I know there’s still many of you out there that still feels uncomfortable about the difference between the 「は」 and 「が」 particle. You might have even read my first post which covered this very topic. Maybe my explanation didn’t “vibe” with you (translation: something’s wrong with you), so let me give you a more concrete example. Ignore the parentheses, I really don’t know where they come from. I think it’s a secret WordPress plugin.
I’m going to be revisit the two particles with the following story.
While chatting over dinner at a restaurant with fellow exchange students and some Japanese students, one of the exchange students exclaimed,
We all had a good laugh because it seemed like she was saying she was boring.
If you’re reading this K, I don’t mean to insult you in anyway. Honestly, it’s the kind of mistake we’ve all made in the past. So exactly what was wrong with what she said? Doesn’t 「私はつまらない」 mean “I’m bored”? If not, how can you say “I’m bored” without insulting yourself?
The topic: direct relation=0%, implied=100%
The answer will probably blow away some of you new to this language. 「私はつまらない」 can mean either, “I’m bored” OR “I’m boring” or more accurately, 「私は」 gives us no information on which interpretation is correct.
The 「は」 topic particle only tells us the general topic of the conversation and has no direct connection to the rest of the sentence. All it says is, “this is what I’m going to talk about” and doesn’t explicitly specify its relation to the rest of the sentence.
私はつまらない～！ – As for me, boring!
As you can see from the translation, saying 「私はつまらない」 without any context is highly suggestive of your incredibly boring and dull personality. If there was additional context, you might be able to pull it off such as the next example.
A) みんな、楽しんでいるよね？ – Everybody’s having fun, right?
B) 私は、つまらないよ。 – As for me, boring.
Here, you can make the argument that you’re saying you’re bored because the question just asked was whether everybody was having fun. Another example is when you make it very clear that the role of 「つまらない」 is completely unrelated to you.
A) この映画は面白いの？ – Is this movie interesting?
B) 私は、つまらないと思う。 – As for me, think (the movie) is boring.
The identifier: it’s this one
So if the topic particle doesn’t really seem to work, what if we use the 「が」 particle instead? The 「が」 particle doesn’t specify whether you’re boring or bored either. It just identifies you as the one that is 「つまらない」. Whether that means boring or bored is kind of pretty much up to the interpretation of the listener.
A) 私がつまらない。 – I’m the one that is boring/bored.
B would be pretty puzzled because A is identifying herself as the one that is boring or bored and B didn’t know they were trying to find the one that was boring/bored. The only context in which 「が」 would make sense here is if you were trying to identify the one that was boring/bored, in other words, answering the question, “which is the one that is bored/boring?”
A) 誰がつまらない？ – Who is the one that is bored/boring?
B） 私がつまらないよ。 – I’m the one that is bored/boring.
If you do a google search on “私がつまらない”, you’ll get a small number of results because this kind of situation is pretty contrived. So 「が」 doesn’t really work for our purposes.
In general, unless you want to make a distinction between your own opinion versus other people around you, you should generally avoid using 「私は」 at all. The ambiguity of topic’s role in the sentence makes using 「私は」 and 「つまらない」 together a dangerous combination.
「私が」 doesn’t really work either because it identifies you as the one that is boring or bored among all the people who are potentially bored/boring. The only context in which it would make sense is if you knew somebody was boring/bored and you were trying to figure out which one among a group of people was the boring/bored one. It’s not a very likely scenario, which probably means you’re not using 「が」 correctly.
It is important to remember that people generally will assume you’re talking about yourself unless you say otherwise. So for the most part, you don’t have to say 「私」 with either particle. People learning Japanese often get so catch up with the contrived differences between 「は」 and 「が」, they often forget the option of using neither. So to conclude, in the original story, I would probably suggest to K to say something along the lines of the following instead next time.