JP Grammar: てある and ておく – Expressing verbs with intent and preparation

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Japanese verbs have many endings and many annoying headaches, but can also express a lot of nuances we don’t explicitly have in other languages. One of these is the Te form + iru to express an ongoing action, or a resultant state on momentary verbs (i.e taking no duration) such as (to be, to wake up, to die, to open, to put on,…)

部屋でテレビを見ている。 Watching TV in my room.

窓が空いている。 The window is open.

We can inject more information in them, for example that we did the verb in preparation of something else (with ておく). It’s not always literally translated and heavily depends on context, but it makes for very natural Japanese and is used all the time.

晩御飯を作っておく。I’ll prepare dinner for tonight.

皿を並んでおいてください。Line up the plates (so they’re nice just in case someone comes to visit)

There’s also てある which ONLY follows 他動詞 verbs (transitive verbs, verbs taking an object). With “Te form + aru” the state of something is described, but it was done so with an underlying meaning, and it wasn’t a spontaneous resultant state.

Compare:

窓が開いている。 The window is open.

窓が開けてある。The window is open. (someone opened it because of a certain reason i.e it was too hot)

A good knowledge of transitivity/intransitivity pairs and the right particles is key here.

The second sentence would usually be said by the person who opened the window. Using te form + aru required a transitive verb, implying that an actor opened the window for a specific reason. The particle remains ga, even though when we’d state a certain person opened the window we’d have to change it to “o” because it’s a transitive verb.

トムは窓を開けた Tom opened the window.

It’s important to differentiate that using “te aru”, we represent a state which still is in existence, even though it happened in the past. “Te Aru” thus stays in the present tense, even though it’s translated in the past tense in English. With “te oku” it’s either done, or still has to happen.

Compare

アポイントは取ってある。 I booked an appointment. (which I booked for a reason, and which is still booked, i.e when someone asks you  whether your holiday plans for next week are set in stone)

アポイントは取っておく。 I’ll book an appointment.

アポイントは取っておいた。I’ve booked an appointment. (talking about an event in the past)

Both 3 show that there’s an underlying thought or reason behind them compared to the dry regular verb ending .

Another example that clearly shows this underlying intent:

ビ-ルが冷蔵庫に入っている。There’s beer in the fridge.

(同僚が来てくれるから、) ビ-ルを/が冷蔵庫に入れてある。There’s beer in the fridge (and I put it there because coworkers are coming over [and I wanted to make sure they have something cold to drink])

When using “Te form + aru” to express a planning like we did above, you’re free to use “ga” or “o” particles but the nuance changes slightly. “ga” puts focus on the result of the verb, while “o” puts focus on the action of the verb.

授業の予定が書いてある。The class schedule is written down. (focus on the result of the writing)

授業の予定を書いてある。The class schedule is written down. (focus on the writing [and thus who wrote it])

As a reminder, using Te form + iru here would change the meaning of the sentence and indicate that something is being written (durative)

授業の予定を書いている。Writing the class schedule.

If you want to incorporate the actor in the sentence (動作主) you can turn the sentence into passive and use によって

先生によって授業の予定が書かれている。The class schedule has been written down by the teacher.

Using “te form + aru” or “te form + oku” might be confusing, but it’s a very natural thing to do in Japanese and will be appreciated by Japanese speakers. You could translate the above sentences simply with (because…) and a normal verb ending, but it’s considered cold and very foreigner-y to do so and will never break you out of your bubble of simple 1 to 1 English to Japanese.

Using expressions like てある、ておく、てくれる、てあげる and emotionally-loaded expressions (ばかり、てしまう,…) might go lost during translation and might not seem important in English, but it’s definitely natural and valued in Japanese.

Thanks for reading, until next time.

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