Let’s Talk About な-Adjectives and の-Adjectives: The Japanese Dilemma

When we talk about the な and い adjectives, the conjugation rules are hectic, but at least straightforward. For example, to describe something with an い-adjective, you just have to attach the word to a noun without adding any Japanese particles (e.g. かわいい人). For a な-adjective, all you need to do is add a very obvious な particle in between (e.g. げんき人). 

But then you’ll notice something off the more you look at example sentences. For most of us, we only use the particle, の, to modify a noun with a noun, like 子供おもちゃ (kid’s toy). So how do you react when you encounter these phrases?

Let’s protect this green earth.

I am going to visit my sick brother. 

He’s just an ordinary office worker. 

The words 緑 (green), 病気 (sick) and 普通 (normal) are all な-adjectives, but all of them use the particle の instead of な. This should have been wrong — except you’ll hear Japanese people sticking to this rule. If you ask them, they probably won’t be able to answer. If you head to a dictionary, you’ll see them listed as の-adjective.

Four words and a million-dollar question: How does that happen?

Don’t feel bad, but don’t be baffled either. It’s something that is very difficult to explain grammatically, even when you’re Japanese. We’ll break down why and how some Japanese adjectives take の before a noun while giving you a handful of vocabulary lists of this tricky subject. 

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Before we go further, note that this article will mostly use hiragana, so we recommend you take a look at our hiragana chart if you’re still learning the Japanese alphabet. Don’t worry. We’ll still be here when you get back.

Let's Talk About な-Adjectives and の-Adjectives: What's The Difference?

Making Things Clear About の-Adjectives

There’s no such thing as の-adjectives. If you see the term ‘の-adjective’ on dictionaries or blogs, it simply refers to nouns that can be modified to adjectives in the English language. A な-adjective describes a quality of a noun. In this case, an ‘adjective’ with a の is used to categorize as another noun. 

However, this confusion really makes a lot of people think that there is a new, mythical type of Japanese adjective at play here, which isn’t true. There are only two, and will probably stay like that for a long time (unless a linguistic scholar writes a ground-breaking thesis about it).  

An adjectival noun is a noun that can function as an adjective by taking the particle な.

When you run into words that can take either な or の, they are called adjectival nouns. An adjectival noun is a noun that can function as an adjective by taking the particle な. Most adjectival nouns are from Chinese loanwords (kanji), but that’s not always the case. We’ll encounter English-derived Japanese adjectival nouns along the way.

About The の Particle in Japanese Language

For beginners, you’ll hear that the の particle is used to unify a noun with a noun. You can also rely on の to turn other non-noun words into a noun, like 食べるのは (“What I eat”). In short, it’s a versatile modifier. 

The relationship between a modifier and a modified noun can be almost anything: ownership, location, time, attribute and condition. You’ll also hear that の indicates a possession. 

Neighbor’s dog.

Mother’s promise. 

Pretty simple, right? But here’s the thing: when people hear the word “possession”, they usually think of a tangible object that belongs to something. This isn’t the case in linguistics — or, specifically, the Japanese language. Turns out, possession can also refer to attributes and concepts, which don’t have to be physical. Instead, they should be labeled as “of” something. 

の is used when you need to label or categorize a noun, while な is used when you want to describe a noun.

We want you to keep two things in mind from now: の expresses a possession and expression of the relationship between two nouns, but an adjective describes a noun. 

Based on these, we’ll continue with an example sentence. 

A: What are you reading?

B: I’m reading an English book. 

It’s obvious that 英語 is exclusively a noun in the Japanese language, but the reply from B (“English book”) can be interpreted in two ways: a book that’s written in English or a book about English.

You can probably tell where this is going. In the Japanese language, which one is more accurate?

The second answer — a book about English — is probably a better fit if we go by the rule. This is because “英語” is an attribute to the “本” (book), and treating it like an adjective-like noun makes more sense. 

In other words, the person considers “English” a label or a subcategory of a book they’re reading.

な-Adjectives That Uses な And の Particle

So how does this come into play with the whole な and の adjective? Now that we’ve sorted the function of the の particle, we can establish this: の is used when you need to label a noun or categorize it, while な is used when you want to describe the noun. 

He is an ordinary salaryman. 

He is an ordinary salaryman. 

Bear with us on these two (almost) identical sentences. The first one uses の, and the second uses な. The word 普通 (ふつう), which means ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’, can be used with both particles. 

In the first sentence, which uses の, we’re not actually describing the quality of Tanaka-san as an ordinary salaryman. What the sentence is telling us is the type of salaryman Tanaka-san is. In this case, 普通 is a label to Tanaka-san, who is categorized as an ordinary salaryman (i.e. a group of salarymen who is distinguished for being normal). In other words, it’s not Tanakaka-san himself who’s ordinary — it’s his job.

