The Surprisingly Simple Logic Behind Japanese Sentence Structure


Most people find Japanese sentence structure to be difficult and confusing.

One of the biggest reasons for this is that the usual way of learning Japanese involves remembering random phrases and sentence patterns in isolation, without actually being taught why those sentences work the way they do. This is fine in the beginning when you’re just trying to learn a few basic phrases, but it makes it very hard to take the next step.

The truth is, Japanese sentence structure is actually incredibly logical, and a solid understanding of it will save you a huge amount of time trying to make sense of Japanese grammar.

In this guide, I break it all down and show you exactly how Japanese sentences work. Every aspect of Japanese grammar fits within the structure outlined below.

Contents
Basic “desu”「です」 sentences
How particles work
Defining different roles
Expanding individual elements

Basic “desu”「です」 sentences

Let’s start by looking at basic sentences that use the special verb “desu”「です」 (pronounced “dess”), which is effectively equivalent to the English verb “be” (am, are, is).

Sentences using “desu”「です」 usually follow this basic structure:

[topic] wa … (something that describes the topic) … desuです

Here are a few simple examples:

I am a person.

watashi wa hito desu.

わたし は ひと です。

わたしひとです。

This is a car.

kore wa kuruma desu.

これ は くるま です。

これはくるまです。

The car is red.

kuruma wa akai desu.

くるま は あか いです。

くるまあかいです。

The first step to understanding this structure is knowing what “wa”「は」 is.

“Wa”「は」 (pronounced “wa”) is what is known as a particle. Particles are like markers that identify what role each word or phrase plays within a sentence.

The particle “wa”「は」 tells us that the word or phrase before it is the topic of that sentence.

The topic is basically the thing that is being talked about in that sentence, and usually appears near the beginning. In our examples above, the things that are being talked about are “I”, “this”, and “the car”, respectively, so the topics of these sentences in Japanese are “watashi”, kore” and “kuruma”わたし」, 「これ」 and 「くるま.

The topic of a Japanese sentence is very similar to what other languages refer to as the subject. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing that does the action described by the main verb in the sentence. These are, in fact, slightly different concepts, but for now, we will treat them as being the same so as to keep things simple.

Particles like “wa”「は」 do not exist in English, but they are the backbone of Japanese grammar. We’ll look at particles in more detail soon.

These sentences also show us another important rule that applies to all Japanese sentences:

The main verb comes at the end of the sentence.

In all of the above examples, that verb is “desu”「です」, which takes the form of “is” or “am” in the English translations. However, this rule also applies for other verbs, which we will look at shortly.

First, let’s take another look at the first two sentences above. Text with the same formatting has the same meaning.

I am a person.

watashi wa hito desu.

わたし ひと です

わたしひとです

This is a car.

kore wa kuruma desu.

これ くるま です

これくるまです

First of all, we can see that “wa”「は」 has no English equivalent. This is because its entire purpose is to show that “watashi”わたし or “kore”「これ」 is the topic of these sentences. That is, “wa”「は」 defines these words as the topic. In English, there is no need for a particle like “wa”「は」 because the subject of a sentence can be determined based on the word order. We’ll look at this more closely in the next section.

Secondly, since “hito”ひと means “person” and “kuruma”くるま means “car”, we can see that there is no Japanese equivalent of “a”.

The articles “a”, “an” and “the” do not exist in Japanese.

What this means is that the sentences, “This is a car”, and, “This is the car”, would both be, “kore wa kuruma desu”「これはくるまです」. There is no differentiation.

This makes things simpler in some ways, but can be hard to get used if you’ve spent your entire life speaking English or similar languages, as not having these words can sometimes make a sentence feel incomplete. Without them, it can be hard to know if someone is referring to a specific car, or just any car. There are other ways to specify which car is being talked about, but in many cases, this is implied purely by context. This is something you will get used to over time.

