The Difference Between the Particles “wa” and “ga”


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”かく助詞じょし, 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」.

Disclaimer: I said easier. Not easy. Not crystal clear, never have to think about it again, but easier. The grammatical concept of the “topic” – which is what “wa”「は」 defines – is completely foreign to English (and most other languages for that matter), so of course it will take time and effort to fully understand. This article aims simply to remove a large portion of the confusion around it. It’s also somewhat generalised to make it more digestible.

Contents
The difference between “wa”「は」 and the other major particles
The true purpose of “wa”「は」
Comparing our options
Sentences with both “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」
Key take-aways

The difference between “wa”「は」 and the other major particles

What is so special about “wa”「は」?

The “kaku joshi”かく助詞じょし, or case-marking particles, I referred to earlier are very simple in terms of their function – they tell us how the word or phrase before them relates directly to the action described by the verb.

  • “wo”「を」 tells us what the object is, that is, to what the action was done
  • “ni”「に」 tells us the destination of an action involving movement
  • Alternatively, “ni”「に」 tells us the location where something is when using verbs like “arimasu”「あります」 and “imasu”「います」
  • “de”「で」 tells us the location where the action takes place
  • In other cases, “de”「で」 tells us the means by which the action is performed, such as a mode of transport or a tool.

And of particular note:

  • “ga”「が」 tells us the subject of the verb; that is, who or what performs the action

So what is “wa”「は」?

“wa”「は」 marks the topic of the sentence; it tells us what we are talking about.

Let’s put that side-by-side for clarity:

  • “ga”「が」 tells us who or what performs the action.
  • “ni”「に」 tells us the destination of the action.
  • “de”「で」 tells us where the action takes place.
  • “wa”「は」 tells us what is being talked about in the sentence.

Unlike the other major particles, “wa”「は」 does not directly relate to the action in any specific way. Instead, it tells us information about the sentence (or, more accurately, the clause) in which it is used.

The reason “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」 are so easily confused is because in a lot of cases, the sentence is talking about the person performing the action, so the topic and the subject are the same person (or animal or thing).

Let’s look at a really simple example:

Taro bought a book.

Here, the person who bought the book is Taro, so Taro is the subject of the verb “bought”.

At the same time, the sentence as a whole is talking about Taro, so in Japanese, the topic of the sentence would also be Taro.

As such, we could use either “wa”「は」 or “ga”「が」 to define Taro’s role:

tarō ga hon wo kaimashita

たろう が ほん を かいました

太郎たろうほんいました

tarō wa hon wo kaimashita

たろう は ほん を かいました

太郎たろうほんいました

Both of these sentences describe the exact same activity, and are also both 100% grammatically correct. They are, however, quite different.

To understand the difference, we need to understand the true purpose of “wa”「は」.

The true purpose of “wa”「は」

As we know, “wa”「は」 defines the topic. More specifically:

“wa”「は」 can be used in place of, or together with, other particles (as well as independently) to define the word or phrase before it as the topic of the sentence or clause.

The topic is basically the thing that we are talking about in the sentence.

But why do we ever need to define a topic, when it doesn’t even exist in most other languages?

Put simply: For clarification.

The true purpose of “wa”「は」 is to clarify the context within which the rest of the actions described in the sentence take place.

What does that mean?

Consider that when communicating in any language, there are two main parts:

  • Context
  • New information

We talk or write to communicate new information to others, and we do so with a certain amount of already understood or implied background information, or context.

Sometimes there is a lot of context, sometimes there is none, but it looks something like this:

What we have here is a context bubble, which is defined by all the contextual information we have at any given time. This changes constantly.

Next to it is the new or important information we are trying to communicate. In any given sentence, this new/important information only relates to whatever is inside the context bubble.

We can demonstrate this with a simple conversation in English:

Paul: What did Taro do today?
Susan: He bought a book.

When Paul asks the question, there was no pre-existing context – the context bubble is empty. He had to express his question in full because if he didn’t, Susan wouldn’t know what Paul was talking about.

As he asks the question, though, the information in his question gets added to the context bubble for their conversation, which in this case is the person being spoken about (Taro) and the relevant time period (today).

This means that when it comes time for Susan to answer the question, she can just say “he” instead of “Taro”, since the context bubble tells us who “he” is. Similarly, she doesn’t need to say “today” in order for the timing of the action she’s describing to be understood. The constantly evolving context bubble saves us from repeating ourselves.

