいを とまりました。) ー I stopped a cab.

This is wrong because you need to use 止める, since it’s transitive.

O 僕はタクシーを止めました。(ぼくは たくしーを とめました。)

X ボールはスープで満たしました。(ぼおるは すうぷで みたしました) ー The bowl is full of soup.

Again, wrong, but the other way around. You need the intransitive verb 満ちる this time.

O ボールはスープで満ちました。(ぼおるは すうぷで みちました。)

X 紐が切りました。(ひもが きりました。) ー The string broke.

You need the intransitive 切れる verb here.

O 紐が切れました。(ひもが きれました。)

A helpful tool for conquering transitive or intransitive verbs can be found here.

Bonus Test

Yes, you read that right, it’s a test. Boo me, right? Now take out your pencil and paper!

Below, you’ll get only some pieces of a sentence. It’s up to you to make a correct whole sentence from them. You can add anything you want, just make a correct sentence!

The は or が

「焼肉、美味しい、好き」(やきにく、おいしい、すき) ー Yakiniku, tasty, love.

The で or に

「鮫、海、噛む」(さめ、うみ、かむ) ー Shark, ocean, bite.

The Conditional

「雨、滑る、危ない」(あめ、すべる、あぶない) ー Rain, slip, dangerous.

「高い、本、棚、掴む」(たかい、ほん、たな、つかむ) ー High, book, shelf, grab.

「旅行、ヨーロッパ」(りょこう、よおろっぱ) ー Trip, Europe.

The Transitivity

「電気、消す」(でんき、けす) ー Light/electricity, turn off.

「大会、始める」(たいかい、はじめる) ー Convention, begin.

To conclude, I’ll give you some advice. Yes, try to follow the rules we explained in the different parts of this post.

But the most important thing is this: Don’t be afraid of mistakes.

You’re not perfect? So what? At least you know what needs fixing now.

Improve yourself, but also have some fun along the way. Isn’t that what life is all about?

With that, I bid you farewell until next time!

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