The difference between 「は」 and 「が」

From my old blog originally published on 2005/2/5.

Since this is my first post, I figured I would start from the very basics. While the word “basic” has a connotation of meaning “easy” (eg Visual Basic), this is not the case for Japanese. The most basic ideas in Japanese are the hardest to grasp because the fundamental differences between English and Japanese leaves out any way to actually express the idea in English. Unless you speak a similar language like Korean *eh hem*, you’re going to have to wrestle with a concept that doesn’t even exist in your native language. One such example is the idea of particles and especially the particles 「は」 and 「が」.

What’s the difference between 「は」 and 「が」?

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard the question, “What is the difference between the 「は」 and 「が」 particle?” This question has successfully managed to baffle countless generations of people learning Japanese. This has been followed by countless number of equally confusing (and sometimes wrong) explanations involving a great deal of mumbo-jumbo such as contrast, emphasis, subordinate clauses, and voodoo magic. However, with my genius, I was able to provide a complete explanation in one small sentence.

「は」 and 「が」 have different meanings.

I think the more appropriate question would be, “What isn’t different about 「は」 and 「が」?” You may be thinking, “But in English, they both identify the subject of the sentence.” Ahh, English. Isn’t English that language that can’t even express the very concept of 「は」 and 「が」? Well, no wonder it looks the same in that language. That’s like a red-green color-blind person holding a red and green sheet of paper and saying, “Hey, isn’t this the same color?”

Japanese: A language of context

Since 「は」 and 「が」 mean totally different things, the only thing we need to do in order to identify their differences is to fully understand what they actually mean and why they exist. The first thing we need to realize is that a Japanese sentence is not required to have a subject. You can just say, “Hit ball” and you’re good to go. So how do you know what the heck everybody is talking about?

Well, there are several ways and they all involve making assumptions from context. For example, if I suddenly asked you, “Ate lunch?” you assume I’m asking if you ate lunch because I’m surely not talking about anyone else. Therefore, you answer, “Ate lunch.” Then I assume you are talking about yourself since I just asked you the question and so I now know that you ate lunch. However, if we happened to be talking about Alice when I asked you the question, you will likely assume that I’m asking if Alice ate lunch because that’s who we were talking about.

Ok, so what does 「は」 mean?

If we take a language like Japanese where the subject is so heavily based on context, we need to be able to identify a couple things. While making assumptions from context will work for simple question and answer sessions, anything more complicated will soon become a mess as everybody starts to lose track of who or what they’re talking about. Therefore, we need to be able to tell the listener when we want to change the current topic to say, “Hey, I’m going to talk about this now. So don’t assume I’m still talking about the old thing.” This is especially important when you strike up a new conversation and you need to tell the listener what you’re talking about. This is what the 「は」 particle does; it introduces a different topic from the current one. For that reason, it is also referred to as the ‘topic particle’.

Lets take the previous example where I wanted to ask you if you ate. The conversation might look like the following:

Me) 食べた? – Did you eat?
You) 食べた。 – I ate.

Now, what if I wanted to ask you if Alice ate? Then I need to use the 「は」 particle to indicate that I’m talking about Alice. Otherwise, you would just assume I’m talking about you.

Me) アリス食べた? – Did Alice eat?
You) 食べた。 – She ate.

Notice how once I establish Alice as the new topic, we can continue to assume that we are talking about her until someone changes the topic.

So what does 「が」 mean then?

Ok, so we can introduce a new topic using the 「は」 particle. But what if we don’t know what the topic is? What if I wanted to ask, “Who ate the chicken?” What I need is some kind of identifier because I don’t know who ate the chicken. If I used the 「は」 particle, the question would become, “Did who eat the chicken?” and that doesn’t make any sense because “who” is not an actual person.

This is where the 「が」 particle comes into play. It is also referred to as the subject particle but I hate that name since it means something completely different in English grammar. Instead, I move to call it the identifier particle because it identifies something unknown.

