Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are great, but the real depth of language comes from its prepositions (to, from, away, after, with, etc) because these fine forms show the important spatial, temporal, and other relationships between the nouns. Without these, you can express only the most basic, disconnected thoughts.

In Japanese, prepositions are actually postpositions because they come after the noun that they’re attached to. But just to make things interesting, these structures are actually called particles, and tend to work as postpositions, conjunctions (and, or, nor, etc), possessives, and just about anything else that isn’t a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. (To me as a physicist, “particles” are things like electrons and quarks, but hey, I can be flexible).

(A quick aside: linguistics scholars will no doubt be cringing at this point about my cavalier definitions and descriptions of important language structures. Sorry about that).

There are many particles, and most of them mean several different things depending on how you use them. They are the glue that ties the whole sentence together, sprinkled among the nouns with what appears to be wild abandon, but is in fact highly important and subtle structure. It is worth spending significant effort to understand Japanese particles. This chapter covers some of the important cases where Westerners have trouble grasping the true meaning and function of particles.

It starts right off with one of the hardest topics, but it’s so important that you should start thinking about it right away.

Wa and Ga: Crucial Differences

When you first learn Japanese, you learn really simple patterns like “A wa B desu,” which means “A is B” (examples include “The hat is red” and “I am a doctor”). You learn that wa marks the noun that precedes it as the “topic” of the sentence. But really, that doesn’t make much sense at first glance. What does it mean, the “topic” of the sentence? Is it just the subject of the sentence?

Not quite. Because later you learn that ga marks the subject of the sentence.

The problem with this approach to teaching Japanese is that wa is a much more subtle particle than ga, and it is confusing to learn it first, when you can’t really appreciate it. You have to go back later and think about wa again in order to really understand the elegance of this particle, and its crucial difference from ga.

(I’m not totally blaming the Japanese teachers for teaching wa first, BTW. Wa is a much more grammatically flexible particle than ga, and hence it can be used in a wider variety of ways. If you aren’t quite skillful with the grammar yet, you can still use wa and probably be understood. Mistakes with ga are more damaging to the sentence’s overall meaning.)

Much of what I’m going to write below is cribbed in spirit from an excellent book that every intermediate Japanese student should read. It’s called “Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You” by Jay Rubin. I have described it in more detail on my reference page.

Ga is a grammatically clean particle. It really does mark the grammatical subject of a sentence or clause, and that’s pretty much it. (We’ll skip a few subtleties). So when you see a noun marked with ga, you know that there must be an associated verb that will be properly inflected to convey the action or state of being of that noun.

Wa is much more flexible. It really does mark the topic of a sentence (or sometimes just part of a sentence). We do not have this structure in English! (That’s why it’s a little strange that the very first sentence pattern you learn is a wa pattern). When you mark a noun with wa, you are in a sense “setting it aside” as the thing you are going to talk about with the other words in the sentence.

Grammatically, wa-marked structures are sort of “outside the loop”; they are not playing a particular role like subject or direct object. However, the wa-marked topic can refer to just about any role in the rest of the sentence: the subject, the direct object, even the indirect object. By the way, note that I said “structure” above, not “noun”—wa can mark phrases as topics —for instance, Amerika de wa keeki ga amasugiru (“In America, cakes are too sweet”).

This is tricky, so pay attention. You might be making a sentence whose topic is “flowers,” and it might be that the flowers are pretty. In this case, the topic “flowers” refers to the grammatical subject of the sentence. Technically, the wa-marked topic “flowers” is not actually the subject of the sentence. (Wa is not supposed to mark the grammatical subject; that’s ga‘s job). However, Japanese grammarians generally agree that if wa refers to the subject, it can be thought of as doing double duty and acting as ga also.

So if you say Hana wa kirei desu, you are technically saying “As for flowers, [they] are pretty,” and the subject (“they”) is not stated explicitly. But if you want, you can think of the wa as meaning both wa and ga.

You could also create a sentence with “flowers” as the topic, but referring to the direct object—maybe “I gave Miko the flowers.” In this case, you would say, Hana wa Miko-san ni agemashita. The unstated subject is “I.” (To be precise, this sentence actually translates as, “As for the flowers, I gave them to Miko.”)