The same is true in Japanese, but with one small difference. Let’s take a look:

P: What did Taro do today?

P: tarō wa kyō nani wo shimashitaka

P: たろう は きょう なに を しましたか?

P: 太郎たろう今日きょうなにをしましたか?

S: (He) bought a book.

S: hon wo kaimashita

S: ほん を かいました

S: ほんいました

As before, there is no context before Paul’s question, but as he asks it, Taro is added to the context bubble, together with timing of today – the same as we saw in English.

The difference is that in Japanese, instead of using “he”, the context allows Susan to not mention Taro in her answer at all.

In both languages, the information inside the context bubble doesn’t generally need to be repeated for the message to be understood.

In English, however, certain parts of the sentence need to be included for the sentence to be grammatical.

In this case, “he” is one of those words. It is necessary because English sentences must include a subject (the person/thing doing the action) to be grammatically complete. Depending on the verb, they sometimes also need an object (the thing the action was done to).

There are, however, no such requirements in Japanese, so we can just completely leave out the things that are already known.

This is part of the reason that pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, they, etc.) are far more common in English than in Japanese. We need them in English to form complete sentences without repeating the same information over and over again (imagine a five minute conversation in which Paul and Susan have to keep referring to Taro by name, instead of just as “he/him”…). In Japanese, however, these words simply aren’t needed.

So what does this have to do with “wa”「は」?

Recall what we said earlier – that “wa”「は」 clarifies the context for the rest of the actions in the sentence.

In other words, “wa”「は」 is used to redefine or clarify the contents of the context bubble, or part thereof.

The context bubble contains the background information we need to understand what we are talking about. The topic is basically just background information that needs clarifying.

In effect, the topic is the context bubble, or at least part of it. It gives us a way to explicitly state what we are talking about.

We would do this in situations where we start talking about something new, or when the context isn’t clear or has changed, either partially or completely.

The best way to illustrate this is to compare the different ways that we can communicate the same idea.

Comparing our options

You’ll recall that for our example, “Taro bought a book”, we had these two options:

tarō ga hon wo kaimashita

たろう が ほん を かいました

太郎たろうほんいました

tarō wa hon wo kaimashita

たろう は ほん を かいました

太郎たろうほんいました

As we have seen, we actually also have another option that can be used in certain situations:

(He) bought a book.

hon wo kaimashita

ほん を かいました

ほんいました

The question is, how do we choose between these three alternatives? Let’s look at each one.

The ‘nothing’ option

We already know that we can use the last option (which doesn’t mention Taro at all) when the context makes it obvious that we are talking about Taro, such as when answering a question that is specifically about Taro. This should be relatively straightforward, if not always easy.

The ‘ga’「が」 option

“Ga”「が」 is basically the other extreme. It describes the full action literally, with the subject, object and verb defined in full.

This means that instead of using the context bubble, Taro is included in the new/important information part of the sentence.

Remember, “ga”「が」 marks the subject, telling us who or what performed the action, so the effect of this is that a direct connection is drawn between Taro and the act of buying.

Importantly, since it places him in the new/important information part, marking Taro with “ga”「が」 actually emphasises that Taro bought the book. Not someone else, but Taro.

We might want to emphasise Taro in a situation like this:

A: Who bought the book?

A: dare ga hon wo kaimashita ka?

A: だれ が ほん を かいました か?

A: だれほんいました か?

B: Taro bought the book.

B: tarō ga hon wo kaimashita

B: たろう が ほん を かいました

B:太郎たろうほんいました

In this case, B needs to emphasise “Taro” because that is the answer to the question being asked. Taro is new and important information.

This is also why “dare”だれ should be followed by “ga”「が」 in the question. The ‘who’ is the information being sought, so of course it is important.

Quick note about this example

After A’s question, the book has, of course, moved into the context bubble…

…so B doesn’t need to include it. Instead, he could just respond:

B: Taro bought it.

B: tarō ga kaimashita.

B: たろう が かいました。

B:太郎たろういました。

Notice that in English, “the book” is replaced by “it”. The book has moved into the context bubble in English too, but because the English sentence would not be grammatically complete without an object (the thing that was bought), “it” is used to plug the hole.