We now know three very important rules relating to Japanese sentence structure:

  • The particle “wa”「は」 identifies the topic of a sentence
  • The verb comes at the end of the sentence
  • The articles “a”, “an” and “the” do not exist in Japanese

These rules apply to everything, so using the first two in particular, we can adapt our sentence structure model from earlier to this:

[topic] wa … (other information) … [verb]

When the verb is “desu”「です」, the ‘other information’ can just be a noun (kore wa kuruma desuこれはくるまです) or adjective (kuruma wa akai desuくるまあかです). In fact, the last thing immediately before “desu”「です」 should be either a noun or an adjective.

For verbs other than “desu”「です」, however, basically everything in the ‘other information’ section needs to be accompanied by a particle.

How particles work

The main thing that differentiates Japanese from most other languages is its use of particles. We’ve already seen the particle “wa”「は」, but there are many more particles, and a proper understanding of what they are and how to use them will make the Japanese language much easier to decipher.

As stated earlier:

Particles are like markers that tell us the role each word plays in a sentence.

In any language, a combination of words only makes sense if the role of each word is clear. The biggest difference between Japanese and English (and many other languages) is how these roles are defined.

First, let’s understand what is meant by ‘the role each word plays in a sentence’.

In English, for the main elements in a sentence, this role is determined by word order. Here’s a very basic example:

Taro saw Noriko.

This sentence has three words: Taro, saw and Noriko. The central word in any sentence, in both English and Japanese, is the main verb, which in this case is “saw”. The other words in a sentence always relate to the main verb, either directly or indirectly, so every sentence must have a main verb.

To figure out what the role of each of the other words is, we look at the word order:

  • “Taro” comes before “saw”, which tells us that Taro is the one that saw something.
  • “Noriko” comes after “saw”, which tells us that Noriko is the thing that was seen.

If we change the order and put “Noriko” first, we end up with the sentence:

Noriko saw Taro.

This has an entirely different meaning because changing the word order changes the role that each word plays, which in turn, changes the overall meaning of the sentence.

Japanese is different. In Japanese, particles determine the role of each word in a sentence.

Given that the Japanese word for “saw” is “mimashita”ました」, we would normally write the above sentence as:

Taro saw Noriko.

Tarō wa Noriko wo mimashita.

たろう のりこ みました。

太郎たろう紀子のりこました。

This sentence has two particles:

  • “wa”「は」, which tells us who we are talking about
  • “wo”「を」, which tells us what they saw

In more general terms:

  • wa defines the ‘topic’ of a sentence, which is usually the person or thing that performed the main action being described
  • wo, pronounced “o”, defines to whom or to what that action was done, which is known as the ‘object’ of the verb

Importantly, particles define the role of the word that comes before them. In the above example:

  • The word before “wa”「は」 is “Tarō”「たろう」, so we know that Taro is the person who performed the act of seeing.
  • The word before “wo”「を」 is “Noriko”「のりこ」, so we know that Noriko is the ‘thing’ that was seen.

If we put this all together, it means: Taro saw Noriko.

Because of particles like these, word order is not as important as it is in English. In Japanese, we can actually change the order of the words without changing the fundamental meaning of the sentence, as long as the same particles are paired with the same words. Both of the following mean effectively the same thing:

Tarō wa Noriko wo mimashita.

たろう のりこ みました

太郎たろう紀子のりこました

Noriko wo Tarō wa mimashita.

のりこ たろう みました

紀子のりこ太郎たろうました

These two sentences both mean “Taro saw Noriko”. The word order doesn’t affect the fundamental meaning because the particles tell us what each word in the sentence does.

That said, we wouldn’t normally use sentence two above because, as our sentence structure model shows, the topic is usually near the beginning of the sentence. This is not a hard rule, but it is unnatural in most situations for the topic to be placed after other key elements in the same clause.

Defining different roles

In our basic example sentence involving Taro and Noriko, the only roles that have actually been defined are the topic (Taro) and the object (Noriko).

