Repeat after me, there is NO such thing as a subject!

One of my biggest pet peeves in the field of Japanese as a second language is the 「が」 particle being called the “subject particle”. This misleading terminology comes from my second biggest pet peeve, which is educators trying to artificially tie Japanese into English language concepts. I think one of the problems is that Japanese teachers, especially native speakers, really don’t understand their own language from a conceptual point-of-view and more importantly how it logically differs from English.

I can illustrate how stupid it is to call 「が」 the subject particle in the following simple dialogue.

Aさん: 原宿に行こうよ。
Bさん: なんで?
Aさん: クレープが食べたいから。

Looking at the last sentence, if 「クレープが」 is indeed marking crepe as the subject, we can only assume that Aさん wants to go to Harajuku because the crepe wants to eat. But that doesn’t make any sense! In reality, 「クレープ」 here is supposed to be the object of the sentence, the subject being Aさん, who wants to eat crepe.

The most simple conclusion, if you insist on thinking in English, is that the 「が」 particle can either represent the subject or the object of the sentence. But why would you use the same particle to represent something completely so different as the subject and the object? And to make things even worse, consider the following dialogue.

Aさん:何か食べようよ。
Bさん:クレープはどう?
Aさん:クレープはあまり食べたくないな。

If you throw in the fact that the 「は」 can also be the subject OR the object, it’s no wonder that Japanese particles seem so confusing! It’s natural that students can never figure out the difference between 「は」 and 「が」 because it seems that either can be used to indicate the same things in English. This is where Japanese teachers should really beat into their heads that the concepts they’re looking for such as the subject does not exist in Japanese.

The subject traditionally indicates who or what is doing the verb in the sentence but 「は」 only indicates the topic. For example, 「今日は忙しい」 doesn’t mean that “Today is busy”, it means “As for today, [I, he, she, we, they] is/are busy.” Only when we translate into English are we forced to create the subject by context. In this case, the translation might be “I’m busy today.”

The 「が」 particle also does not indicate the subject, it only identifies the unknown. For example, 「クレープが食べたいから。」 is identifying that it’s because crepe is the thing that he/she/we/they wants to eat. In English, the subject would be “it” as in, “It’s because I want to eat crepe”. But because Japanese doesn’t even have a subject, there is no need for such a construction.

This is why I’ve been calling the 「が」 particle the “identifier particle” for the longest time, and you should too because that’s what it does. There is no such thing as a subject in Japanese so it makes no sense to have a “subject” particle. (Please feel free to do the double quote sign while saying “subject” in “subject particle”.)

For further reading, I highly suggest this blog post: 「日本語に主語はあるのか?」.

27 thoughts on “Repeat after me, there is NO such thing as a subject!

  1. I’ve never actually seen anyone propose that Japanese has no concept of a subject. The better teachers do try to hammer home that the topic is not necessarily the subject, but this idea of が being an “identifier” is interesting and bears further thought.

  2. Well said. Now add to that: “There is no such thing as a pronoun” and “there is no such thing as a copula.” They are just further confusions created by trying to map English concepts to the Japanese language.

  3. Nice little article here. I never even thought about it fully. I just took what my teachers said as gold. Hmm I had better be more careful teaching my friends. Cheers

  4. This is why I love what you say about Japanese grammar. You are the rare exception among tons and tons of people (Japanese included) who try to force Japanese grammar into irrelevant concepts, or to ignore meaningful ones, just because everybody else does so, or because English works that way. Thank you.

  5. Japanese does have subjects, of course, but it’s mostly unmarked.

    In any case, you’re right. が is not a “subject particle”, and I’d be happy if this was the only thing that teachers of Japanese as a second language usually got wrong…

  6. Of course, the concept of subject exists in every language it’s just that there’s no way to actually specify the subject in Japanese. Let’s say you wanted to be crazy and say, “The crepe wants to eat!” instead of “Crepe is the thing I want to eat.” without any contextual information. There is no way to explicitly say crepe is the subject because if you say, クレープが食べたい people are going to assume you’re saying “I want to eat crepe”. It’s the only translation that makes sense. There is simply no way to indicate 100% that crepe is the subject. That’s why ambiguities often come up such as 「田中さんが行きたいと思っている。」 Tanaka-san might be the one thinking somebody wants to go, or somebody else thinks that Tanaka-san is the one that wants to go. We can never be sure what the subject is without context.