In the second sentence that uses な, the word 普通 describes Tanaka-san and not his job. This implies that Tanaka-san is an ordinary person who is, coincidentally, a salaryman. 

To sum it up, 普通 (adjective) offers a description of his personality or character, while 普通 (adjectival noun) acts as a category of the noun.  

Now that we’ve gotten that across, let’s take a look at two other examples we showed at the beginning.

I am going to visit a sick person. 

I am going to visit a sick person. 

The same circumstances: two identical words, which are only separated by the の and な particles. 

When we talk about being sick, we’ll usually think of a diagnosis: what type of disease a person has, or if they are sick at all. Accordingly, it makes more sense to opt for 病気 is used to label the noun (人) when you want to talk about someone who is objectively sick. 

On the other hand,病気 describes the person’s sick personality, rather than modifying the noun through labels. When you say that, it’ll sound as if you’re saying that person is ‘twisted’ or mentally sick. Using the for this particular word can be weird, if not offensive. After all, you’re not going to be happy when someone (who’s not a doctor) said, “You’re sick,” right?

Let's Talk About な-Adjectives and の-Adjectives: What's The Difference?

Differences Between の and な Particles to Modify a Noun

Now that we’ve established that の is used to label a noun and な is used to describe a noun, we can take a few points.

  • When we use な to modify a noun, it becomes more casual or subjective. You’ve seen in the example sentences above that because の fits can fit nouns to a category (and therefore more objective and stiff), な can appear more casual and soft. 
  • の connects a noun and sounds colder, whereas な can embed some of the speaker’s feelings. 

Now that we know the function of both particles and their key differences, we can deduct that some Japanese adjectives may tend to use な more — like other typical な-adjectives while some adjectives may tilt to using の. 

The basic difference is that な is gradable, while の is absolute. Consider the word 最高 (さいこう), which means the “best” or “most”. Officially, 最高 is a な-adjective, but you will see that most dictionaries will use the particle の for example sentences.

He is the best composer.

He is the best composer. 

These phrases might be confusing if you’re translating them into English. This is why you need to separate English and Japanese and take translations with a grain of salt. After all, best or highest is technically an adjective in English, so how does it suddenly become an adjectival noun? 

Think of these ‘adjectives’ as a noun. A noun is absolute and has no grey area. Something either is. Either someone is the best, or they’re not.

Take a horse, for example; it’s either a whole horse or not a horse. It can’t partly be a house — unless we’re talking about the centaur, which isn’t the point here.

Similarly, you cannot say 最高 because being the “best” leaves no room for relativity. You cannot be partly “the best” — you either are or aren’t. 

In the first sentence, it feels a bit more like “a composer who is good.” In the second sentence, it tells us that he is the best composer, which feels more universally valid. Other adjectives that imply quantities or degrees are like that, too. 

な And の Adjectives Vocabulary List

Most な-adjective will use な, while a few exceptions are most acceptable to be partnered with の. Some, depending on the context and your subjective feeling, tethers between both. Take a look at our table below for some of the exclusive and non-exclusive Japanese adjectives that can function as nouns (adjectival nouns).

If you think you’re missing out on a few な and い adjectives, head to our 100-adjective list.

Japanese Adjectives or Adjectival Nouns That Use の

少しのすこしのA little bit
たくさんのA lot
多くのおおくのA lot
最高のさいこうのThe best/the most

Japanese Adjectives or Adjectival Nouns That Use な And の

独特の・などくとくの・なUnique/ peculiar
生の・ななまの・なRaw, unprocessed

な Japanese Adjectives

ダメなNo good/useless

Conclusion on な-Adjectives and の-Adjective

We’ll sum it up in one paragraph. There is no such thing as a の-adjective. An ‘adjective’ that uses の to modify another noun is called an adjectival noun. な is used to describe a noun, while の is used to attribute or categorize it. 

Save for a few exceptions — the absolute-gradable scale we talked about before — the difference between な and ‘の’ adjectives falls on subjective feeling. It might seem a bit nitpicky, but you’d be surprised how much this semantic trivia can impact the course of a conversation.

Chances are, if you’ve ever been corrected about this, it’s more likely to do your cadence and tone rather than any real technical mistake. 

FAQs about な-Adjectives and の-Adjective

What is no adjectives?

There’s no such thing as の-adjectives. If you see the term ‘の-adjective’ on dictionaries or blogs, it simply refers to nouns that can be modified to adjectives in the English language. A な-adjective describes a quality of a noun. In this case, an ‘adjective’ with a の is used to categorize as another noun. 

What are the difference between no and na adjectives?

To sum it up, 普通 (adjective) offers a description of his personality or character, while 普通 (adjectival noun) acts as a category of the noun.  

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