The inclusion of the verb itself is a bit more optional. Complete sentences need verbs, so whether or not he includes “kaimashita”いました」 would depend on whether or not he needs to answer in a complete sentence. If Taro were speaking with someone familiar, for example, he could avoid using a complete sentence answer and simply reply:

B: tarō (ga)

B: たろう (が)

B:太郎たろう (が)

“Ga”「が」 is optional here, and can help to emphasise that Taro is the person who performed the act of buying the book. It’s not usually necessary, however, when the verb is omitted and it is clear what role Taro played in the action being described (ie. it’s obvious that Taro bought the book, and wasn’t, for example the thing being bought).

The ‘wa’「は」 option

“Wa”「は」 is somewhere in between the other two.

Where the ‘nothing’ option relies entirely on the context bubble, and the ‘ga’「が」 option doesn’t use the context bubble at all…

“wa”「は」 is used to clarify or add to the context bubble.

We use “wa”「は」 when:

  • it is not 100% obvious from context who or what is being talked about, AND
  • the ‘who’ or ‘what’ is not the important information trying to be communicated.

In the sentence…

tarō wa hon wo kaimashita

たろう は ほん を かいました。

太郎たろうほんいました。

“wa”「は」 is effectively used in place of “ga”「が」 to define Taro as the topic, so instead of putting him in the new/important information part of the sentence, we are adding him to the context bubble:

This difference is everything.

Taro is no longer emphasised, and we are basically putting him on the same level as background contextual information. We only mention Taro at all to clarify that he is the person we are talking about.

In effect, “wa”「は」 shifts the emphasis of the sentence away from the word or phrase it is marking, and onto the information that follows.

Instead of drawing a direct line between Taro and the act of buying, we are referring to Taro more generally. This is a bit like saying, “Speaking of Taro, …” or, “As for Taro, …”, and then describing what he did, as opposed to just directly saying, “Taro did this”.

We could therefore say that “tarō wa hon wo kaimashita”太郎たろうほんいました」 is roughly equivalent to:

Speaking of Taro, bought a book.

Why do the Japanese phrase it in this more generalised way? Because that’s just how Japanese is. It is generally a vague and indirect language, and, as we’ve seen, even information that plays a major part in the action being described can be omitted entirely if it’s understood from context – not even a pronoun is required.

Although communication in Japanese may be vague, it’s important to note that what is actually communicated (eg. Taro bought a book) is usually just as specific as it might be in English. It is only the words used to describe it that tend to be more vague. As such, important information is often expressed in generic-sounding terms (eg. bought a book), with any other details just being implied by context. Then, if the existing context alone isn’t quite enough, “wa”「は」 is used to clarify it.

Now of course, “wa”「は」 is not only used at the beginning of conversations to define who we are talking about. It is used throughout conversations in many different ways to redefine and clarify the context bubble.

We can see this if we modify our example a little:

Speaking to Taro and Eriko
A: What did you do today?

A: kyō nani wo shimashita ka?

A: きょう、 なに を しました か?

A: 今日きょうなにをしましたか?

Taro: I bought a book.

Taro: watashi wa hon wo kaimashita.

Taro: わたし は ほん を かいました。

Taro: わたしほんいました。

Eriko: I went to school.

Eriko: watashi wa gakkō ni ikimashita.

Eriko: わたし は がっこう に いきました。

Eriko: わたし学校がっこうきました。

Here, if Taro were to simply say “hon wo kaimashita”ほんいました」, it would imply that both Taro and Eriko bought a book. Because A’s question doesn’t mention anyone specific, the fact that she is talking to Taro and Eriko implies that she is asking about both of them. In effect, Taro and Eriko are both put inside the context bubble implicitly as the question is asked:

Their answers will apply to this context bubble unless it is changed, so to talk only about himself, Taro needs to clarify this by redefining the context bubble using “wa”「は」:

Taro: I bought a book.

Taro: watashi wa hon wo kaimashita

Taro: わたし は ほん を かいました。

Taro: わたしほんいました。

Only then can he go on to provide the information that was being sought, since his answer only applies to himself.

We could say that his answer is roughly equivalent to:

Taro: As for me, bought a book.

Taro clarifies that he is speaking about himself, then conveys the important information.

We can see that Eriko then does the exact same thing.