  7. Good stuff, Tae.

    While neither は or が are used only to mark the “subject”, both can and sometimes do.

    First, it’s important to define the word “subject”. Languages such as English are reliant on the subject-predicade relationship. Japanese, on the other hand, follows a topic-comment formula.

    This topic-comment relation is evident in the example Tae offered:

    今日は忙しい
    “As for today, [I, he, she, we, they] is/are busy.”

    Today is the “topic” of the sentence, what we are talking about, and what follows は is a comment on the topic.

    In this respect, Japanese sentences rarely contain “subjects”.

    However, if we consider a subject as the actor whose actions are being described by a verb, then the notion of a “subject” is, of course, alive in Japanese.

    And Tae’s advice of not looking at Japanese through English grammar lenses is golden.

  8. Good article! I’m going to start thinking of が as the “identifier particle” and see if that helps me use it more correctly. Before I always thought of it as the “use me mostly in subordinate clauses particle”. 🙂

    BTW, even though 食べたい is formed from a verb, isn’t it technically an い-adjective? Japanese ~たい、好きな、嫌いな seem to be adjectives that describe something that we normally use a verb for in English. In my head, I always reconciled this with the “subject particle” by turning the English verb (want, like, don’t like) into an adjective-like idea:

    豆腐が白い。 The tofu is white.
    豆腐が食べたい。 Tofu is want-to-eat-ish.
    豆腐が嫌いだ。 Tofu is this-sucks-ish.

    If you do this, Tofu does appear to be the subject of the clause, rather than the object.

    I still agree that calling が the “subject particle” isn’t right though. 🙂

  9. Good idea but you still can’t resolve the ambiguity. For example 豆腐が食べたい。can mean “Tofu is want-to-eat-ish” or “Tofu wants to eat”. so we can never really call it a subject. The fact is that が often translates to the subject but that’s not the purpose of using it. If you translate it as an identifier, it all makes sense.

    豆腐が食べたい。= Tofu is the thing that [want to eat].
    私が食べたい。 = I’m the one that [want to eat].

    You would only say 私が食べたい in the context of identification. For example, if there was only one curry-pan left and your mom asked the family, “Who wants to eat this last curry-pan?” Then it makes sense to use が because you’re identifying yourself as the one that wants to eat it among the other family members.

    So the point of using が has nothing to do with making it a subject. In fact, there is no explicit way to say, [x] is doing the action. It’s always derived from context.

  10. I agree with you, although it could be argued that 私が食べたい is actually a shortened version of:

    (最後のカレーパンを食べるのは)私が(カレーパンが)食べたい。

    “As for eating the last curry pan, it is I that has [want to eat] curry pan.”

    If you look at it this way, it looks like a bunch of nested clauses:

    1.”The curry pan is want to eat.”

    2.”As for me, curry pan is want to eat.” (topic particle 私は changes to 私が when the outer topic subordinates it in 3.)

    3.”As for eating the last curry pan, it is I that has [want to eat] curry pan.”

    The topic and the curry pan are omitted from the sentence as they are understood from context, so we get 私が食べたい。

    Anyway, that’s just an argument to address the ambiguity issue. 🙂 I basically agree with your article and was just needling with the grammar as a mental exercise.

  11. lol.. you really pissed off on teaching japanese “in english”.. if that makes sence? sure.. maybe they should just teach in all-japanese.. i never received real japanese language tutoring until now, so was essentially raised by mom+dad but pick は or
    が pretty appropriately without knowing why. I just know it sounds right.. but yeah man sometimes i get it wrong from time to time (you gotta admit that too right?).

  12. You might be confusing subject with agent, as indeed the article you linked is also doing. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the syntactical subject of a sentence doesn’t have to be the agent of the verb, as can easily be demonstrated by using the passive voice. In the sentence, “the game was won”, “the game” is indeed the subject of the sentence even though the agent performing the verb “won” remains unspecified. In 食べ物が食べたい、unless you can find some specific reason for it, there’s no reason why “tabemono” has to be something OTHER than a subject. “tabetai” is even inflected adjectively.