The conversation about the chicken-eater culprit might go something like this:

Me) チキン食べた? – Who ate the chicken?
You) アリス食べた。 – Alice [is the one who] ate it.

Notice that the 「が」 particle is used twice because you need to identify who ate the chicken in the answer. You can’t say 「アリス食べた。」 because we’re not talking about Alice. We’re trying to identify the unknown person that ate the chicken.

Conclusion

Now, that I’ve clearly explained what 「は」 and 「が」 means, I hope this will finally clear up that question that has been haunting your mind. Remember, if you are talking about something new, use 「は」. If you are trying to identify something unknown, use 「が」. Simple, huh?

42 thoughts on “The difference between 「は」 and 「が」

  1. You explained it so much better than any of the Japanese classes I have taken (3 different teachers) or my dad.

  2. nice first post, but gaaah! im not up on my katakana nor kanji yet, so was struggling to get the words in the simple sentances. could you have maybe explained the kanji, used a simple japanese name, and broken the sentence into parts, with spaces, for us simple foke; its like trying to understand soimething simple, explained in relatively complex terms, which will help us understand these complex terms 🙁

  3. Did you know that all the readings and meaning can be seen by holding the mouse over the word? Maybe that will help.

  4. yep, thanks, i had to look in ie as firefox was screwing up, which eventually took firefox out completely 🙁 good work, thanks again.

  5. I can honestly say i have a better understanding of Wa and Ga because of your post really, great work, and thanks.

  6. i kind of get what you are trying to say but can you also explain why in statements, sometimes, the が particle is used instead of the は particle, when obviously in both instances the context is clear and the subject is known. for example,
    かせが 強いです。but instead of が particle, why not use the は particle instead like the sentence below?
    かせは 強いです。
    thanks for the work anyway.

  7. Thanks for the post! Up until now the best advice I’d heard on は and が was from my high school Japanese teacher, who just assured us that ‘oh, someday you’ll pick it up.’

    Incidentally, I agree that the terms ‘topic marker’ and ‘subject marker’ are more confusing than helpful. While the words ‘subject’ and ‘topic’ may be clearly distinct in their usage as grammatical terms, the fact that they’re nearly interchangeable in everyday conversation has always been quite confusing to me (as in, ‘I introduced a new topic of conversation’ vs. ‘I introduced a new subject of conversation’).

  8. i thought you made some great points and you halfway cleared up the issue. i would like to see you explain “ga” from a statement point of view rather than a question. for instance, its very difficult for me, as an english speaker, to grasp why it is

    sushi GA suki da
    (noun) ga particle (adjective)

    but

    tenki wa ii da
    (noun) wa particle (adjective)

  9. Again, it’s the difference between identifying something and talking about something.

    “sushi ga suki da” is identifying what you like. It answers the question, “What do you like?”.

    “sushi wa suki da” is talking about sushi and that you like it.

    “tenki GA ii” would also identify what is good. For instance, if somebody asked you, “What is good about today?” you can identify the weather as being the thing that is good.

    But most of the time, we just want to talk about the weather, therefore it is usually the topic: “tenki wa ii”.

    Also, you can’t attach “da” to “ii” because it’s an i-adjective.

    • I understood this lesson about %70, but when I read your reply I understand the difference between が and は %100. Thanks so much for the effort! ^_^

  10. You know I’ve been seeking a clear explanation for this question for literally 2 years. I have received answers like “GA adds emphasis” and “GA is the subject particle” and “GA describes what comes before it,” and none of them have helped me. It is honestly the hardest aspect of Japanese thus far, and that includes kanji. This entry has caused me to be able to understand why I’m supposed to use GA in certain situations, and maybe now my Japanese grammar will sound less broken and zombie-like.

  11. This was such a great explanation. I’m heading off to Japan in a little more than a week, and this was one issue I was really insecure about. Now I think I got it, after 2 years of study. Thanks so much!!