She redefines the topic as herself (this time replacing Taro), then provides her answer as it relates to the new context bubble.

To be clear, if Taro (or Eriko for that matter) were to use “ga”「が」 in this situation, he would actually be emphasising that he did the act of buying, since this would place him in the new/important information part:

He does need to mention himself for clarity of course, but ultimately, the important information is what he did, not who did it. That is, after all, what the question was asking. The same is true for Eriko.

To recap, we have three main ways to describe a simple action that somebody did:

  • hon wo kaimashita

    ほん を かいました

    ほんいました

  • tarō ga hon wo kaimashita

    たろう が ほん を かいました

    太郎たろうほんいました

  • tarō wa hon wo kaimashita

    たろう は ほん を かいました

    太郎たろうほんいました

We can say that:

  • Neither “wa”「は」 nor “ga”「が」 is needed if it is obvious who/what we’re talking about
  • “Ga”「が」 emphasises the information that comes before it as new or important information
  • “Wa”「は」 helps clarify who/what we are talking about, shifting the emphasis to the information that comes after it

Now let’s look at some of the most common situations where “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」 can be particularly confusing.

Sentences with both “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」

Most non-complex sentences (ie. those without sub-clauses) will only contain either “wa”「は」 or “ga”「が」, but there are some that contain both. It is these sentences where the context bubble should start to be particularly handy.

“Wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」 usually appear together when we want to communicate information about someone or something, but do so by referring to them in relation to someone or something else.

One common situation is when we describe body parts; that is, we want to describe the body part, but in relation to the person to whom the body part belongs.

Let’s look at an example of this, starting with a sentence where the verb isn’t “desu”「です」:

His legs grew longer.

kare wa ashi ga nobimashita.

かれ は あし が のびました。

かれあしびました。

Let’s break this down, working backwards.

First, let’s acknowledge the most important element in the sentence, our verb, “nobimashita”びました」, meaning “grew longer” or “lengthened”.

Next, let’s remember what “ga”「が」 does:

“ga”「が」 tells us the subject of the verb; that is, who or what performs the action.

So, who or what is it that grew longer? The thing marked by “ga”「が」“ashi”あし.

Just using what we have so far, our sentence is:

(The) legs grew longer.

ashi ga nobimashita.

あし が のびました。

あしびました。

That bring us to our last piece, “kare wa”かれは」. Remember that:

“wa”「は」 is used to clarify or add to the context bubble.

By adding “kare wa”かれは」 before “ashi ga nobimashita”あしびました」, we are just putting “kare”かれ inside the context bubble.

With “wa”「は」, we are clarifying who we are talking about for the rest of the sentence, just as we did before.

Once we have that context bubble defined, we go on to say, “the legs grew longer”. This on its own is a generic statement about some legs, but since “kare”かれ is in the context bubble, we know that the legs must belong to “him”. The result is something like this:

As for him, the legs grew longer.

This is obviously very different to English, where we would usually define the legs as being owned by him (his legs), and describe the action that his legs are performing (growing longer).

You can do this in Japanese too, so it’s not wrong to say, for example:

His legs grew longer.

kare no ashi wa nobimashita.

かれ の あし は のびました。

かれあしびました。

This, however, isn’t a very natural way to express this kind of idea.

One thing I would like to point out here is that there is a major difference between this sentence and our example with Taro. The difference is:

  • Taro performed the act of buying the book.
  • “He” did not perform the act of growing longer.

Yet, both were marked by “wa”「は」 (at least in some cases).

The reason this is possible is because all “wa”「は」 did was tell us who the sentences were about. The important information was something else related to these people. In one case (Taro’s), it was what that person did. In the other, it was an action done by something else (his legs).

Now let’s see how this works with sentences that use “desu”「です」, both for body parts and various other things.

Using “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」 when the main verb is “desu”「です」

“Desu”「です」 may be a special verb, but in terms of “wa”「は」 and our context bubble, nothing really changes.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

His legs are long. / He has long legs.

kare wa ashi ga nagai desu.

かれ は あし が ながい です。

かれあしながいです。

We can break this down the same way we did a moment ago, except we need to clarify something first.

With adjectives, such as “nagai”ながい」, we should look at this as being grouped together with “desu”「です」 to form a single phrase meaning “being long” or “is long”. If we do this, we end up with a phrase that is comparable to other verbs, such as “nobimasu”びます」 (grow longer) from our previous example.