    I understand what you’re saying and except for the harsh attitude against teaching the “ga” particle as subject agree with what you’re saying. Obviously Japanese is structured differently from European languages, but personally I’m not convinced that anything but extensive practical familiarity with these two words will yield anything but a superficial understanding of how they’re used. As long as teachers emphasize the caveat of finding correspondences between their own language and a target language, I don’t see a problem with drawing a connection between “ga” and subject marking.

  13. charles, the thing about teaching the “GA” particle the way it is taught in schools is that it confuses the life out of students. I was confused as much as every other student at the difference between “WA” and “GA” as well as the proper usage of “GA” until I read Tae Kim’s explanations.

    When I explained the same stuff to my confused friends, suddenly they understood and gained a better understanding of the proper usage of the particles. Even learning Korean has given me a better understanding of particles in general.

    It’s incredible that I’m one of the only people in my Japanese classes who understands the material, but then I realize how it’s being taught. It’s just not a practical teaching method. Fix it and people will understand.

  14. Hello,

    My name is Cyrus Farivar and I’m a reporter for The World, an American public radio show (www.theworld.org), a co-production of Public Radio International, BBC, and WGBH Boston.

    I’m working on a story about how language learners and teachers are using Skype to conduct interactive langauge lessons via the Internet and I’d very much like to interview you.

    When would we set up a time to chat — via Skype, even?

    -C

  15. It’s a tricky issue and I’ve learnt a lot by reading your article, but I’m not entirely happy with your treatment. The concept of who performs an action does exist, and が does indicate it, it’s just that が indicates more.

    Following your reasoning, the answer to “what are you eating?” would be パンが食べている because が “identifies something unknown”. However you can’t say that because what is eaten can only be an object of 食べる, not a subject.

    One thing you might be confusing is that what is grammatically the subject or the object of a particular verb varies according to idiom for any given language. In Greek, Italian and Japanese, for example, “wait” takes a direct object, unlike English. In the same three languages, what you “like” is a subject, not an object as in English. Similarly 食べたい takes a subject for what one likes to eat. It’s a purely grammatical thing, distinct from semantics.

    What makes Japanese tricky is that grammatically you can end up with two subjects. “Taro wa Hanako ga suki desu” can mean,
    (a) tell you something about Taro, it’s Hanako that he likes, or
    (b) tell you something about Taro, it’s Hanako that likes him.
    It’s only context that can help you distinguish.

    Similarly 食べたい grammatically has two subjects, the eater and the eaten. Obviously semantically the eaten is an object, but according to grammatical idiom (because the たい inflection is an adjective), there are two subjects. If someone uses が to identify one of those subjects (at the same time using が for its purpose of identifying something unknown), it is only by context that we can work out which subject it is.

    What I’m trying to say is that が does plays the role of an identifier, but simultaneously also indicates the grammatical subject. 食べたい’s eaten is a subject by idiom, and が can is used for that reason. If が “can either represent the subject or the object” and “only identifies the unknown” as you claim, then why can’t you answer “what are you eating” with パンが食べている?

  16. Your comment was very insightful. たい might be a special case semantically in what can be the “subject”. It might be more accurate to say that が indicates the subject in addition to identifying the unknown. Still, I would say that it’s main purpose is for identification and the subject aspect is merely a consequence of it original meaning.

    I highly suggest the article I linked to. This excerpt is especially interesting:

    「が」にしてさえ、英語などでいう主格を示すものではなく、動詞などで示された事態を引き起こしたものを示すものであり、いわば「由来格」とでもいうべきものだという人(山口明穂『日本語の論理』など)もいる。

    It’s saying in essence that 「が」 is the trigger that caused the situation. That might be a better way to think of it and explains why you can’t answer “what are you eating” with 「が」 because the answer did not trigger the action.

  17. aaah, i feel like mentioning it.. even though i promiced no old comments XD ごめんなさい

    I was tought that が particle introduces the new topic, and is used in the folowing expressions: ~が好きです、~がわかります、~が上手です、~がほしいです、~が~たいです etc。

    just a way how my teacher enplaned to me the use of がparticle in that form.

    So the whole class just learned those few expressions.. it wasn’t that difficult at all.

  18. Looks like I’m two and a half years late to the party. Oh well, worth a shot. First, fantastic blog. I’ve come across your writing lots of times but never perused it in depth till now, and I’m glad I have.

