Japanese Particles

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In Japanese, particles are words that serve helping functions in identifying what the role of a word is in relation to the words around it in the sentence. Some of the most common functions are declaring the subject, topic, and objects of the sentence. Improper use of particles can have effects ranging from changing mere nuances in the sentence to transforming it into complete gibberish.

Generally speaking, the particle being discussed will be in bold when it appears in an example sentence, as well as the corresponding parts of the sentence's romanization and translation. If the visible effects of the particle are lost in translation, the affected words will be underlined so that the reader knows which word the particle is referring to.

Contents

Subjects, Topics, and Objects

The particles in this grouping are the most essential, as they indicate what roles are played by the nouns in a sentence.

は (wa)

Written with the character for ha and pronounced as wa, は is one of the most commonly used particles in Japanese. Its purpose is to act as the topic marker. The topic in Japanese is roughly equivalent to the subject in English. A good way to think of its function in the sentence is to mentally translate it as "As for..."

  • 鹿山です。(Watashi wa Kayama desu. As for me, I am Kayama.)

In this sentence, は is used to indicate that "I" (私, watashi) is what the sentence is about. The "me" in the translation is not literally in the original Japanese sentence, however it has been added to smooth the English translation.

Usually once the topic has been established it is expected that it will be omitted until the topic changes. Thus, if Mr. Kayama were to continue talking about himself he would drop any "私は" (watashi wa) references at the beginnings of his sentences. If he changed the subject to the other person he might begin the sentence where he changes the topic with あなたは・・・ (anata wa...) to indicate an explicit change in the topic, but from then on it would be dropped again for so long as the topic remained the same.

が (ga)

(ga) in Japanese is known as the subject marker, and is to be kept distinct from the topic marker (は, wa). While in English the subject and topic may be thought of as the same thing, In Japanese they do not always coincide. One way to think of が is that it talks about a part of the topic (which would be indicated by if the complete sentence were to be written out). For example:

  • 彼は背高いです。 (Kare wa se ga takai desu. He is tall. (As for his height, it is tall.))

Here the topic is he (彼, kare), however our subject is his height (背, se), which we then proceed to describe as tall.

  • Aさん:加山さんいますか? (A-san: Kayama-san ga imasu ka? Mr. A: Is Mr. Kayama here?)
    • 加山:私加山です。 (Kayama: Watashi ga Kayama desu. Mr. Kayama: I am Kayama.)

Confusion between は and が

Sometimes it is difficult to tell when to use は (wa) and when to use が (ga). The simplest way to remember it is that if you are describing something, you should use が (ga) if it is something that is applicable only to the individual. If it is something that applies universally to a group, however, it is appropriate to use は (wa). Take the following exmple:

  • 猫の目緑です。 (Neko no me ga midori desu. The cat's eyes are green.)
  • 猫の目緑です。 (Neko no me wa midori desu. As for cats' eyes, they are green.)

Direct and Indirect Objects — を (wo) and が (ga)

Objects are nouns in the sentence which are neither the subject nor the topic. If the noun is the used to perform the action, it is a [[direct object]. If the noun is the recipient of the action, it is an indirect object.

Since the spelling reforms following World War II, Japanese uses the character を (wo) as the direct object marker and for no other purpose. Thus, any time it appears in a sentence it can safely be assumed that the noun preceding it is the direct object, or an object used to perform the action described. For example:

  • 私はパン食べています。 (Watashi wa pan wo tabeteimasu. I am eating bread.)
  • 武史さんはボール打ちました。 (Takeshi-san wa booru wo uchimashita. Takeshi hit the ball.)
  • 彼女は何していますか? (Kanojo wa nani wo shiteimasu ka? What is she doing?)

In the above examples, the ball was consumed as part of the process of eating, the ball was struck by the bat, and "what" served as a variable to inquire about what the girl was doing.

Marking indirect objects, the recipients of the actions described in sentences, is a secondary function of the particle が (ga) that we outlined above.

  • 今日が熱いので、部屋暖まった。(Kyou ga atsui no de, heya ga atatamatta. Today is hot, therefore the room warmed up.)

As a result of the day being hot, the room heated up. The room was not a contributor to the day being hot, however the hot day affected the warmth of the room, and therefore the room is an indirect object.

Locations, Directions, Durations, and Sequences

The particles used for indicating time and location overlap to a great degree, much like how we can use "to" and "from" to mark physical starting and ending points (from Tokyo to Los Angeles) or starting and ending times (from 3 to 5pm). While this overlap is not always the case, it was significant enough that we feel it warrants categorizing them together.

