As mentioned in Lesson 8, particles indicate what function the phrase they attach to has in the sentence. Just as there are many functions a word can have in a sentence, there are also many particles. Each particle is complex with its own grammatical rules.
Particles are akin to the prepositions of English. In English, prepositions are words that govern how a noun phrase relates to other words in the sentence. In the examples below, the phrase that follows the prepositions in bold are what the prepositions show the function of.
i. The pen in the drawer is yours.
ii. The bird on the fence is an endangered species.
iii. The statue at the park is brand-new.
iv. He went to Japan with his other half.
v. I fought for freedom.
Particles, however, are post-positions. This means they go after what they modify instead of before. Furthermore, there are functions that some particles have that may not have an English equivalent. This is because languages don’t always match with what is deemed necessary to explicitly make clear at the grammatical level.
Kare-ga shio-to koshō-dake-de yasai-ya niku-nado-wo ajitsukeshita.
Gloss: He-subject marker salt-and pepper-only-with vegetables-such as meat-et cetera-object marker seasoned.
Translation: He seasoned (the) vegetables, meat, etc. with only salt and pepper.
Each word in bold in this example is one of a handful of the essential particles of Japanese. As native speakers, Japanese speakers can harness the great complexity of particles like these with ease. The purpose in mentioning this obvious fact is that as the second language learner, you do not have the luxury of skipping out on learning about the grammar behind these particles. Putting aside the grammar rules of one’s own language(s) to objectively acquire the rules of Japanese grammar is no easy task.
Ga が and wa は—written with the Kana for /ha/ but always pronounced as /wa/--are very different particles, but they are nonetheless very difficult to distinguish in the most basic of sentences for learners. The reason for this is that they occupy what appears to be the same slot in a sentence, but they can never coexist.
Ga が is a case particle. A case particle is used to mark grammatical case. The purpose of grammatical case is to explicitly state the grammatical function of the noun phrase it attaches to in relation to the predicate. Ga が requires that there be a predicate in the sentence, and a predicate in Japanese can only be composed of a copular verb, adjective, adjectival noun, or a verb. Ga が unequivocally identifies what comes before it as the subject—person/thing that performs an action (with verbs) or is what exhibits a certain state (with adjectives/adjectival nouns). By doing so, it is implied that the listener(s) are receiving new information, potentially even the speaker. Contrary to generic statements, the listener isn't drawn towards the comment. The subject becomes the focus. Because nothing else is considered, it is the objective voice needed in making neutral statements as well as answering questions with the information the asker seeks.
1. An adjective in Japanese is a word that describes a state which has its own conjugations.
2. An adjectival noun in Japanese is a word that describes a state like an adjective, but it requires the copula to be part of the predicate like a noun.
3. A verb in Japanese is a word that describes an action, state, or occurrence. Its conjugations are distinct from those of adjectives, but the principles of conjugation are the same.
Wa は, unlike ga が, is not a case particle. It is a special kind of particle called a bound particle. Bound particles have largely faded out of Japanese grammar over the centuries, but their purpose lives on in wa は. Its purpose is lived out by the comment that follows, which means it is not restricted by what comes before it. Consider a necklace. A necklace is not complete until both ends are joined together. Wa は is bound to the comment that follows. In return, the comment dictates the function of wa は. It is not possible to know exactly what will be said with wa は alone when in total isolation without contextual clues. The only thing the listener will know is that wa は marks the topic of the discussion to come. The topic marked by wa は is differentiated from other things that could be the topic. Its motto is “I don’t know about other things, but as for X…” What follows X is an open question mark that gives form to the conversation.
Grammatically, the subject and the topic of a Japanese sentence are not expressed by the same particle. Even when the subject of a sentence happens to be the topic, it is not the case that wa は marks the subject. That role is always held by ga が. The complexity of ga が and wa は doesn’t end here, though. Ga が may also mark the object (what is affected by the verb) of stative-transitive predicates (which have an agent (doer) but describe states that are unchanging). Wa は is the go-to emphatic marker of Japanese used in other grammatical circumstances such as showing contrast, which it also intrinsically does as the topic marker.
Beginning with the summary of these two particles before seeing them in action may seem out of place, but the two are inevitably juxtaposed in actual sentences. It’s hard to ignore the relation between the two even when only one is used, especially as the learner. Due to the complexity of the matter at hand, this discussion will be split into two lessons. The first lesson will focus on the fundamentals of ga が, which will then be immediately followed by a second lesson on the fundamentals of wa は.
Curriculum Note: This lesson requires that we look at grammatical items which haven’t been fully covered. This includes adjectives, adjectival nouns, verbs and their conjugation. As such, your goal should be to focus only on the particles ga が and wa は.