[Aside: Both of the above sentences—hana wa kirei desu and hana wa Miko-san ni agemashita—are actually saying more subtle things than my simple translations indicate. Don’t take them too literally. I’m about to talk about what wa is really doing in a semantic sense, so read on…].

Aha—I just did something significant above. I translated wa. It is usually translated as “as for,” which is amazingly elegant and requires some serious thinking to understand.

Here’s what’s going on. Wa serves two purposes: (1) it emphasizes the predicate of the sentence (ie, everything that is not the grammatical subject, and (2) it differentiates the particular topic you have chosen from other possible topics.

So by saying hana wa…, you are simultaneously pointing the listener’s attention toward what you are about to say about flowers (i.e., wa makes the listener’s ears prick up— “yes? yes? what happened next?”), and you are separating out “flowers” from other possible topics that might make sense in the conversation’s context. You are saying, “I don’t know about all those other things, but as for flowers, I think they’re great” (or whatever the predicate of the sentence is). Note that in that sentence, “I” is the grammatical subject, not “flowers.” “Flowers” is just the topic.

In the case above where wa marks a phrase as the topic—Amerika de wa keeki ga amasugiruwa is still playing its role as a differentiator. By stating the sentence this way, the speaker is emphasizing that in America cakes are too sweet (the implication being that in other places, they are OK).

You can even use multiple wa‘s in a sentence. (This contrasts with ga, of course, in that each ga requires a grammatical verb to go with it). For instance, you can say

Nomimono wa watashi wa biiru ga ii desu (As for something to drink, I would like beer).

Another way that wa is sometimes translated is as a dash or question mark. Examples include, “Flowers? I like them” and “Cars—there are too many!” But “as for” remains the most elegant, once you can get your brain around it.

Another way that I found really helpful to understand the difference between wa and ga (again, from Rubin’s excellent book) is to consider what hidden question the sentence is answering. Just as wa emphasizes the predicate of the sentence, ga emphasizes the subject. So you have to think about what the purpose of your sentence is in the context of the conversation.

As all viewers of “Jeopardy!” know, any declarative sentence can be the answer to a straightforward question. The thing is, it can really be the answer to several questions, and in Japanese, you structure the sentence differently depending on which hidden question you are actually answering. Which question this is is simply a matter of the context of the conversation.

For example, the statement “I walked home,” could be the answer to:
“What did you do?”
“Who walked home?”
“How did you get home?” or
“Why are you so late?”

The sentence “I walked home” might be said in a different way in Japanese depending which of these hidden questions fit the context of the conversation.

If you say simply ikimashita (“[the subject] went”), then there is no particular emphasis. This is one of those cases where the subject is skipped because it is understood from previous context. It is not “someone” in general, but someone in particular like “I” or “you” or “Mary.”

But if you say the much more explicit sentence

Watashi ga ikimashita (I went),

then you are drawing attention to the subject of the sentence (“I”). You are answering the question “Who went?” (did). You shouldn’t say this sentence casually, such as when reporting what you did earlier that day. (For that, use the neutral sentence in the previous paragraph). Use this sentence only when there is doubt about who it was who went, and you are clearing it up by saying that you went.

OK, so what about

Watashi wa ikimashita (I went)?

Remember what I said above about wa‘s dual role in emphasizing the predicate and differentiating the topic. In this case, you are marking yourself as the topic (as opposed to other people) and then pointing the listener’s ears toward what you did (you went). So you are answering the question, “What did you do?” (as opposed to what other people did). A rough translation might be, “I don’t know about all those other people, but as for ME, I went!”

As you can see, wa can be a bit dramatic when referring to yourself. I’ve heard it used extensively in Japanese political speeches (wherein the candidates are busy differentiating themselves from each other and drawing attention to the items of difference). However, watashi wa is also fine to say casually when you are genuinely trying to differentiate yourself from others in the conversation. For instance, I was talking to a man in Japan who knew that I have a Ph.D. in physics because he had read an article of mine. He opened the conversation by noting my physics Ph.D., and then he said, Watashi wa chemistry. (“Chemistry” is actually used as a Japanese word). This was a perfect use of wa in conversation (not surprising since he was a native Japanese speaker 🙂 )—he was differentiating himself from me, and simultaneously drawing attention to that difference: physics for me, and chemistry for him. Watashi ga chemistry would make no sense in that conversation because it answers the question, “Who here has a degree in chemistry?”