If we put them side-by-side…

  • nagai desuながいです = being long
  • nobimasuびます = grow longer

…we can see that they are roughly equivalent in terms of the nature of what they describe. In English, their meanings both have a descriptor (the adjective “long” and the adverb “longer”) and a verb (“are” and “grow”).

This is simplifying things a little, but in order to make the highly irregular verb “desu”「です」 somewhat comparable with every other verb, we will group “nagai”ながい」 and “desu”「です」 together to be a single phrase that describes a certain act of being.

So, our action is “nagai desu”ながいです」, or “being long”.

Who or what is it that is “being long”? The thing marked by “ga”「が」“ashi”あし.

Lastly, “kare wa”かれは」 appears before “ashi ga nagai desu”あしながいです」, so just like before, “kare”かれ is inside the context bubble.

As always, we start by clarifying who we are talking about, then describe something related to that. In this case, that translates roughly to:

As for him, the legs are long.

Now, let’s apply this approach to a few more confusing situations.

Suki, kiraiきら and hoshīしい

Coming from English, “suki”き」 (like), “kirai”きらい」 (hate) and “hoshī”しい」 (want) probably take some getting used to because they are adjectives, while their English equivalents are verbs. They are also often used in sentences that include both “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」, so let’s see how we can apply the context bubble to make better sense of them.

Since they are adjectives, these words all work in exactly the same way as “nagai”ながい」 did in our previous example. Let’s take a look:

I like sushi.

watashi wa sushi ga suki desu.

わたし は すし が すき です。

わたしはすしがきです。

If we break this down as we did before, we can see that the same rules apply.

What is the action? The adjective/verb combination “suki desu”きです」, which roughly means “being liked”.

Who or what is performing that action? The word or phrase before “ga”「が」, which is “sushi”「すし」.

Our sentence so far is therefore:

Sushi is liked.

sushi ga suki desu.

すし が すき です。

すしがきです。

Lastly, who or what are we talking about? The word or phrase before “wa”「は」, which is “watashi”わたし.

We therefore have “watashi”わたし in the context bubble, and this tells us who we are talking about when we say “sushi is liked”.

When talking about me, sushi is liked.

We can do exactly the same thing with “kirai”きらい」, “hoshī”しい」, and other similar words.

I hate natto.

watashi wa nattō ga kirai desu.

わたし は なっとう が きらい です。

わたし納豆なっとうきらいです。

I want a new computer.

watashi wa atarashī pasokon ga hoshī desu.

わたし は あたらしい パソコン が ほしい です。

わたしあたらしいパソコンがしいです。

Again, this is obviously very different from English, where these ideas are expressed as actions that we perform – we like, hate and want things in the same way that we do things. Hopefully, though, you can see how this is entirely consistent with other Japanese expressions, and that the roles of “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」 are clear and consistent. They just take a bit (or a lot) of getting used to.

Bonus: The ~tai~たい form of verbs

Verbs with the ~tai~たい ending, such as “tabetai”べたい」, also work the same way as these adjectives because that’s exactly what they are. Let’s see an example:

I want to eat sushi.

watashi wa sushi ga tabetai desu.

わたし は すし が たべたい です。

わたしはすしがべたいです。

Here’s what that looks like:

In this sentence, I’m talking about me, and then within that context, I’m saying in fairly generic-sounding terms that the eating of sushi is wanted.

Arimasuあります and imasuいます

The verbs “arimasu”「あります」 and “imasu”「います」 can also be a little tricky, as they share similarities with “desu”「です」 as well as all other verbs. We can, however, apply all of the principles we’ve covered so far in the same way.

Let’s start by looking at an example where “arimasu”「あります」 is used just like any other verb that isn’t “desu”「です」:

Her bag is in the classroom.

kanojo no kaban wa kyōshitsu ni arimasu

かのじょ の カバン は きょうしつ に あります。

彼女かのじょのカバンは教室きょうしつにあります。

The first thing we need to make absolutely clear – just to be on the safe side – is that even though the English translation here uses the verb “is” or “to be”, it has a distinctly different meaning to when “desu”「です」 was used.

While “desu”「です」 is essentially used to equate two things as being the same (A = B), “arimasu”「あります」 describes existence (as does “imasu”「います」).