へ (e)

As with は (wa), へ (e) is written with one character () and pronounced as another (). It is used to indicate general destination or direction, without any degree of specificity. For example:

  • 来月、東京行きます。 (Raigetsu, Toukyou e ikimasu. Next month I am going to Tokyo.)
  • 学校行きました。 (Gakkou e ikimashita. He went towards the school.)

In both sentences, へ (e) can be interpreted as "in the vicinity of". For example, while we tell the person we are going to Tokyo, it leaves open the possibility that we could be going to Chiba, Saitama, or any of the surrounding easily accessible areas. In the case of the man going towards the school, the school may not even be his actual destination; the speaker may not know where the man is intending to go, just that the school seems to be along his path.

に (ni)

In contrast with へ (e), which conveys a generality, に (ni) is specific in nature. Whereas へ (e) leaves room for doubt or generalization, に (ni) indicates certainty and spells out specifics. Compare the following examples with the previous set:

  • 来月、東京行きます。 (Raigetsu, Toukyou ni ikimasu. Next month I am going to Tokyo.)
  • 学校行きました。 (Gakkou ni ikimashita. He went to the school.)

In the first set of examples, it is indicated that Tokyo is one stop along the way, but that the person might be going to other places as well. When we change the particle from へ (e) to に (ni), however, we now stat that Tokyo and Tokyo alone is the destination. Likewise in the second example sentence, the particle change shifts the understanding of where the man was going from a vague idea (towards the school) to a definite statement (to the school).

Unlike へ (e), に (ni) can also be used to indicate times when placed after a specific time or a duration, as in the following examples:

  • 10時仕事が始まります。 (Juu-ji ni shigoto ga hajimarimasu. Work begins at 10:00.).
  • 金曜日由美さんの家でパーティーがあります。 (Kin'youbi ni Yumi-san no ie de paatii ga arimasu. There is a party at Yumi's on Friday.)
  • 12月クリスマスがあります。 (Juunigatsu ni Kurisumasu ga arimasu. Christmas is in December.)

Some indicators of time customarily do not or are not required take に (ni), such as years, words indicating relative dates (e.g. yesterday, today, tomorrow), or adverbs indicating every month, week, year, or similar unit of time.

If you are ever confused about when to use に (ni) and when to use へ (e), it is best to default to に (ni), as it can be used in every circumstance in which へ (e) can be used, while へ (e) can only be used in a more limited set of circumstances. Such a substitution will lose the vague nuances carried by へ (e), but will still convey your point clearly.

で (de)

Just as に (ni) indicates a destination, で (de) indicates the place where the action is taking place. While they may appear similar at a glance, they are not interchangeable. Customarily this phrase comes near the front of the sentence, after the subject (implied or otherwise).

  • 今日、カフェテリア餅を食べました。 (Kyou, kafeteria de mochi wo tabemashita. Today, I ate mochi in the cafeteria.)
  • 私は部屋勉強しました。 (Watashi wa heya de benkyou shimashita. I studied in my room.)

In the first sentence, the cafeteria is the place where the speaker was eating. In the second sentence, the speaker's room was where they chose to study. In both sentences, the location is marked by the particle で (de) to make this point clear.

から (kara)

In Japanese, から (kara) indicates a starting point. Just like its English counterpart "from", it can refer to a time or a location.

  • 学校から行きました。 (Gakkou kara ikimashita. We went from the school.)
  • 科学のクラスは10時からです。 (Kagaku no kurasu wa juu-ji kara desu. Science class is from 10:00 onward.)

In the first sentence, the school is where the subject set out from. In the second sentence, 10:00 is the time at which science class starts.

まで (made)

まで (made) Indicates an ending point, and can refer to a time or location in a manner similar to its English counterpart "to".

  • 学校まで行きました。 (Gakkou made ikimashita. We went as far as the school.)
  • 日本からアメリカまで何マイルですか? (Nihon kara America made nan mairu desu ka? How many miles is it from Japan to America?)
  • 科学のクラスは11時までです。 (Kagaku no kurasu wa juuichi-ji made desu. Science class runs until 11:00.)

In the first sentence, the school is the destination. In this context, it is similar to に (ni), which also marks destinations. Using まで (made) in this case implies a greater sense of the distance involved in the statement. The second sentence uses から (kara) and まで (made) together in a "from...to..." construction. When used together, から (kara) should always precede まで (made), and まで (made) is not interchangeable with に (ni).

In the third example sentence, we indicate that science class ends at 11:00.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are joining words, most commonly used to join nouns or noun phrases. Japanese has three primary conjunctive particles, each with its own nuances.

