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Practical Particular Particles

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Defining grammatical functions with particles

We want to now make good use of what we learned in the last lesson by associating a noun with another noun. This is done with something called particles. Particles are one or two hiragana characters that attach to the end of a word to define what grammatical function that word is serving in the sentence. Using the correct particles is very important because the meaning of a sentence can completely change just by changing the particles. For example, the sentence "Eat fish." can become "The fish eats." simply by changing one particle.

The 「は」 topic particle

The first particle we will learn is the topic particle. The topic particle essentially identifies what it is that you're talking about, basically the topic of your sentence. Let's say a person says, "Not student." This is a perfectly valid sentence in Japanese but it doesn't tell us much without knowing what the sentence is talking about. The topic particle will allow us to express what our sentences are about. The topic particle is the character 「は」. Now, while this character is normally pronounced /ha/, it is pronounced /wa/ only when it is being used as the topic particle.

Example 1

ボブ: アリス学生?- Are you (Alice) student?
アリス: うん学生。- Yeah, I am.

Here, Bob is indicating that his question is about Alice. Notice how the 「だ」 is left out and yet the English translation has the word 'are' and 'am'. Since we know the topic is Alice, we don't need anything else to guess that Alice is a student. In fact, since Bob is asking a question, he can't attach 「だ」. That would be like trying to make a statement and asking a question at the same time.

Example 2

ボブ) ジム明日?- Jim is tomorrow?
アリス) 明日じゃない。- Not tomorrow.

Since we have no context, we don't have enough information to make any sense of this conversation. It obviously makes no sense for Jim to actually be tomorrow. Given a context, as long as the sentence has something to do with Jim and tomorrow, it can mean anything. For instance, they could be talking about when an exam is being held.

Example 3

アリス) 今日試験だ。- Today is exam.
ボブ) ジムは? - What about Jim?
アリス) ジムは明日。 - Jim is tomorrow. (As for Jim, the exam is tomorrow.)

We need to realize how generic the topic can really be. A topic can be referring to any action or object from anywhere even including other sentences. For example, in the last sentence of the conversation above, even though the sentence is about when the exam is for Jim, the word "exam" doesn't appear anywhere in the sentence!

We'll see a more specific particle that ties more closely into the sentence at the end of this lesson with the identifier particle.

The 「も」 inclusive topic particle

Another particle that is very similar to the topic particle is the inclusive topic particle. It is essentially the topic particle with the additional meaning of "also". Basically, it can introduce another topic in addition to the current topic. The inclusive topic particle is the 「も」 character and its use is best explained by an example.

Example 1

ボブ: アリスは学生?- Are you (Alice) student?
アリス: うん、トム学生。- Yes, and Tom is also student.

Notice, that Alice must be consistent with the inclusion. It would not make sense to say, "I am a student, and Tom is also not a student." Instead, Alice would use the 「は」 particle to remove the additional meaning of inclusion as seen in the next example.

Example 2

ボブ: アリスは学生?- Are you (Alice) student?
アリス: うん、でもトム学生じゃない。- Yes, but Tom is not student.

Example 3

This is also another possibility.
ボブ: アリスは学生?- Are you (Alice) student?
アリス: ううん、トム学生じゃない。- No, and Tom is also not student.

So why would Alice, all of a sudden, talk about Tom when Bob is asking about Alice? Maybe Tom is standing right next to her and she wants to include Tom in the conversation.

The 「が」 identifier particle

Ok, so we can make a topic using the 「は」 and 「も」 particle. But what if we don’t know what the topic is? What if I wanted to ask, “Who is the student?” What I need is some kind of identifier because I don’t know who the student is. If I used the topic particle, the question would become, “Is who the student?” 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 "subject" means something completely different in English grammar. Instead, I move to call it the identifier particle because the particle indicates that the speaker wants to identify something unspecified.

Example 1

ボブ: 学生?- Who is the one that is student?
アリス: ジム学生。- Jim is the one who is student.

Bob wants to identify who among all the possible candidates is a student. Alice responds that Jim is the one. Notice, Alice could also have answered with the topic particle to indicate that, speaking of Jim, she knows that he is a student (maybe not the student). You can see the difference in the next example.

Example 2

(1) 学生? - Who is the one that is student?
(2) 学生?- (The) student is who?

Hopefully, you can see that (1) seeks to identify a specific person for 'student' while (2) is simply talking about the student. You cannot replace 「が」 with 「は」 in (1) because "who" would become the topic and the question would become, "Is who a student?"

The two particles 「は」 and 「が」 may seem very similar only because it is impossible to translate the difference directly into English. For example, 「学生」 and 「学生」 both translate into, "I am student."* However, they only seem similar because English cannot express information about the context as succinctly as Japanese sometimes can. In the first sentence 「学生」, since 「」 is the topic, the sentence means, "Speaking about me, I am a student". However, in the second sentence, 「」 is specifying who the 「学生」 is. If we want to know who the student is, the 「が」 particle tells us its 「」.

You can also think about the 「が」 particle as always answering a silent question. For example, if we have 「ジムがだ」, we are answering a question such as "Who is the fish?" or "Which person is the fish?" or maybe even "What food does Jim like?" Or given the sentence, 「これ」, we can be answering the question, "Which is the car?" or "What is the car?" The 「は」 and 「が」 particles are actually quite different if you think of it the right way. The 「が」 particle identifies a specific property of something while the 「は」 particle is used only to bring up a new topic of conversation. This is why, in longer sentences, it is common to separate the topic with commas to remove ambiguity about which part of the sentence the topic applies to.

*Well technically, it's the most likely translation given the lack of context.

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This page has last been revised on 2006/9/15