いったい (ittai) Meaning Japanese Grammar - On Earth

Author Anna Baffa Volpe for article 'いったい (ittai) Meaning Japanese Grammar - On Earth'

Anna Baffa Volpe

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いったい (ittai) Meaning Japanese Grammar - On Earth

The term いったい (ittai) (いっ)(いたい) literally means one body, a whole, a unity when used as a noun.

In this post we will analyze いったい in its use as an adverb, in the interrogative sentence as an element that emphasises the question.

How いったい is formed

いったい is a noun in Japanese and its transcription in Kanji is (いっ)(いたい): one body, one whole, one thing.

  • (いっ)(たい)になるbecome one with, identify with
  • (いっ)(たい)()する unify, integrate


Husband and wife are one.

いったい is used in the interrogative sentences as ()(もん)(きょう)調(ちょう), i.e. it emphasises the question asked. Its position can be at the beginning or in the middle of the sentence.

いったい combined with the conjectural form

いったい is often found in sentences with the conjectural form expressed by だろうか.

The translation will be appropriate to the formal or confidential context in which one is speaking; e.g. the sentence:

  • これは(なん)だろう, can be translated as:
  • What is this? or
  • What the hell is this?


When on earth will the rainy season end?

Example of the same sentence with and without いったい:


What do you want to eat?


What on earth do you want to eat?

The second sentence emphasises the question; probably the subject has expressed that he does not want to eat one thing and another and another one and the question made therefore is with いったい: "So what do you want to eat after all?"


Is this story true?

いったい followed by (ぜん)(たい) creates more emphasis on the question.


Who on earth broke this plate?

The title of the 1969 song by Chicago in English: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?. Here is the Japanese title and its translation.

Is there anyone who truly has a grasp on reality?
シカは、アメリカのロックバンド: Chicago is an American rock band.


Is there anyone who truly has a grasp on reality?

いったい combined with interrogative adverbs

いったい is generally used in conjunction with other interrogatives: いったい+()(もん)(ひょう)(げん): いったい + interrogative expression

  • いったい + なに: What on earth?
  • いったい + だれ: Who on earth?
  • いったい + いつ: When on earth?
  • いったい + どこ: Where on earth?
  • いったい + なぜ: Why on earth?


How long will land prices continue to rise?


Why on earth did he do such a dangerous thing?

いったい and professional use

Many terms that in other languages are used on every occasion, in the Japanese language are not appropriate when it comes to a formal, professional environment and towards ()(うえ)(ひと) superiors. For example, in a Japanese company we might hear the phrase:


What is the current state of affairs?

Most probably one of our superiors is asking us how the business or practice is progressing, how far it is going, or it may be a question from one of our peers. It is not a polite phrase and does not convey any sense of deference or humility. In order to avoid appearing rude or disrespectful towards a superior (じょう)(), it is important to use other expressions from the Keigo language, especially the language of humility (けん)(じょう)(). A way of expressing the same thing could be:


I’m sorry to disturb you, could you update me on the progress of the project?

Other examples of いったい

From a series of illustrated books:

Where on earth am I?
Author of the series Yoshitake Shinsuke


Where on earth am I?


What is this all about?

  • What is this?
  • What is going on?