The purpose of marking the subject (shukaku 主格) of a sentence in Japanese is to indicate information that is newly registered to the speaker, and that information is thus being distilled to the listener(s) as new information. This distinction helps ga が serve as an objective means of making neutral statements and providing answers to questions, as well as asking direct questions such as “what is…?” or “who is…?”
1. New information
Whereas the purpose of wa は is to topicalize something and bring attention to the comment that follows, the particle ga が is used mostly to present new information in the form of neutral statements. This is especially true with statements regarding the existence of something, the five senses, and simple intransitive sentences. Intransitive sentences involve an intransitive verb. These verbs only concern a subject and a predicate, which makes the particle ga が the perfect particle as the basic particle for such a grammatical relation.
i. Existential Sentences
Existential sentences are those that state something exists. Typically, these sentences include information such as location. In English, the subject of an existential sentence is “there” and the item that exists ends up being treated as an object.
vii. There is a dog in the yard.
viii. There are oranges on the table.
ix. There isn’t a dragon here.
x. There aren’t any pens in the room.
In Japanese existential sentences, the thing that exists is treated as the subject. Furthermore, the “to be” verb for showing existence is carried out by two verbs. Aru ある is used to express existence of (non-living) inanimate objects whereas iru いる is used to express living animate objects.
Ame ga aru.
There is candy.
Empitsu ga aru.
There is/are pencil(s).
Tori ga iru.
There is/are (a) bird(s).
Ushi ga iru.
There is/are (a) cow(s).
Sakana ga [aru/iru].
There is/are (a) fish.
Sentence Note: When the verb aru ある is used, “fish” is being treated as a food item that is no longer living. When the verb iru いる is used, the fish is still alive and well.
The subject’s location is marked with the particle ni に. In English, this role may be expressed with “in,” “on,” or no preposition at all. In Japanese, however, ni に should always be used to mark the subject’s location. In Japanese, the subject doesn’t have to be the first thing stated. In fact, because anything topicalized with wa は always takes precedence, it’s not even true that the subject is usually stated first. In this same token, location phrases usually take precedence in existential sentences.
Asoko ni gakkō ga aru.
There is a school over there.
Heya ni neko ga iru.
There is/are (a) cat(s) in the room.
Tsukue no ue ni hon ga aru.
There is/are a book(s) on top of the table.
Tēburu no shita ni nezumi ga iru.
There is/are (a) mouse/mice underneath the table.
Hashi no tonari ni taki ga aru.
There is a waterfall next to the bridge.
ii. Neutral Statements
Neutral statements are those that describe temporary state and/or actions. They don’t have to last forever, but they form the objective truth of what has just happened, the now, or the near future. In fact, existential sentences are examples of neutral statements. The most cited example of this usage of the particle ga が, however, happens to be Ex. 11. Monkey business is taken seriously in grammar.
Saru ga ki kara ochita.
A monkey fell from tree.
Alternatively: It is the monkey that fell from the tree (See Usage 2).
Hinshitsu ga ii.
The quality is good.
Amerika de nisshoku ga okimasu.
There will be a solar eclipse in America.
(Kare wa) reigi ga warui.
His manners are bad.
Literally: As for him, (his) manners are bad.
(Anata wa) atama ga ii.
Literally: As for you, your mind is good.
Kusai nioi ga suru.
There’s an awful smell.
Hen na oto ga suru.
There’s a strange noise.
Yama ga mieru.
The mountain/mountains are visible.
Hagotae ga ii.
The feel (of the food) is good.
Shiokarai aji ga suru.
It tastes salty.
One of the most practical applications of expressing new information is speaking about what happens, is happening, or has happened. Intransitive verbs either have no active agent doing the action, or if there is an agent, its role is not heavily stressed or necessarily important.
Yuki ga tsumoru.
Grammar Note: There is a narrative tone in Ex. 22 in which the speaker is seeing the event occur before his eyes.
Tsuyoi kaze ga fukimashita.
Strong wind blew.
Ame ga furimasu.
It’s going to rain.
Literally: Rain will fall.
Doa ga shimarimasu!
The door is (about to) close!
Taiwan ni taifū ga jōriku shita.
A typhoon landed in Taiwan.
2. Exhaustive-listing: It is X that…
There are times when ga が isn’t meant as a mere statement of new information. Instead, it can also explicitly state that it is “X” that is the subject of the predicate. The “X” can be one entity or several entities, which is where the name “exhaustive-listing” comes into play. When the predicate describes a static state, one that is not necessarily a temporary reality, this interpretation is typically meant. A static state can be expressed with a copular sentence, adjectives, adjectival nouns, or verbs which describe states. In fact, this interpretation reigns supreme over the existential sentences studied above. With ga が, the things mentioned to exist in a certain place are what’s there.
Kare to kanojo ga gakusei desu.