と (to)

(to) functions exactly like and in English. It joins the two adjacent words together to create a unified reference to them. Unlike in English, where it's customary to replace successive "and"s with commas and just write the last one, in Japanese each instance should be retained. For example:

  • 私はリンゴオレンジレモンが好きです。 (Watashi wa ringo to orenji to remon ga suki desu. I like apples and oranges and lemons.)

も (mo)

Unlike と (to), も (mo) acts as also. It can replace (wa) as the topic marker, indicating the topic of the sentence also does or feels something. For example, if someone were to say 私好きです。 (Watashi mo suki desu.), it would mean "I also like [it/them]," or "I like [it/them], too."

(mo) can also be used like と (to) was in the first example to create a nuance of "as well as". Replacing と (to) with も (mo) in this sentence produces:

  • 私はリンゴオレンジレモンも好きです。 (Watashi wa ringo mo orenji mo suki desu. I like apples as well as oranges as well as lemons.)

As you may have noticed, も (mo) replaced が (ga) as well as と (to) when we changed the sentence. One of the unique properties of the particle も (mo) is that it has the ability to replace particles indicating the topic and subject (は (wa) and が (ga)) and combine with particles indicating a location (に (ni) and で (de)). Compare the following example pairs of sentences:

  • アイリスさんは目が青いです。 (Arisu-san wa me ga aoi desu. Alice's eyes are blue.)
    • ジェームズさん目が青いです。 (Jeemuzu-san mo me ga aoi desu. James's eyes are blue, too.)
  • 彼女の部屋で、机があります。 (Kanojo no heya de, tsukue ga arimasu. There is a desk in her room.)
    • 彼女の部屋で、椅子あります。 (Kanojo no heya de, isu mo arimasu. There is also a chair in her room.)
  • 彼は酸っぱいのが嫌いです。 (Kare wa suppai no ga kirai desu. He hates sour things.)
    • 彼は辛いの嫌いです。 (Kare wa karai no mo kirai desu. He hates spicy things, too.)
  • 私は仙台で住んでいました。 (Watashi wa Sendai de sundeimashita. I lived in Sendai.)
    • 私は長野で住んでいました。 (Watashi wa Nagano de mo sundeimashita. I also lived in Nagano.)
  • あなたは日本に行きましたか? (Anata wa Nihon ni ikimashita ka? Have you gone to Japan?)
    • あなたは中国に行きましたか? (Anata wa Chuugoku ni mo ikimashita ka? Have you also gone to China?)

In each of the example sentences, も replaces or is appended to a particle to indicate that what it is marking in the second sentence is the same as in the first sentence in some fashion:

  • Alice and James both have blue eyes.
  • She has a desk and a chair in her room.
  • He hates sour things and spicy things.
  • I've lived in Sendai and Nagano.
  • The speaker asked if you have been to Japan. Assuming an affirmative response, the followup question asked if you've also been to China.

や (ya)

(ya) can be best approximated in English as "among other things" or "such as". Replacing と with や in our original example produces the following:

  • 私はリンゴオレンジレモンが好きです。 (Watashi wa ringo ya orenji ya remon ga suki desu. Among other things, I like things such as apples, oranges, and lemons.)

The distinction between と (to) and や (ya) is similar to the distinction between に (ni) and へ (e) outlined above, in that while と (to) restricts the set of objects to what is spelled out in the sentence, や (ya) is more generalized. It leaves open the possibility that other items not mentioned belong on the list as well.

とか (toka)

とか (toka) is similar to や (ya) in function, in that it implies that other items belong on the list. Unlike や (ya), however, it can be used in cases where only one item is listed, and follows every item on the list. Usually it is used in an explanatory fashion, such as the following:

  • 私は色んな漫画家が好きだ。鳥山とか、高橋とか、藤沢とか・・・ (Watashi wa ironna mangaka ga suki da. Toriyama toka, Takahashi toka, Fujisawa toka... I like may different manga artists. Toriyama, Takahashi, Fujisawa...[and so on])
  • とかしてください! (Nantoka shite kudasai! Please do something!)

Joining Sentences

A different series of particles exists for the purpose of joining sentences together. Here we present them, sorted by function:

But — が (ga), けど (kedo, et. al.), でも

To start off, let us revisit the ever-useful が (ga) again, as it now has yet another useful function. When placed at the end of a sentence, it serves as a conjunction with the meaning "but". From here we can either let it trail off (as is often done when declining an offer) or we can append a second sentence and explain things.

