Particles in Japanese are like “building blocks” and decide the role of the word it is preceded by in a sentence. That’s why understanding particles in Japanese is key to being able to construct sentences, and they are one of the first things you need to learn when studying the Japanese language.
This article is the first one of two which reviews the most basic particles in Japanese and their functions. In this first article we will review the particles: は, の, を, が and も.
Main function: Indicates the topic in a sentence
Put this particle after the topic (main subject), which is the person/thing (noun) the sentence is about. For example:
Watashi wa nihonjin desu.
I am Japanese.
Toire wa asoko desu.
The bathroom is over there.
Note that in Japanese you often exclude the main subject when it’s obvious in context. For example, in the first example above it would be more natural to just say : “日本人です” (nihonjin desu) and exclude 私は(watashi wa) when it’s obvious that you are talking about yourself. This happens when you’re doing a self-introduction. However, for extra clarity we don’t exclude the main subject in the sentences in this article.
Main function: Indicates relationship, possession or ownership
Put the particle の between two nouns, such as [ X ] の [ Y ] and it will indicate that noun X possesses or has a relationship to noun Y. For example:
Watashi no namae wa jenī desu.
My name is Jenny.
Kore wa kanojo no sumaho desu.
This is her smartphone.
Watashi wa Kyoto daigaku no gakusei desu.
I’m a student at Kyoto university (I’m a student that belongs to Kyoto university)
Main function: Indicates the object which the subject interacts with.
The noun before を in a sentence is the object that is affected by the subject’s action. For example:
Watashi wa ringo o tabeta.
I ate an apple.
Tanaka san wa hon o kaeshita.
Tanaka-san returned the book.
Note that it has to be an action performed by the subject which affects the object. For instance, the following sentence is grammatically incorrect because the word “好き” (suki, to like) is not an action:
Watashi wa neko o suki desu.
The correct way to say it would be:
Watashi wa neko ga suki desu.
I like cats.
1. Indicates the subject of the sentence
2. Used after interrogative words (question words)
3. Used to convey new or important information.
The particle が has many functions in the Japanese language and is arguably the particle that is hardest to wrap your head around as it’s often mixed up with は. Let’s define some rules of thumb when to use が instead of は.
Example 1: as the subject of a sentence
The rule of thumb is that は is rarely used twice in one sentence, so if you used は as your topic marker, the following subject is likely going to be が.
Watashi wa inu ga suki desu.
I like dogs.
Example 2: used together with interrogative words (question words)
は is never used with words such as 何 (nani, what), 誰 (dare, who), いつ (itsu, when) etc. Also, if the particle used in a question is が, the particle in the answer is also が because it’s conveying new information (by responding to a question, see example 3.)
Dare ga sore o itta?
Who said that?
Watashi ga itta.
I said that.
Example 3: another way が is used is to convey new information or emphasize something that you want the listener to pay attention to.
watashi ga gakusei desu(yo).
I am a student.
In the above example, it’s fine to use は instead of が, however, the difference is that it’s more suitable to use が in a situation where the listener doesn’t expect you to be a student. This is because が puts emphasis on newly conveyed information. This kind of sentence is often coupled with よ which will be introduced in the next article.
Distinguishing between は and が is one of the hardest things to learn by heart when studying Japanese. But even if you make a mistake, you will be understood, so don’t worry too much if you get が and は confused!
Note: は can sometimes replace the particles を、が to put emphasis on a word or add contrast between two words. Note that this は is accented, meaning that you raise the pitch when pronouncing it. For example:
Watashi wa neko wa suki desu.
Cats, I do like. (Implicating that I don’t like something else, like dogs.)
Watashi wa niku wa tabemasen.
I don’t eat meat (emphasis on don’t)
Main functions: replaces the particles は, を, が to express the word “also”
We can use も instead of the particles は, を and が to express the word “also”. For example:
Ando-san: Watashi wa sanjū sai desu.
Mr Ando: I’m 30 years old.
Taguchi-san: Watashi mo sanjū sai desu.
Mr Taguchi: I’m also 30 years old.
Watashi wa neko ga suki desu. Inu mo suki desu.
I like cats. I also like dogs.
In this article we have introduced five basic particles in Japanese: は, の, を, が and も as well as some of their basic functions. In the next article we will discuss the remainder of the particles, namely に/へ、で、と、から/まで and the sentence ending particles か/ね/よ. Stay tuned!
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