He and she are the students.
Kono kyōkasho ga benri desu.
This is the textbook that is useful.
Nami ga takai!
These waves are high!
Kono samma no hō ga hagotae ga yowai.
The consistency of this Pacific saury is week.
Grammar Note: The use of no hō のほう intensifies the exhaustive nature of ga が only applying to the noun phrase that precedes it. Ex. 30 is an example of how the exhaustive-listing feature is treated separately from neutral ga が statements, so much so that they can be juxtaposed next to each other. Whenever there are two ga が phrases next to each other like this, the first ga が phrase is always treated as the subject of the main clause. The secondary ga が phrase is embedded in the predicate. Essentially, it loses its independence and becomes a single phrase (dependent clause) hagotae ga yowai 歯応えが弱い reliant on the main clause for proper interpretation.
Kare ga dekiru!
He can (do it)!
Alternatively: I can get a boyfriend!
Grammar Note: Many stative verbs in Japanese happen to be phrases regarding potential. These verbs incidentally also utilize ga が’s function of marking the object of a stative-transitive predicate. Because of this, this sentence is syntactically ambiguous and thus produces two very different interpretations.
ii. Asking Questions
Exhaustive-listing is a feature of ga が that is not normally brought out without cause. Meaning, just as is the case for the English equivalents seen in translation, such phrasing is usually brought about some sort of question being asked, for which a direct and substantive answer is required. Unsurprisingly, ga が is involved in the making and answering of those questions. To ask the direct questions, you add ga が to an interrogative (question word). The basic question words in Japanese are as follows:
Meaning Note: Nanji 何時 literally means “what time?”
Doko ga byōin desu ka?
Where is the hospital?
Sentence Note: This sentence is not a simple question about where the hospital is. Imagine a person looking at a line of buildings and wondering which is the hospital. That is a situation where this sentence would be appropriate. Although not as smooth of a translation, Ex. 32 can also be interpreted as “Where is it that the hospital is?”
Naze koko ni yūrei ga sonzai suru no ka?
Why is it that ghosts exist here?
Nani ga okashii!?
What (is it that) is so funny!?
Dare ga shachō?
Shachō wa dare?
Who’s the company president? (35a)
Who is the company president? (35b)
Grammar Note: Ex. 35a would be appropriate to say when you are somewhere where there is a group of people, one of which you would like identified as the company president by the listener you’re asking the question to. Or, it could be used so long as the company president’s presence is established, which could also be done via photographs or what not. Ex. 35b, on the other hand, would be used in a situation where the company president is already at the forefront of conversation and the speaker, you, is simply asking the listener about who that person is. This conversation doesn’t even have to be held where the company president happens to be at.
Ashita wa [itsu/nanji] ga tsugō ga ii desu ka?
As for tomorrow, when is convenient (for you)?
iii. Answers to Questions
Questions brought about with ga が are typically answered back with the information sought. Ga が provides an exhaustive answer to the question at hand.
“Dare ga iku?” “Boku ga ikimasu.”
“Who’s the one going?” “I’m the one going.”
“Nani ga ii?” “Rāmen ga ii deshō.”
“What would be good.” “Ramen would be good.”
iv. Spontaneous Reply
Whenever someone spontaneously utters something, it is often in reference to a concern around him. Say your friend forgot to do something important. You might want to tell him, "don't worry, I'll do it for you." In Japanese, this would be expressed with Ex. 39.
39. 心配しないで、僕がやってやるから。(Male speaker)
Shimpai shinaide, boku ga yatte yaru kara.
Don't worry; I'll do it (for you).
Kono kusuri ga kiku yo.
This medicine will work.
Sentence Note: Suppose you find out a friend has a cold and you have some cold medicine on you. The moment you hear about your friend's condition, you take out the medicine and say this'll help him. This is one way Ex. 40 could be used.
O-kyaku-san ga kita.
Customer(s) are here.
Sentence Note: You're the owner of a restaurant. It's nearing lunch hour and at last you hear the first guest(s) entering. Just as you hear this, you utter Ex. 41.
v. Sense of Discovery
Another application of the exhaustive-listing interpretation of ga が is expressing surprise in discovery what something truly is. This application translates as “X is what Y is…” This usage is essentially the same as the one for expressing a spontaneous reply.
A, kore ga yuki da!
Ah, this is what snow is!
Kore ga kankoku ryōri ka.
So, this is what Korean cuisine is.
A, are ga Kaguyama?
Ah, so that’s Mt. Kaguyama.
A, ano hito ga uwasa no Yamada-shishō da!
Ah, that person is the rumored Master Yamada!
4. Object Marker with Stative-Transitive Predicates
Having already learned quite a lot about how ga が functions as a subject-marker, we will study its function as an object-marker in Lesson 21.