Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced speaker of Japanese, there is probably one question that keeps coming back to haunt you:
What is the difference between “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」?
You’ve probably asked about it, maybe even compared a whole range of sentences trying to figure it out, but with no satisfying conclusion.
And do you know why you can never get a simple, straightforward answer?
Because it’s the wrong question to ask.
It does have an answer, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story.
Of course, there’s no way you could have known this. I certainly didn’t, and for a long time had the same trouble finding an answer that really made sense to me.
One day, however, when I was studying at a university in Japan, one of my teachers started talking about these things called “kaku joshi”「格助詞」, or “case-marking particles”. These are a specific subset of particles that, for the most part, are the main particles we use in everyday Japanese – “de”「で」, “wo”「を」, “ni”「に」, and a few others.
But not “wa”「は」.
As she explained more, it became obvious why I could never get a clear answer. The problem was that instead of trying to figure out the difference between “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」, I should have been asking…
What is the true purpose of “wa”「は」?
We know it defines the topic, but what exactly is that? And why do we use it in some situations but not others?
Understand this, and the choice between “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」 becomes considerably easier, while also giving you a deeper understanding of the mindset behind the Japanese language as a whole.
Hopefully this article will help you see “wa”「は」 for what it really is, and as a result, be better equipped to choose between “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」.
In Japanese, word order is less important than it is in languages like English thanks to the existence of particles. As I talked about in my guide to Japanese sentence structure, particles, not word order, are what determines how each part of a sentence relates to the verb:
(If you haven’t read my article on Japanese sentence structure, I recommend doing so.)
As a starting point, most basic sentences can be formed using the following pattern:
The pieces of ‘other information’ can generally be expressed in any order without affecting the fundamental meaning of the sentence, as long as they are accompanied by the appropriate particles.
However, for any given sentence, there is usually a particular word order that sounds more natural than others. This is because word order affects where the emphasis in a sentence lies.
In this article, I will show you the thinking behind natural Japanese word order, and give you some basic rules that you can easily apply. I’ll also give you some exercises you can do to help you think like a Japanese speaker so that forming natural-sounding sentences becomes automatic.
Let’s get started.
Earlier this month, I was given the opportunity to present at the National Symposium on Japanese Language Education, an event held in Australia every two years.
The symposium brings together Japanese language teachers from around the country to share ideas about how to best teach Japanese. It was a great event, and I came away with some interesting ideas that I hope to incorporate as I build on 80/20 Japanese.
For my presentation, I talked about Developing a Better Understanding of Japanese Sentence Structure.
Basically, I explained the big picture view I have of the Japanese language, and how I believe building a solid understanding of Japanese sentence structure can make it easier to learn Japanese.
After much time spent playing around with some new software, I have a couple of things I want to share with you:
Most people find Japanese sentence structure to be difficult and confusing.
This is completely understandable considering how fundamentally different it is to other languages, but the truth is that Japanese grammar is actually incredibly logical – it just needs to be looked at from the right angle.
Usually, the basic structure of Japanese sentences is considered to be SOV – subject-object-verb (eg. I sushi eat). This description makes it easier to compare with English, for example, which follows an SVO structure, but the truth is, this comparison is mostly meaningless because the two languages function in completely different ways. The SOV label is also wrong sometimes, as it is not uncommon in Japanese to see sentences with the object appearing before the subject. No wonder it seems so confusing…
Instead of trying to fit a Japanese-shaped peg into an English-shaped hole, let’s start again.
Firstly, in English, the main pieces of a sentence go in a specific order. The person doing the action (the subject, eg. I) is first, followed by the word that describes the action (the verb, eg. eat), then the thing that the action is done to (the object, eg. sushi). In English, it is the word order that tells us who did what.
Japanese sentences are structured around grammatical markers called ‘particles’. Each particle indicates how the word before it relates to other words in the sentence, usually to the verb. The verb appears last, but the order of the other words can vary because it is the particles, not word order, that tell us who did what.
For example, a basic sentence might have a topic (which is often the same as the subject) followed by the particle ‘wa’, then an object with the particle ‘wo’, and finally the verb. This basic word ordering is why Japanese is often considered an SOV language, but as long as the right particles are used with the right words, the actual order of the words can be changed.
In this article, I break it all down and show you exactly how Japanese sentences work, using plenty of examples and charts showing very clearly how Japanese sentences are structured. Every aspect of Japanese grammar fits within the structure outlined below.
Let’s get to it!