Wa and Ga: What You Probably Learned

There are two things you probably learned in your Japanese class about wa and ga. First, that ga is used the first time a subject is introduced, and then wa is used for all the subsequent times that it is mentioned. And second, that wa “replaces” ga or o (although not ni or kara) when it it takes over as the topic marker. Unfortunately, both of these statements are misleading, although for different reasons, and I want to explain why.

The first case is misleading because it tries to make a rule of thumb into a grammatical law. For instance, you might have been taught the following: Suppose your mom is coming to town, and you are telling your friend about it. You open the conversation with Ashita haha ga kimasu (“Tomorrow my mother is coming”). You have to use ga because your mom is a new subject that hasn’t been established yet. Grammatically, you are drawing attention to your mom since she is the most important part of the news. But now the topic “my mom” has been established, and subsequent mentions of her will be marked with wa. For instance, Haha wa o-tera ga suki desu (“As for my mom, she likes temples”—and hence the implication is, we will go see some while she’s here).

However, I think it is a travesty to teach wa and ga this way! Why? Because it makes it seem like they are essentially the same particle, but one is used to establish the topic and the other is used once it’s already established. This is almost totally wrong. While it is true that you would tend to use ga first, and then mark that noun in subsequent sentences with wa, in a broader sense wa and ga are not grammatically similar at all, even though they may sometimes be used in ways that look similar (such as watashi wa ikimashita and watashi ga ikimashita). In reality, these particles are crucially different. They mean very different things to the Japanese ear, also, and you should be training yourself to use them properly by understanding what they are really doing in sentences. This is admittedly very difficult. But you won’t help yourself by relying on “formulas” like the one above that don’t capture the essence of wa and ga.

The second thing you learned about wa (that it “replaces” certain other particles) is also misleading but from the opposite direction: it takes a deep gramamtical rule and makes it simple in a way that doesn’t help the student’s understanding. It is true that wa plays a replacement role when you look at overall linguistic theory. Wa is a special structure, which we happen not to have in English, and there is a place for it in formal linguistics.

But if you don’t know formal linguistics, then hearing that wa “replaces” ga only encourages you to think of them as essentially the same particle. And they’re not.

Depressingly, wa and ga are alien enough to native English-speakers that even after studying Japanese for years, you can expect to still make a mistake now and then. This is analogous to the fact that even Japanese who have spoken and written English for decades will still make mistakes with “the” and “a.” We don’t appreciate the subtlety of when we use “a,” “the,” or no article at all because it’s totally natural to us. But this is very challenging for Japanese, who have no articles in their language.

So just study wa and ga, and do the best you can to think about which is appropriate in each case. But be aware you’ll probably never get it totally right.

Loose Ends

So, let’s gather up a couple of loose ends. Now that we know the purpose of wa vs. ga, some things you may have heard suddenly make more sense.

First, you will probably learn in your Japanese class that in questions, you must use ga, not wa. For instance, if you ask “Who has arrived already?”, you must say Dare ga kite imasu ka. The point of the question is who has arrived—emphasis on the subject. Dare wa kite imasu ka makes no sense. You can never use wa with an unknown pronoun like dare (who). What does it mean to have “who” be the “topic” of the sentence? (“As for ‘who’, have they arrived yet?”—a rather strange thing to say, huh?)

The answer to the above question is, of course, Smith-san ga kite imasu if it is Smith who has already arrived. Smith-san wa kite imasu answers the question “What has Smith done?”

The second loose end that is cleared up comes from a section in the Adjectives chapter, where I say that you can’t use wa in adjectival clauses (the subject must be marked with ga or no). This makes sense because of the purpose of wa—to specify the topic of the sentence, then throw the listener’s attention toward the predicate, which tells about that topic. In an adjectival clause, the whole purpose of the clause is to focus attention forward toward to the final noun that the clause is modifying. Everthing must point toward that. Wa is too much of an attention-getter to play this supportive role. It puts all the emphasis on the clause itself, differentiating the clause’s topic and pointing toward the clause’s verb. Even worse, wa can’t mark the grammatical subject of the clause, so there must be either a stated or unstated subject running around. All of this pointing obscures the noun that the clause modifies. Ga is a much quieter particle that has the grace not to grab the limelight all the time.