These, together with the verb, are the three most important pieces of information in a sentence. They tell us:

  • What action is done
  • Who does the action
  • To what or whom the action is done
  • Roughly when the action occurs (past, present, future etc. as defined by the verb tense)

Of course, there are many more pieces of information that can be added to a sentence.

Let’s start by considering some basic information that relates directly to the action itself, such as:

  • When (more precisely) the action takes place
  • Where the action takes place
  • The destination of the action
  • The origin of the action
  • The means by which the action is done

When we include this information, we need to specify how that information relates to the other parts of the sentence, and to the main verb in particular.

Before we look at how this is done in Japanese, let’s consider how the role of additional information is defined in English.

Defining roles in English

We know that the subject and the object are determined based on word order. For most additional information, however, word order alone is not enough – we need prepositions like “in”, “on”, “at”, “to” and “from”.

For example, we can’t just say “Taro saw Noriko the library”. We need a preposition to tell us how “the library” relates to everything else. The preposition we use depends on what role we want to attribute to “the library”.

The diagram below shows some examples of how prepositions are used to define the relationship between different pieces of information and the action described by the main verb.

How different roles are defined in English sentences

How different roles are defined in English sentences

We can usually just add this additional information – together with the appropriate preposition – to the end of the sentence after the object. For example, to define the location where Taro saw Noriko, we could use the preposition “at” and insert it after “Noriko” (the object of the verb “saw”):

Taro saw Noriko at the library.

It can also go at the beginning of the sentence:

At the library, Taro saw Noriko.

Either way, the “at” is essential to understanding what role the library plays. Without it, we don’t know if Taro saw Noriko at the library, in front of the library, on his way to the library, or while he was thinking about what he would do when he got to the library. The role needs to be defined.

Defining roles in Japanese

In Japanese, just as we did with the topic and the object, we define the roles of additional elements using particles. The Japanese version of the above diagram looks like this:

How different roles are defined in Japanese sentences

How different roles are defined in Japanese sentences

The first major difference, as we’ve already discussed, is that the topic and the object, like everything else, are determined by particles, not word order as they are in English.

Each of the elements – including the topic and object – need to be included in a sentence with the appropriate particle after them. There are a few exceptions to this (such as time words, where “ni”「に」 is only required in some cases), but in general, particles are required.

To build a sentence, we just need to insert each piece of information – together with its particle – into the sentence structure we identified earlier:

[topic] wa … (other information) … [verb]

Note that, as mentioned, the topic is only placed at the beginning of the sentence because that is its natural location in most situations. It is not, however, a requirement.

Let’s do this with our example sentence:

Taro saw Noriko at the library.

We know that Taro is the topic, and the verb is saw (mimashita). The ‘other information’ is:

  • Noriko, who is the thing that was seen (the object)
  • The library, which is where he saw her (the location)

This fits into our diagram like so:

Taro saw Noriko at the library

Taro saw Noriko at the library

The ‘other information’ can go in basically any order, so we just need to insert it together with the appropriate particles:

Taro saw Noriko at the library.

Tarō wa Noriko wo toshokan de mimashita.

たろう のりこ としょかん みました。

太郎たろう紀子のりこ図書館としょかんました。

Tarō wa toshokan de Noriko wo mimashita.

たろう としょかん のりこ みました。

太郎たろう図書館としょかん紀子のりこました。

To say that the order doesn’t matter is oversimplifying things a little, as it does make a subtle difference to where the emphasis lies, and certain orderings are generally more natural than others. However, this is far less important than using the right particles, as using the wrong ones would change the meaning entirely. If we swap “wo” and “de”, for example, we get:

Taro saw the library at Noriko.

Tarō wa Noriko de toshokan wo mimashita.

たろう のりこ としょかん みました。

太郎たろう紀子のりこ図書館としょかんました。

Although grammatically correct, this obviously makes no sense. When it comes to the meaning of a sentence, particles are critical.