  • 一緒に行きたいんです・・・ (Issho ni ikitain desu ga... I'd love to go with you, but...)
  • すみません、教室が間違いましたと思います。 (Sumimasen ga, kyoushitsu ga machigaimashita to omoimasu. <i>Excuse me, but I think you've mixed up the classrooms.)

In increasing order of formality, けど (kedo), けれど (keredo), and けれども (keredomo) are more casual alternatives to が (ga) that carry the same meaning. Of these, けど (kedo) is by far the most commonly used.

  • それがいいですけど、その前にこれが必要です。 (Sore ga ii desu kedo, sono mae ni kore ga hitsuyou desu. That's fine, but before that we need this.)

Functionally speaking でも (demo) also means "but", however is used in a slightly different fashion. Whereas English has an aversion to starting sentences with conjunctions, it is perfectly kosher to do so in Japanese. でも (demo) is used in this fashion.

  • 今日は雨が降りそう。でも、楽しみましょう! (Kyou wa ame ga furisou. Demo, tanoshimimashou! It looks like it's going to rain today. But, let's try to have fun anyway!)
  • お母さん:野菜を食べなさい。 (Okaa-san: Yasai wo tabenasai. Mother: Eat your vegetables.)
    • お子さん:でも、野菜が嫌いです! (Oko-san: Demo, yasai ga kirai desu! Child: But I hate vegetables!)

And — そして (soshite)

  • 山田さんの家に行きました。そして、その家に入りました。 (Yamada-san no ie ni ikimashita. Soshite, sono ie ni hairimashita. I went to Yamada's house. Upon arriving there, I also entered that house.)
  • 新学期が始まりました。そして、中国語の勉強も始まりました。 (Shin gakki ga hajimarimashita. Soshite, Chuugokugo no benkyou mo hajimarimashita. A new school term started. With it, I also started my study of Chines.)

Therefore — から (kara), それから (sorekara), ので (no de)

  • 先生が帰国しましたから、いません。 (Sensei ga kikoku shimashita kara, imasen. The professor went back to his home country, so he's not here.)
  • お金がありませんので、貯金しなければなりません。 (Okane ga arimasen no de, chokin shinakereba narimasen. I don't have any money, so I should save.)
  • あの人が10年前に退職しました。それから、居場所が知りません。 (Ano hito ga juu nen mae ni taishoku shimashita. Sorekara, ibasho ga shirimasen. That person retired 10 years ago, therefore I have no idea about their whereabouts.)

While — ながら (nagara)

  • テレビを見ながら、晩ご飯を食べます。
  • 歩きながら、歌を歌います。

Sequence Revisited — と (to)

  • 秋になる、葉は落ちます。 (Aki ni naru to, ha wa ochimasu. When autumn comes, the leaves fall.)
  • 16歳になる、運転免許が出来ます。 (Juuroku-sai ni naru to, unten menkyo ga dekimasu. When you turn 16, you can get your driver's license.)

Ending Particles

Questions

か (ka)

Question mark.

  • 晩ご飯を食べた? (Bangohan wo tabeta ka? Have you eaten dinner?)

ね (ne)

Seeking confirmation.

  • 晩ご飯を食べた? (Bangohan wo tabeta ne? <i>You've eaten dinner, haven't you?)

な (na)

Seeking confirmation, bit gruffer. May indicate an assumption as to the answer.

  • 晩ご飯を食べたな。 (Bangohan wo tabeta na. You've probably eaten dinner, right?)

Emphasis

よ (yo)

Adds emphasis.

  • 行く! (Iku yo! Let's go!)

ぞ (zo)

Stronger than よ, rarely heard outside of television.

  • 行く! (Iku zo! Let's go!!)

ぜ (ze)

Stronger than ぞ, rarely heard outside of television.

  • 行く! (Iku ze! Let's go!!!)

わ (wa)

Feminizing ending, used to soften one's speech. No real equivalent in English.

  • 行く。 (Iku wa. Let's go.)
    • 行くよ。 (Iku wayo. Let's go!)

In the Beginning

さ (sa)

Well then...

  • 、始めよう。 (Sa, hajimeyou. Well then, let's get started.)

まぁ (maa)

Well...

  • まぁ、知らないよね。 (Maa, shiranai yo ne. Well, I don't really know.)

あのう (anou)

Umm...

  • あのう、すみませんが・・・ (Anou, sumimasen ga... Umm, excuse me, but...)

Other Particles

の (no)

Possession.

  • 本 (watashi no hon. My book)
    • Acts like 's in English, so one way to think of the above example could be as me's book.

Formation of prepositional phrases.

  • 部屋中に (heya no naka ni. in the room)
  • 上に (tsukue no ue ni. on/above the desk)
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