Bet you didn’t know it even existed, well… it doesn’t

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic ever since I first purchased the book 「日本語教科書の落とし穴」, which I first talked about over a year ago. (Wow, time does go by fast!)

Chapter 9 in the book talks about a very interesting topic that I had never really thought about before: the empty particle or 「無助詞」 as it’s called in the book. Like every other chapter in the book, this chapter begins with a small dialogue between the teacher and a student that illustrates the problem.

L:先生、こんにちは。
T:あ、ハナさん、久しぶりですね。
L:先生、これを召し上がってください。
T:これはどうもありがとう。(でも、何となく変・・・)

Have a hunch where the problem lies? (The bold font is a clue.) The book makes a distinction between particles that are simply left out (primarily in spoken Japanese) with situations where you leave the particle out in order to avoid the nuances of particles. In the case of 「これ召し上がってください。」, because the 「を」 particle has a distinctive function of making 「これ」 into a direct object, the sentence has a very strong emphasis on eating 「これ」. The book describes the nuance as 「これだけを召し上がってください。ほかのものは食べないでください。」 In other words, it essentially sounds like, “Please eat this,” which sounds kind of desperate when you’re offering someone something to eat.

Ok, so you might think to try the topic particle instead: 「これ召し上がってください。」. But again, this doesn’t work because the 「は」 particle also has its own function of making 「これ」 into the topic of the conversation as if you were saying, “As for this, please eat it”. The book describes the nuance as 「ほかのものは食べなくてもよいけれども、これだけは何としても召し上がってください。」

The most natural thing to do in this case is to not use any particles so that you can talk about something without any of the nuances and meanings that go along with 「は」、「を」、and 「が」.

Here’s another example from the book.

コーヒー、まだある?

Again, there is no suitable particle for 「コーヒー」 in this sentence if all you want to know is whether there is any coffee left. 「コーヒーまだある?」 sounds like you want start a conversation about coffee and 「コーヒーまだある?」 sounds like, “The coffee! There’s still some left?” Any time you want to call attention to something minor without making a conversation out of it is a good candidate for the empty particle. Situations such as realizing you’re out of cash at the cash register and asking your friend, “Hey, do you have money on you?” (お金、持っている?) or flipping through an album with someone and saying, “Hey, look at this.” (ねえ、これ、見て。) are good examples.

Another great example is when there is no strong relationship such as, 「誕生日、おめでとう」. You don’t want to say, 「誕生日おめでとう」 (As for your birthday, congratulations) or 「誕生日おめでとう」 (Your birthday is the thing that is congratulatory) because there’s nothing specific or particular about the birthday that you want to congratulate. You just want to say, “Hey it’s your birthday. Congratulations.” without any specific relation between the two.

Based on the context, if all the particles add a meaning or emphasis that you don’t want, you’re better off not having any particle at all.

Debunking yet another myth

Students often ask their Japanese teacher, “Sensei, I noticed that in real life people leave out particles a lot. Is that Ok to do?” Whereupon the teacher will always reply, “Yes grasshopper, people leave out particles sometimes but you are not ready for that yet. You should use particles every time because it is more proper and correct.”

Actually Sensei, you obviously haven’t thought enough about the empty particle because sometimes it is not correct to insert a particle. Ahhh, I love the sound of myth debunking in the morning.

Conclusion

It is interesting to think about the empty particle, and when you can and cannot use particles. But as I mentioned in the beginning, I didn’t even think about the empty particle until I read this book. Ultimately, omitting particles is something that naturally comes with conversation practice and doesn’t require deep analysis to get right. What it all boils down to in the end is getting a firm grasp on what each particles mean so that you know not to use them when they say something you don’t mean.

12 thoughts on “Bet you didn’t know it even existed, well… it doesn’t

  1. Thanks Leonardo. Unfortunately, I think I’m starting to tread the lines of fair use so I can only recommend everybody to check out the book themselves if they want to learn about the rest of the book.
    (Darn, for some reason this post was changed to private without me realizing it. I’ve posted it back up.)

  2. yesterday we had karerice in the kindergarten, and due to the fact that there was a big amount ofleftovers, i speculated how to say, that i would like to take something home of it.

    それを持って帰っていい?
    それ持って帰っていい?

    anyway, thanks for your great posts, Tae Kim. reading them and your guide since i’m here.

  3. Great question. In this case, the second option without the particle would sound more natural. But if you didn’t want all of it, you might want to add すこし to indicate that you want a little bit of the leftovers.

  4. Hello!

    I live in japan and have been studying japanese for years. I recently failed 2kyuu with flying colors. Anyways i just found your blog and its facinating. please keep it up! It makes me remember why i fell in love with japanese in first place, whereas things like kanji make me remember why i want to gouge my eyes out with a blunt spoon.

    thanks,
    Jesse

  5. Hm.. I notice you hadn’t included this in the early sections of your guide, where you cover topic, identifier, and object particles. Is there a reason for this? Or did you just forget?

  6. Hey Tae. I’ve read this post and it’s very interesting. I hear a lot of particles being dropped out of conversation when watching Japanese media and this just put that to light.

    But, I don’t understand why “これを召し上がってください” is wrong or sounds desperate. Could you explain that a bit more? I just want to be able to identify situations like this and avoid using particles as to not sound desperate, lol.

  7. It says there right in the text why 「これを召し上がってください」 sounds a bit desperate.

    “”The book describes the nuance as 「これだけを召し上がってください。ほかのものは食べないでください。」””

    If you don’t understand it I’ll try translate it for you.

    これだけを召し上がってください。Please, feel free to eat ONLY this.
    ほかのものは食べないでください。 Please don’t eat anything else.

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