    On the “subject” of が, I’m afraid I have to agree with Jay Rubin and disagree with you. が does mark the grammatical subject of a sentence, which as Charles pointed out doesn’t have to be the agent of the verb. And as Thomas explained, クレープが食べたい doesn’t prove that が isn’t a subject marker; what it proves is that 〜たい turns a verb into an adjective. It’s only because that adjective is derived from a transitive verb that が seems to mark an object rather than the subject it’s actually marking. That particular circumstance is what led you to comment that 〜たい might be a special case.

    Excluding its possessive (as in 我が息子) and connective (as in 俺は知らないが、彼に聞いたら?) functions, が always indicates a subject. This confuses English speakers only when what we think of as a transitive verb is handled differently in Japanese (like an adjective, as with 食べたい above, or verbal adjective, as with 俺は彼女が好き). We don’t mind when が marks the object of a passive verb’s action (as in 俺が彼女に振られた), because as Charles pointed out, we’re used to using subjects that way in English.

    As Rubin has explained, every Japanese sentence has a subject. The reason that many seem not to is that the subject is omitted when context makes it unnecessary to state. Thomas’s parenthetical curry-bread was a great example of this in action. In his example, カレーパン is the omitted subject of the adjective 食べたい.

    Tae, I do appreciate your skepticism of explaining Japanese grammar in English-grammar terms. Your sentiment echoes that of a very smart Korean linguist who criticized the the ~하고있다 pattern for copying the Western notion of a present progressive tense and forgetting that Korean already handled this tense suitably with ~한다. His argument leaves a few bases uncovered–for example, what if I want to tell you with 요 politeness about something that’s going down right now?–but it’s still a legit critique of imposing Western grammar on an Eastern language.

    However, I wouldn’t put this refutation of が-as-subject-marker in the same category. Unlike the present progressive tense, a subtle shade of chronology that a language may do well without, a subject is something that every language has to have. Without *someone* or *something* to *be* or *do* the predicate of a sentence, you have no sentence. What you’re calling an “identifier” is really just one of the functions of a grammatical subject.

    I think that if all students of Japanese read the chapter on は and が in Rubin’s Making Sense of Japanese Grammar, there would be no ambiguity about this particle and more people would recognize “exceptions” like 〜たい and 好き as not exceptions at all, but mere differences between Japanese and English.

    Though I disagree with you on this one point, I want to emphasize again that I love your work and find it an immensely beneficial resource for everyone grappling with this wonderful language. Thanks so much for the time and energy you’ve put in! I hope these words find their way to you and your audience even after this post’s 2.5-year sleep!

    • You say が “always” marks the subject. So what do you say about verbs like わかる, 要る or the potential forms of verbs, which clearly mark their object with が?

  19. Interesting examples, Schrenner! I’d say that those verbs are grammatically different in Japanese than in English. For example, we translate わかる as “understand,” which to us is “clearly” transitive, but in Japanese this verb is intransitive; meaning literally “to be separated,” figuratively something like “to be understood.” The transitive verb “understand” just happens to be the English that makes for the smoothest translation.

    It’s the same with 要る, which means 必要である, NOT (as our English-speaking brains want to think) 必要とする.

    And potential forms of verbs are the same story. What they “clearly” mark with が *would* be the object of the *original* verb but *is* the subject of the *potential* verb. For example, the sentence 犬はチョコレートが食べられない doesn’t literally mean “Dogs can’t eat chocolate.” What it literally means is “As for dogs, chocolate can’t be eaten.” “Chocolate” is the subject, not the object, of that sentence. (And “dogs,” of course, is the topic, not the subject.) There are two reasons we think of chocolate as the object of that sentence: it’s what receives the action, and “As for dogs, chocolate can’t be eaten” is not a sentence we’d ever utter in English.)

    In short, が *does* mark the subject in your examples, but that’s kind of hard for us to see because our brains, which automatically translate Japanese into the smoothest possible English, think of those subjects as objects.

    Thanks for the opportunity to think that through! If you think of any other examples where が seems not to mark a subject, please put them on the table! 🙂

  20. > I’ve never actually seen anyone propose
    > that Japanese has no concept of a subject.