Subject vs. Topic

You may have noticed that for English I described Taro as being the subject, while for Japanese I described him as being the topic. These are subtly different concepts, but they are not the same, and in fact Japanese sentences can also have a subject, which is marked by the particle “ga”「が」.

Although “ga”「が」 is actually a very common particle that you need to know, I have purposely left it out of this discussion, as the difference between the particles “wa”「は」 and “ga”「が」 is one of the most confusing concepts you are likely to face learning Japanese. You can read more about that here, but for now, gaining a solid understanding of sentence structure is far more important.

Now let’s add another element and try building the following sentence in Japanese:

On Sunday, Taro saw Noriko at the train station

If we put this into our diagram, we get this:

On Sunday, Taro saw Noriko at the train station

On Sunday, Taro saw Noriko at the train station

As indicated, we attribute the particles as follows:

  • Tarō wa太郎たろう
  • Noriko wo紀子のりこ
  • nichiyōbi ni日曜日にちようび
  • eki deえき

Using our three basic rules, we can then create our sentence to be any of the following:

Tarō wa nichiyōbi ni Noriko wo eki de mimashita.

たろう にちようび のりこ えき みました。

太郎たろう日曜日にちようび紀子のりこえきました。

Tarō wa nichiyōbi ni eki de Noriko wo mimashita.

たろう にちようび えき のりこ みました。

太郎たろう日曜日にちようびえき紀子のりこました。

Tarō wa Noriko wo nichiyōbi ni eki de mimashita.

たろう のりこ にちようび えき みました。

太郎たろう紀子のりこ日曜日にちようびえきました。

There are other possible combinations too, and as long as all the pieces of information are followed by the correct particles, they are grammatically correct and have the same fundamental meaning.

Again, some orderings are more natural than others. For example, time phrases usually appear near the beginning of the sentence, so in most cases, the third option above is less preferable. Time phrases are also unique in that they often appear even before the topic, like so:

[time phrase] + [topic] wa … (other information) … [verb]

This would make our example look like this:

nichiyōbi ni Tarō wa Noriko wo eki de mimashita.

にちようび たろう のりこ えき みました。

日曜日にちようび太郎たろう紀子のりこえきました。

The actual difference between this and the other orderings above is negligible. It’s like the difference between the following:

On Sunday, Taro saw Noriko at the train station
Taro saw Noriko at the train station on Sunday

As you can see, the word order doesn’t really affect the meaning.

Let’s look at another example:

Taro went with Noriko from the train station to the library by car.

Here’s the diagram for this:

Taro went with Noriko from the train station to the library by car

Taro went with Noriko from the train station to the library by car

This gives us:

  • Tarō wa太郎たろう
  • toshokan ni図書館としょかん
  • eki karaえきから
  • Noriko to紀子のりこ
  • kuruma deくるま

Note that Noriko’s role has changed from object to co-participant, hence the particle after her name has changed too. The same is true for ekiえき.

Our sentence could be written as:

Tarō wa Noriko to kuruma de eki kara toshokan ni ikimashita.

たろう のりこ くるま えき から としょかん いきました。

太郎たろう紀子のりこくるまえきから図書館としょかんきました。

Tarō wa kuruma de Noriko to eki kara toshokan ni ikimashita.

たろう くるま のりこ えき から としょかん いきました。

太郎たろうくるま紀子のりこえきから図書館としょかんきました。

Tarō wa eki kara Noriko to kuruma de toshokan ni ikimashita.

たろう えき から のりこ くるま としょかん いきました。

太郎たろうえきから紀子のりこくるま図書館としょかんきました。

Tarō wa Noriko to eki kara toshokan ni kuruma de ikimashita.

たろう のりこ えき から としょかん くるま いきました。

太郎たろう紀子のりこえきから図書館としょかんくるまきました。

Again, these are all correct and have essentially the same meaning, with just a slight difference in emphasis.