As such, we could kind of translate the above as, “Her bag exists in the classroom”. We could not, however, change our “desu”「です」 example sentence to “His legs exist long”. These “to be” words mean very different things.

Now, if we put this “arimasu”「あります」 sentence side-by-side with our example from earlier, we can see that they are very similar:

tarō wa hon wo kaimashita.

kanojo no kaban wa kyōshitsu ni arimasu.

たろう は ほん を かいました。

かのじょ の カバン は きょうしつ に あります。

太郎たろうほんいました。

彼女かのじょのカバンは教室きょうしつあります。

Who/what is performing the action in each of these sentences?

  • “tarō”太郎たろう is the person watching
  • “kanojo no kaban”彼女かのじょのカバン」 is the thing that is being/existing

As these are the person/thing performing the action, they could be marked by “ga”「が」, but as we have learned, this would emphasise them too much.

Instead, we use “wa”「は」 to define them as our topic, essentially demoting them to the context bubble. Then, using that context bubble, we describe the important information that we actually want to communicate:

This should be relatively straightforward.

However, “arimasu”「あります」 and “imasu”「います」 are also sometimes used in sentences that include both “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」, and this is where it can get confusing.

Fortunately, our same rules apply – “wa”「は」 defines/clarifies the context bubble, and “ga”「が」 defines the thing that is performing the act of “being” (or, if it’s easier, “existing”).

For example:

I have an older sister.

watashi wa ane ga imasu.

わたし は あね が います。

わたしあねがいます。

First, we clarify that “watashi”わたし is in the context bubble. Then, in that context, we describe the older sister as being/existing.

Within the context of “watashi”わたし, an older sister exists.

Here’s another example:

He doesn’t have any money.

kare wa okane ga arimasen.

かれ は おかね が ありません。

かれはおかねがありません。

Within the context of “kare”かれ, no money exists.

As a side note, notice how the way we express these ideas in English is with the word “have”, not “be” or “exist”. This is further evidence of the indirect nature of the Japanese language. In Japanese, I don’t own my sister, just as “he” doesn’t own money. My sister and money exist on their own; they just so happen to do so in a way that relates to me and him, respectively.

This reflects a broader cultural and linguistic difference that actually shapes the way we view the world. Generally:

  • In English, people do and own things.
  • In Japanese, things happen and exist.

I’ve often thought about the chicken-and-egg situation that this represents – did the Japanese culture of indirectness evolve due to the structure of the language, or did the language evolve to make vague expression easier? I suspect the answer is both, as ultimately, language is culture.

Key take-aways

Here are the main lessons I hope you can take from this article:

  • Particles like “ga”「が」, “wo”「を」 and “ni”「に」 define how certain things relate to the action, while “wa”「は」 tells us what is being talked about in the sentence
  • There are two main things that determine the meaning of what we communicate – context, and new/important information
  • Marking something as the subject using “ga” classifies it as new/important information, giving it emphasis
  • “wa”「は」 allows us to redefine or clarify some or all of the context before stating new/important information
  • “wa”「は」 shifts the emphasis of the sentence away from the word or phrase it is marking, and onto the information the follows

Of course, this doesn’t cover absolutely everything. Entire books have been written about “wa” and “ga”「は」 and 「が」 simply because there are so many different variables at play in any given situation.

Hopefully, though, you now have a better understanding of the difference between these two essential particles, and will be able to apply these lessons much more widely than I have here.

Do you have a specific situation involving “wa”「は」 and/or “ga”「が」 that you’re struggling with? Let me know in the comments.

Comments

  1. Clara
    • March 10, 2017
    • 2:51 pm
    • Reply

    Relieved

  2. Monica
    • March 14, 2017
    • 8:42 pm
    • Reply

    Fantastic article! I’ve been struggling with this for a long time.

  3. mark
    • March 15, 2017
    • 2:40 pm
    • Reply

    Mind blown Ive been doing this wrong for years

  4. Minh
    • March 21, 2017
    • 5:38 am
    • Reply

    Thank you, you have helped to make it more clear for me

  5. Andrew
    • March 22, 2017
    • 5:55 pm
    • Reply

    To me it sounds like the difference between:
    “You killed my father” and “No, Luke. /I/ am your father”

    • Tasos
      • July 13, 2017
      • 9:59 pm
      • Reply

      Luke: “As far as you are concerned as a topic, to the object that is my father, past killing action is applied!”
      Darth: “Disagreement, Luke. As far as I am concerned explicitly as a /subject/, to the object that is your father, equivalence is applied!”
      Luke: “Disagremeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeent!”