  12. OK, I think I understand this now. It seems to me that things marked with は act sort of outside the sentence. I like to think of a sentence kind of like a function of the following form:

    verb([subject], [direct object], [other things that interact with the verb in some way])

    In Japanese of course, the subject and some other parameters are optional. Then comes は, which doesn’t really fit into this “function”, but rather sets a context around the function that makes its meaning clearer. Does this analogy seem to correctly convey the idea?

  13. Yes, は sets the context. Think about a ball that represents your current topic. Every time you use は, you move the ball to another topic. Until you want to move the ball to another topic, you can continue talking about the current topic without having to directly mention it anywhere in the sentence.

  14. Hmm, I think your explanation for が as an identifier has some holes in it still. Granted it’s much better than popular が/は myth, there’s still room for confusion. For example:

    昨日、すしを食べた。
    Yesterday (I/you/he/she/it) ate sushi.

    If you had never heard about the sushi, someone can construe that as “identifying” the sushi, but you don’t use the が particle for sushi. . Granted if someone wanted to know specifically what you ate, you could instead say 「すしが食べられた」, but what I’m trying to say is that in instances where the object particle is used with a noun that wasn’t known about previously, how does the が-particle-functioning-as-an-identifier explanation fit in to that?

  15. You make a good point in that を and が are mutually exclusive. You don’t use が to identify a direct object because that function is already taken by を. In fact, you can argue that you can’t identify a direct object due to its nature of already being auxiliary information. If you wanted to switch focus on the sushi as the thing being eaten, like you mentioned you have to change it to a passive sentence just like I just did in English.

    To simplify things without over analyzing, I always use “is the thing/person” translation and that clears things up for me. For example, in this case, “Sushi is the thing that ate.” You can’t make sushi the object of the verb with that translation without making it passive: “Sushi is the thing that was eaten.” Same as in Japanese.

  16. I really like the mental image of moving the ball to another topic; I know someone who teaches Japanese in high school, and I think I’ll suggest using an actual ball in class. Maybe “why do you keep picking the ball up and putting it down again?” could demonstrate why you shouldn’t try to put は in every single sentence.

  17. Maybe have some predefined topics on pieces of paper and have the students put the ball on it every time they say は. Sounds like it could be fun!

  18. Thank for your explanation.
    I understand more about the differences between the 2 particles. However, I still cannot apply what you had explained into the 2 sentences below:

    1)~はありますか。
    2)~がありますか。

    I had read that both of the sentences is being translated as “Do you have ~?”. But what is the real different between them? In what situation should I use what sentences?

  19. nice blog!!
    judging from your first post, I decided to read your blog from the very beginning through the end as I really want to study japanese but too lazy to open any books!!

    ^^

  20. I have been using your grammar page for a while now and think it’s great. I just discovered you had a blog as well. The little exercises and explanations are a lot of fun and good practice. Thanks a lot.

  21. This really helps clear up the difference a lot more than calling「が」the subject particle. After years of learning on my own I’m finally starting classes and reading your site puts things in a much, much easier perspective.
    But, one thing: blue-green color blind doesn’t work (at least physiologically). The retina has sensory cells that activate for either red-green or blue-yellow. People are typically either red-green (most common) or, rarely, blue-yellow color blind or, more rare, totally color blind. I know it’s completely off topic and I didn’t use 「は」…

  22. Hi Tae, helpful first post. Finally が makes sense for me.
    Thank you very much.

    And in this following example, it can mean “I like Elizabeth”?

    エリザベスは好きです。
    (as for) Elizabeth, (I) like (her).

    In the same way as in:
    すしは好きです。
    “As for sushi, I like it.”

    Since が would be more clear in that case, use は its uncommon?
    Thanks again. o/

    • If you are talking about Elizabeth, since the topic is known, use は. But if you’re identifying who you like (the listener(s) doesn’t know it’s Elizabeth) use が.

  23. Hi Kim-san,
    my Japanese teacher said that が is necessary for special words (e.g. here: 好き). Otherwise the sentences would not sound natural (with は):

    X~が好きです。 ([I] like X.)