Now let’s look at another way that we can add more information to a sentence.

Expanding individual elements

An important point about the diagrams above are that they show the relationship between certain pieces of information and the main verb. This is because each of them relates directly to the action. For example:

  • “nichiyōbi ni”日曜日にちようびに」 defines when the action takes places
  • “eki de”えきで」 defines where the action takes place
  • “toshokan ni”図書館としょかんに」 defines the destination of the action

We can, however, add other information that doesn’t relate directly to the verb. Instead it relates specifically to one of the individual elements in the sentence.

The simplest example of this is adjectives.

In Japanese, adjectives are used in much the same way as they are in English – immediately before the noun they describe. (This is in addition to their use in simple sentences where the main verb is “desu”「です」, such as “kuruma wa akai desu”くるまあかいです」).

Let’s take a shorter version of our sentence from earlier…

Taro went to the library by car.

Tarō wa kuruma de toshokan ni ikimashita.

たろう くるま としょかん い きました。

太郎たろうくるま図書館としょかんきました。

…and change it to specify that the car was blue:

Taro went to the library in a blue car

Tarō wa aoi kuruma de toshokan ni ikimashita.

たろう あおい くるま としょかん いきました。

太郎たろうあおくるま図書館としょかんきました。

(Note that in English, “by” changes to “in”, but the meaning is essentially the same).

What we’re essentially doing is expanding the individual element, “kuruma”くるま, to add more detail. In this case, the ‘means of transport’ has changed from “kuruma”くるま to “aoi kuruma”あおくるま. When we do this, “aoi kuruma”あおくるま as a whole should be marked by “de”「で」, since “a blue car” is the means of transport, not just “a car”.

This has no impact on the other parts of the sentence, so it fits into the diagram differently:

Taro went to the library in my car

Taro went to the library in a blue car

Expanding on a single noun like this creates what is called a noun phrase. A noun phrase is essentially a phrase that, as a whole, represents a single thing. Technically, “car” by itself is a noun phrase, but so are all of the following:

  • a car
  • a blue car
  • my car
  • my blue car
  • the blue car over there
  • the blue car that’s always parked in the street next to the mailbox

All of these represent a single thing – a car – and can be substituted into sentences in the same way, like so:

  • He is driving a car.
  • He is driving my blue car.
  • He is driving the blue car that’s always parked in the street next to the mailbox.

Noun phrases are just as common in Japanese as they are in English, and serve the same fundamental purpose – to add more information about a specific noun.

There are many different ways that noun phrases can be formed, in both English and Japanese. Another very common example is:

Taro went to the library in my car.

Here, we’ve taken the noun “car” and expanded on it to indicate that it belongs to ‘me’. The result is the noun phrase, “my car”, which in Japanese is:

my car

watashi no kuruma

わたし の くるま

わたしくるま

This makes use of another very common particle: no.

The particle “no”「の」 indicates possession.

Effectively, “no”「の」 converts “I”, “you”, “he”, “she” and “they” into “my”, “your”, “his”, “her” and “their”, respectively. For other things like people’s names, animals, places and objects, it has the same effect as adding “‘s” (apostrophe s).

If instead we wanted to say “Taro’s car”, for example, we would say “Tarō no kuruma”太郎たろうくるま, with the “no”「の」 indicating that the car belongs to Taro.

The one-size-fits-all way of defining “no”「の」 would be to say it is equal to English “of ”. For example, instead of “my car” or “Taro’s car”, “watashi no kuruma”わたしくるま and “Tarō no kuruma”太郎たろうくるま could be thought of as “the car of me” or “the car of Taro”.

“No”「の」 can be used to connect just about any two things, where one of the two things belongs to the other in some way, such as “the back of the door”, “the color of your eyes” or even “the rain of yesterday”.

Now that we know this, let’s substitute “watashi no kuruma”わたしくるま into our example sentence. First, here’s the diagram:

Taro went to the library in my car

Taro went to the library in my car

This can be turned into the following:

Taro went to the library in my car.