  6. Ridwan
    • March 27, 2017
    • 10:20 pm
    • Reply

    This would help me to understand Japanese in the future…Thanks for the new point of view

  7. Bablofil
    • March 28, 2017
    • 12:49 am
    • Reply

    Thanks, great article.

  8. PC
    • March 28, 2017
    • 11:45 pm
    • Reply

    Richard, 4 of your blogs alone thought me more than a month worth of understanding. It is probably one of, if not the best, summaries about the Japanese language. I love your way of learning through foundation than through ‘knowing words’. Thank you very much for what you’ve given.

  9. Patrick duffey
    • March 29, 2017
    • 6:57 am
    • Reply

    I look forward to learning more from you. This post unlocked a set of mysteries plaguing me for the last 10 years as a Chado student. My fellow students, native speakers, have been unable to explain Wa Ga in a way I could understand the difference. Thanks.

  10. Still-hate-wa-and-ga
    • April 9, 2017
    • 10:56 pm
    • Reply

    The next time any of my Japanese coworkers complain about how difficult English is, I’m pointing to this article just to explain how much we need to understand “wa” and “ga”.

  11. Tayler
    • April 13, 2017
    • 4:00 am
    • Reply

    I love your articles, but I find your insistence that です is a verb to be perturbing. In my studies I have never heard this before. And the sentences where you’ve used it can all exist(in their casual form) without it. 私の脚が長い is just as correct as your example including です. I understand that you want to teach people using the polite form as much as possible, but that in particular, seems slightly disingenuous.
    Just a related rant: The insistence to use the polite form for everything in all of the study materials I’ve used to date has been pretty frustrating, really. It would be much easier to learn verbs using the dictionary form and learning conjugations from there, but everything I’ve studied teaches us that 食べます is the verb and to conjugate it we have to take off ます and replace it with the other forms, like passive, causative, て-form, た-form, etc. It would be easier to just learn that the dictionary/plain form the verb is 食べる since the stems generally seem to vary depending on the last sound of the dictionary form(使われる、着られる、来させる)and using the ます form as the default makes it harder to figure out which conjugation pattern is the correct one. Verb conjugation has been the most difficult thing for me so far because I can’t find something to teach it to me from the root like that with the consistency that I need to grasp it.

    • Tatiana
      • May 12, 2017
      • 12:24 pm
      • Reply

      It’s not the first time I hear the complaint about teaching the -masu form as THE verb form. I learned Japanese by taking private classes and from the very beginning my teacher explained the verb conjugation by using the dictionary form, extracting the base of the verb and then adding suffixes like -masu, -tai, -rareru, etc. I also find it extremely weird that people are taught the -masu form as the initial verb form.

      By the way, from the linguistic point of view (and how I learned this) です is a “copula”, or, as my teacher was saying “a copula verb”.

  12. Marty
    • April 13, 2017
    • 12:13 pm
    • Reply

    You can see the same type of subtly in English. For instance consider the following sentences:

    At the library, Taro bought the book.
    Taro bought the book at the library.

    Much like the Japanese sentences with wa and ga, they mean essentially the same thing. However, consider the following question:

    Where did Taro buy the book?

    Only one of the above sentences makes sense as an answer. If you were to reply “At the library, Taro bought the book.” it would sound strange and stilted, for much the same reason using “Taro wa” to answer “who bought the book?” would sound strange in Japanese.

  13. Jocelyn
    • April 14, 2017
    • 9:05 am
    • Reply

    Thank you! Even though I’ve studied Japanese, it never occurred to me to think of “hoshii” and “suki” as adjectives! As an ALT of Japanese junior high school students, now I GET IT. “I’m don’t like natto,” and “I am want sushi,” make so much more sense now.