    It seemed obvious to me once I understood even the most basic aspects of the grammar of the language.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve studied a number of languages that *do* have the subject concept, and in every single one of them the subject appears either explicitly or implicitly (e.g., by choice of inflectional affixes on the verb) in every single sentence more or less without exception (barring interjection “sentences” that don’t have a verb either, like “Wow!”). The subject is specified for every (finite) verb, because the verb requires a subject: we have to know who is performing the action or the action doesn’t make any grammatical sense. (Yeah, yeah, passive voice, but even there we have to know who or what is performing the act of being acted upon.) If you look for something like that in Japanese, it’s patently absent.

    You can also look in vain for an Indo-European-style active/passive voice distinction, wherein different forms of the *same verb* imply a different grammatical relationship between the subject and the verb. Japanese grammarians use the terms “passive verb” to mean something else entirely. These two things (subject and voice) are inextricably linked.

    > Now add to that: “There is no such thing as a pronoun”

    I’m not sure I’d go that far. 何 is arguably a pronoun, for example.

    However, Japanese doesn’t use pronouns with anywhere near the frequency that English does, because most of the time when English uses them it’s to indicate the subject of the verb (i.e., who is performing the action), or the object of a transitive verb, in a relatively inspecific way. Japanese doesn’t have subjects, and few if any verbs actually *require* objects, so pronouns aren’t used for these purposes.

    > and “there is no such thing as a copula.”

    As best I can tell, the thing usually called a “copula” in Japanese grammar is in fact purely a medium-level politeness marker (in modern Japanese; how it was used historically, I don’t know).

    However, it is arguable that the word “copula” is used somewhat loosely to describe a number of constructions in various languages where the “copula” in question does not behave terribly much like an Indo-European being verb. Add to that the fact that we don’t call our being verb in English (or most European languages) a “copula”, and I don’t think the use of this term causes nearly as much confusion as the use of the word “subject” for が.

    > maybe they should just teach in all-japanese

    The problem isn’t with using English (or any other language) to teach Japanese grammar. The problem is with trying to apply concepts from the study of English grammar to Japanese when they aren’t actually relevant. You can explain Japanese grammar in English just fine: you just have to describe what the various Japanese constructions actually do.

    > You might be confusing subject with agent

    He glossed over the passive voice (and the middle voice for that matter) because it’s not relevant, because Japanese doesn’t have grammatical voice either.

    > In the sentence, “the game was won”

    In the sentence “the game was won”, the verb “was won” is in the passive voice, which is markedly different from the active-voice form “won”, thereby implying a different grammatical relationship between the verb and its arguments. Both verb forms are of the same verb, “win”, but a different from is used when the subject is the actor versus when the subject is the acted-upon. Show me anything like that in Japanese.

    • “> You might be confusing subject with agent

      He glossed over the passive voice (and the middle voice for that matter) because it’s not relevant, because Japanese doesn’t have grammatical voice either.”

      How are those two statements even related?

  21. There’s another class of languages that don’t use pronouns nearly as much as English: fusional languages (e.g., Greek, Latin) don’t need them so much, because the verb form implies the person at least, if not also the and number and gender, of at least one of the verb’s arguments (and, in some extremely heavily inflected languages, of more than one of the arguments). Pronouns tend to still be used *sometimes* in these languages, typically for emphasis, but not nearly as often as in English.

    Non-fusional inflected languages are arguable, since it is possible to consider the verb affixes that indicate person and number to actually be pronouns, depending on how you look at it.

    But Japanese doesn’t fit that model either, because there’s nothing about the form of the verb nor anything attached to the verb that indicates jack diddly squat about the subject or object (except, arguably, politeness-level marking, which with certain kinds of verbs, such as verbs of giving and receiving, can indicate something about e.g. the actor’s relationship to the speaker — but that’s clearly different from anything in English).

  22. I can’t almost argue with that.
    Maybe we other than you have to recognize identifier particle instead of subject one.
    However,we recognize が is not only used as the meaning of subject particle because we can pick out unmarked subject immediately.

    It’s surprising that が is explained such a rough way.
    At least,you must add the meaning of the object particle because the subject in Japanese is often omitted as you know.
    I guess some beginners might be confused unless they learn various way of using of が in advance.

    Conversely,I could grasp the thinking way of English.
    Thank you so much.

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