    (The same applies for other particles like に and を: ‘to be employed at’ ~につとめる, に not を)

    Is that correct?

    Best,
    Jonathan Dark (SFxoFFx)

    • No, it’s not correct. Also what is “special”??

      は好きです is perfectly fine. Whether it sounds natural depends on the context.

      For example
      A: 果物は好きじゃないの?
      B: りんごは好きですよ。

      As for 勤める, it’s に because it literally means to “to serve”. So your workplace is the target. It doesn’t refer to doing the work itself like 働く.

  24. Hi Tae-Kim

    I’m going pretty crazy over this to the point where I want to pull my hair out!

    I’ve read so many topics regarding は and が and I have the gist of it but there’s just some things I cannot seem to understand.

    Somewhere above in the comments , someone asked something similar to what I’m asking:

    Say I just saw my friend and wanted to say to him ; I think kanako is cute.
    Now I haven’t mentioned kanako but he knows who she is already.

    Which particle would I use and makes sense given the context ? Is it は or が? I assume it’s the latter but it also seems correct to use は too.

    かなこがかわいい。
    Could I just say this out of the blue and it would be “correct” .

    Which one seems more appropriate and common and why , what are the differences and meanings?

    I’m using your app and I know you’ve said that either is correct but it depends on what you want to say. I’ve tried to understand what would be the English translation but they both make sense.

    So for が you can think of it as answering the question , who do you think is cute? I’m not so sure about は though.

    Thanks

  25. Sorry for this double comment , just forgot to include this too:

    What would it mean/ be interpreted by a listener if I started off by saying
    かなこはかわいい and I haven’t mentioned her before.

    Thanks

      • I understand that が is used to specify something out of a group of things (the one) but if she isn’t mentioned before , why wouldn’t I use が to introduce her into a conversation then use は from then and onwards ? Now that contradicts with what you’re saying I know , everything depends on context and what you want to communicate to your listener.

        Q. What do you think of Kanako?
        A. Kanako wa Kawaii.

        Q. Who do you think is cute?
        A. Kanako ga kawaii.

        From that it helps clear up a few things and I’m starting to see why は makes more sense when starting a conversation by me saying that I think kanako is cute.
        If I wanted to say to my friend that I think kanako is cute at the start of a conversation , or one sided conversation in this situation (me just expressing my thoughts) I would use は not が ?

        It’s just that I’ve read so many articles now regarding は and が and everyone is saying different things which makes it hard for a learner to know who is actually correct.

        Does it make a difference if you are talking to yourself regarding whether to use は or が to express your thoughts on something like the aforementioned above.

        An in depth reply to this would really help me understand this problem better.

        Thanks

        • I don’t understand to give an in-depth response. What is your question? The Q/A you described makes sense. There is no rule to about not using が at the start of a conversation. For example, you could start a conversation with かなこがかわいいと思わない?

          Everybody is saying different things because it is a concept that is not in English and difficult to explain. Some explanations are not as good as others and creating rules of when to use which doesn’t really work.

          Does it make a difference if you are talking to yourself? Not really. The only difference is you can have a conversation with yourself so if you’re wondering who is the one that is cute, sure が works.

  26. Sorry again for double comment!

    I think what I’m struggling to understand is why people are saying different things I.e you should use が to introduce something new into the conversation and は should not be used to introduce something into the conversation which contradicts with what you are saying . By this I’m referring to these :

    http://japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/22/whats-the-difference-between-wa-は-and-ga-が

    http://www.japaneseprofessor.com/lessons/beginning/the-topic-marker-wa/

    What is different in my situation as opposed to what they are saying that permits the usage of は as correct I. The situation ?

    Thanks

    • Like I said it’s silly and pointless to have these rules. There are so many ways to phrase sentences, you can say the same thing with either は or が or use both in one sentence. It’s best to ignore all that stuff and just focus on the point you’re trying to get across.

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