Tarō wa watashi no kuruma de toshokan ni ikimashita.

たろう わたし の くるま としょかん い きました。

太郎たろうわたしくるま図書館としょかんきました。

Here, the means of transportation is “my car”, so the noun phrase “watashi no kuruma”わたしくるま needs to be followed by the particle “de”「で」.

It’s important to note that even though “no”「の」 is a particle, it cannot be moved around freely like the other particles we’ve looked at. This is because it is part of a noun phrase, and noun phrases cannot be separated. Doing so would be like separating “my” from “car”. The result might be something like this:

Taro went to my library by car.

Tarō wa kuruma de watashi no toshokan ni ikimashita.

たろう くるま わたし の としょかん いきました。

太郎たろうくるまわたし図書館としょかんきました。

If we want to change the word order, we can, but we need to move the whole noun phrase “watashi no kuruma”わたしくるま, and the associated particle “de”「で」, together as a single block. Here’s one way we could do this:

Taro went to the library in my car.

Tarō wa toshokan ni watashi no kuruma de ikimashita.

たろう としょかん わたし の くるま いきました。

太郎たろう図書館としょかんわたしくるまきました。

This is true for any noun in any sentence. That is, any noun can be expanded into a more detailed noun phrase. The resulting noun phrase can then be used in the same way as the original noun, no matter what role that noun has in the sentence. It just has to be kept together as a single block.

For example, the destination could be changed from “the library” to “the university library”:

Taro went to the university library by car.

Tarō wa kuruma de daigaku no toshokan ni ikimashita.

たろう くるま だいがく の としょかん いきました。

太郎たろうくるま大学だいがく図書館としょかんきました。

Or “my car” could be used as the object, defined by “wo”「を」:

Taro saw my car.

Tarō wa watashi no kuruma wo mimashita.

たろう わたし の くるま みました。

太郎たろうわたしくるまました。

It can even be used as the topic:

My car is red.

watashi no kuruma wa akai desu.

わたし の くるま あかいです。

わたしくるまあかいです。

Any noun, no matter where it is used, can be expanded as long as the resulting phrase is a valid noun phrase.

Our diagram can therefore be modified to look like this:

Something

The different roles in Japanese sentences can be expanded using noun phrases

In Japanese, noun phrases are used in a lot of different ways, from simple examples like the ones above, to more complex expressions like:

  • This is the book that he bought yesterday (kore wa kare ga kinō katta hon desuこれはかれ昨日きのうったほんです)
  • When I went to Japan, I ate lots of ramen (watashi wa nihon ni itta toki, rāmen wo takusan tabemashitaわたし日本にほんったとき、ラーメンをたくさんべました)
  • I think it would be better to go tomorrow morning (ashita no asa itta hō ga ii to omoimasu明日あしたあさったほうがいいとおもいます)
  • Please wash your plate before you watch TV (terebi wo miru mae ni sara wo aratte kudasaiテレビをまえさらあらってください)

The various ways of building different noun phrases and using them in sentences are covered in detail in 80/20 Japanese.

Japanese sentence structure summary

The most important things to remember about Japanese sentence structure are:

  • The verb comes last
  • Particles define the roles of each of the different elements within a sentence
  • Word order is less important, and only influences the emphasis
  • Each noun in a sentence can be expanded into a more detailed noun phrase
  • It is usually more natural to put the topic and time phrases near the beginning of the sentence

The result is that basic sentences usually look like this, with the ‘other information’ appearing optionally and in any order:

Structure of a typical basic Japanese sentence

Structure of a typical basic Japanese sentence

This basic structure is the foundation of the entire Japanese language. If you understand this, Japanese will start to make a lot more sense.

You can learn more about particles, noun phrases and everything else essential to the Japanese language in my book, 80/20 Japanese. To receive a free sample chapter, click here.