  14. 井谷宗巖
    • May 10, 2017
    • 11:01 pm
    • Reply

    Any true understanding of the complexities of the Japanese language need to be done in Japanese. To discuss them in English may be a great academic exercise, but it does not lead to any true understanding of the Japanese language. It also introduces all sorts of difficulties that do not exist if the discussion and understanding are in Japanese. If the discussion is too complex for someones current Japanese language abilities, then they are probably not ready for the discussion. I highly recommend that all students of the Japanese use a Japanese-Japanese dictionary (start with one published for elementary students and work your way up) and get explanations of the Japanese language in Japanese whenever possible.

    • Tatiana
      • May 12, 2017
      • 12:40 pm
      • Reply

      this works for advanced students but not for beginners. When an adult learns a new language, (s)he does need to anchor the new information to previously learned concepts (their mother tongue). It helps them understand things much faster. Otherwise they will be floundering in the ocean of the unknown for years before all this clicks in. Another thing is that when they use their mother tongue to learn a new language they need to constantly stay conscious that languages do not map 100% to each other.

  15. Tatiana
    • May 12, 2017
    • 12:35 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve been learning Japanese for a long time and, while, my teacher basically explained things the same way you did in this article, I still often struggle, because once you start talking in more complex sentences things usually get not that obvious. At least for me 🙂

    I have to nitpick at this sentence, though, because it’s too outrageously untrue:
    “But why do we ever need to define a topic, when it doesn’t even exist in most other languages?”
    In linguistics there is a concept of a theme (topic) and a rheme (comment). You can apply this concepts to most (if not all?) languages https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topic_and_comment
    Topic gives the context while comment gives the new information (focus). In many cases the subject becomes the topic that’s why it’s easy to confuse these things. For example, in Russian (my mother tongue) understanding the idea of the topic and the comment is important for putting the words in the sentence in the correct order, because grammatically you can shuffle them almost arbitrarily, but the order changes the meaning of the sentence (because the topic and the comment change when you change the order).

    • DonBon
      • July 17, 2017
      • 5:14 am
      • Reply

      In American Sign Language the Topic-Comment sentence structure is actually very common and confusing to beginning learners, as it’s not really used much in English.

  16. 井谷宗巖
    • May 13, 2017
    • 7:03 pm
    • Reply

    There are methods for not using the mother tongue to learn Japanese or other languages, even from day one. If you are interested in functional usage of the target language, they will get you there faster, though they are more intensive and require a more active learning process. In the end, no matter how you learn the language, ultimately you have to ‘forget’ your native language if you want to achieve any degree of fluency. My experience says the sooner the better. During my learning process, my wife answered my questions about Japanese, and I insisted that she answered in Japanese. If I did not understand, I waited and asked her again later, often much later. Now, 35 years later, I am glad I forced myself to learn Japanese in Japanese. On the phone, people rarely realize that I am not a native speaker of Japanese.

    • Def
      • June 22, 2017
      • 10:58 am
      • Reply

      I agree with you, up to a point. Once you have a foundation built, you should have an all Japanese text/study in Japanese. But at the lowest level? I think that’s kind of crazy to expect a person with zero Japanese experience to have a lick of comprehension without some guide in their native tongue.

      A friend of mine took a short Japanese course, in Japanese, and told me how easy it was! Then he explained that は meant “be”. So that didn’t work out so well, since he automatically mapped English grammar onto Japanese. In the early stages, people need to be clearly cautioned about fundamental differences.

  17. Andy
    • May 23, 2017
    • 3:21 pm
    • Reply

    It would be helpful if you also discussed changing “ga” to “wa” in negative sentences. e.g., Tegami ga kimashita./Tegami wa kimasen deshita.

  18. John
    • June 11, 2017
    • 7:44 pm
    • Reply

    Why did you write the adjective after the noun in one of the examples instead of before the noun? I thought the adjective was the same order as English, going before the noun?
    What’s the difference between both of these?
    好きなリンゴ。
    リンゴ好き。

    • Def
      • June 22, 2017
      • 10:52 am
      • Reply

      好きなリンゴ is, depending on the context, the apple I like, or my beloved apples.
      リンゴが好き is more like, I like apples.

      It’s not so different from English. You can say, I have long legs, or, my legs are long. Sometimes before the noun, sometimes seperately.

  19. Doug Lerner
    • July 26, 2017
    • 9:04 pm
    • Reply

    In your post you write:

    私は寿司が食べたいです。

    To me,

    私は寿司を食べたいです。

    sounds more correct. Am I mistaken?

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