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.
And if someone is reading this and is still confused: don’t worry, just keep studying Japanese. Eventually exposure will make wa/ga natural to you (well, almost).
I think what you are saying is very important!
Tae Kim, is 私は、つまらない (with a true stop) more precise or would it be the same?
One day, could you please deal with the different meanings of なんか on this blog? I think it gives a very natural feeling to somebody’s speech without being that difficult to use.
Keep up the good work!
Won’t really make a difference. Commas are hard to see in conversations.
As for me I still don’t understand.
haha, no but really I’ve been studying for a year and a half and its still a little blurry. Although I agree its better to leave it out all together. All I know is that が is added when you want to put emphasis on something.
Maybe there’s something deep and profound hidden here… people who are bored tend to be boring, and people who are boring tend to be bored… in other words, if the party seems lame, maybe one should take a look at oneself… 😉 Those crazy Japanese, making up eastern wisdom without even realizing it!
Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that if you want to say the party’s boring, it’s not the rocket science this post makes it out to be… just exclaim 「つまらないよ!」 Kind of like in English, people wouldn’t say “To me, this party is boring”, they’d just say “Boring!”
Xamuel, that might work nicely for 「つまらないよ！」、but what about 「うらやましいよ！」？
“Jealous!” sounds a bit weird, so it makes more sense to say “I’m so jealous!”
No need to add anything. 「うらやましい」 works perfectly fine on its own. As Tae Kim said, “It is important to remember that people generally will assume you’re talking about yourself unless you say otherwise.” So unless the conversation was about someone else’s feelings, don’t use 私は there either.
Right, what I meant was that, although Xamuel said that 「つまらないよ！」was like “Boring!”, that word usage in English is not typical. 「うらやましいよ！」translates more naturally into “I’m so jealous!”, not “Jealous!”
Tae Kim.. Thank you so much for the grammar guide. I’m feeling pretty comfortable with は and が in fact, and maybe it’s because I’ve started learning Japanese on your guide without taking any class. When I googled “Japanese grammar guide” two months ago, I had no idea of how Japanese worked. I’m Italian, trying to learn Japanese and since there is not a decent resource in my language, I have to use what i find in English. The more I get into Japanese, the more I’m convinced that it’s soo easy to understand. It a lot similar to Italian if you take it in the right way, but it doesn’t have the almost 300 irregular verbs we have and the (let’s see.. 6) tense we have.. Japanese is easy a lot, try to learn italian, if you want to say “to be” in my language, here it is: (essere) io sono- tu sei- egli è noi siamo- voi siete- essi sono, past: io ero- tu eri- egli era- noi eravamo- voi eravate- essi erano, future io sarò- tu sarai- egli sarà- noi saremo- voi sarete- essi saranno and so on (for tree tenses more). I’m studying on Genki too, but it start with the masu form. It’s a great book anyway, because it don’t use romaji and put kanji into starting from the 3 lesson, and give you the chance to read (kanji has the reading with higagana too), but without your guide I would be lost in fact, when in the 8 lesson it talk about the vocabulary form. thank you very much! (I cant find your profile on lang8, do you still have it?)
sorry for my English ^^
Oh, i forgot.. if someone is searching for reading resources, this site http://nihongo-dekimasu.blogspot.com/ has a lot of downloads. Here you can also find some books for children really easy to read and perfect for beginners (in case you can’t find anything on paper like in my case)
You’re the man! I’ve been looking for so long for books to read. All I found was a lot of kanji-filled books that I wasn’t able to read. Children’s book should be easier to read! Thanks!
Also, here’s a link that you might find useful and others too!
This website has books written in English and in Japanese side by side, so you can read it in Japanese and see the translation on the right. Quite useful for those confident enough with kanji.
Maybe instead of つまらない use たいくつする to say that someone is bored, not boring?
Hey Tae, the best explanation I’ve seen of は and が was from Jay Rubin’s book “Making Sense of Japanese.” If you haven’t checked it out already, I think you should. Also, I found his idea of the “zero pronoun” to be very helpful.
Going into a bit of linguistics may help students of Japanese. The Chomskyan concept of the null subject parameter is extremely important for learning how not to sound like a foreign-speaker in Japanese.
Can you tell use more about the “Chomskyan concept of the null subject ” please? Thanks in advance. By the way great post Kim.
Sure, it’s really not that difficult of a concept. In certain languages, the subject usually needs to be explicitly stated, like in English. For example, we don’t just say, “Am eating” We need an ‘I’ in there, even though the existence of ‘am’ doesn’t allow for any other possible subject. In other languages, you don’t need to explicitly state the subject, like in Spanish and Japanese. In Spanish, the verb expresses the subject (‘tengo’ versus ‘tienes’). In Japanese, the subject carries over from previously being mentioned. The subject exists, but we don’t need to say it out loud.
Not sure if this is righ, but 私がつまらない sounds like something that would be use in this type of situation (you know, if you have low self-esteem and what not):
A: Sorry for not being chatty, I didn’t get much sleep last night
B: No no , I’m the boring one : O
@Alex, yes I agree pro-drop can helpful for students of Japanese, any knowledge of linguistics can help SLA, but bear in mind that in the original G&B framework, Chomsky did not want pro-drop to be applied to Japanese, or any of the asian languages where pro-dropping is extensive.
Is there any way you can correlate this to korean grammar? Does は＝은/는 and が＝이/가? Always, sometimes, never? i’ve gone through genki I and II over 4 semesters at school but this still confuses me.
I believe the Korean version work in mostly the same way.
hehe yes the more i think about it the more it seems to match up, thank you!
I had the hardest time explaining “bored” and “boring” to one of my Chinese ESL students. She kept on messing up and it was pretty hard not to laugh sometimes… I can’t remember how I tried to explain it now but for some reason I just couldn’t make it stick for her. Anyway, fun to hear about it here too (I think it’s totally a normal thing to mess up).
I hate to belabor this subject, and I don’t want to sound dull or tedious, but I’m just not comfortable with simply declaring the party to be boring, even if I can be inferred that this is only my opinion, as if someone who’s having fun at this same event is wrong. It just doesn’t seem correct that a native Japanese speaker would offend another guest or a host like this. This is, I think, a major problem for intermediate students like myself: out of all the choices, better or worse, just how would a native Japanese speaker say this? It’s an “A litle knowledge can be a dangerous thing” problem.
私がこのパーティはつまらないと思うって。 “I think this party is boring me.” No.
たいくつする wouldn’t this have to be a passive verb, and are we running into the same problem as above?
mitai? rashi? “This party seems boring to me?
This should not come as a surprise but Americans are in some ways even more sensitive and easily offended (especially in areas of politics, race, gender, and religion). It goes without saying as an adult that you have to be socially aware and watch what you say. So don’t say anything you wouldn’t in any other language. On the other hand, Japanese people are just as frank, funny, and inappropriate as anywhere else in the company of friends and close acquaintances. Otherwise, it would be a very boring place indeed.
When I looked over “The identifier: it’s this one” I had a random thought. Would “You are the one” (from The Matrix) become something like “Kimi ga.”?
I read a good post on this topic here: http://forum.koohii.com/viewtopic.php?id=3407
About the 17th post down, by a guy named magamo(a native Japanese speaker, but his English is seriously good).
For the lazy, he essentially says that if you’re saying Xは/がY, you use は if the focus is on the Y, and が if the focus is on the X. I really recommend reading the post, though. Has examples and shiz that clear it up properly. He also makes another post a few posts down which is probably worth reading.