Japanese/Grammar/Basic Particles

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The Japanese language uses post-position particles (助詞; じょし) to denote the direction of an action and who is performing the action. They consistently come after the word that they modify.

There are three particles used very frequently in the language: は, を and が. This module covers these along with a few other common ones but an exhaustive list would run very long.

The topic and subject markers は and が[edit]

The particle "は" (pronounced as "わ" when used as a particle) is the topic marker denoting topic of discussion, while "が" is the subject marker and marks a noun that performs an action. The difference between the two tends to cause confusion among beginners but their usage can be summed up as matter of focus.

The topic particle "は" is used when introducing a topic and gives focus to the action of the sentence (i.e., the verb or the adjective). The subject marker "が" is used when emphasising the subject giving focus to the subject of the action.

One can also think of it as replacing "~は" with the phrase "as for ~", "on the topic of ~" or "regarding ~" to distinguish it from "が". While these phrases aren't common in English we can use these expressions here to better show the main difference between "は" and "が".

ねこ たべて います。 The cat is eating (or: Regarding the cat, it is eating.)
ねこ たべて います。 The cat is eating (as opposed to someone else).
きみ つよい。 You are strong.
きみ つよい。 You are strong (only you and not anyone else)
あれ でんわ だ。 That's the telephone.
あれ でんわ だ。 That's the telephone (and not anything else)

The difference can also be displayed by using both subject and topic markers in one sentence:

わたし あなた すき です。 I like you. (Or literally: as for me, like you.)
わたし わさび きらい です。 I dislike/hate wasabi. (Or: As for me, hate wasabi.)
あなた えいご じょうず です。 Your English is good! (Or: As for you, English good!)

One has to be careful using both "は" and "が" in one sentence. If a verb is actually acting on the (direct) subject, usually a different particle (like を) has to be used.

"は" is generally more flexible, because the "it" can be assumed, and is therefore recommended to novices who have not grasped the difference between the two.

"は" also has the specialized function of being used for comparisons as well.

ねこ います。 There is a cat.
いぬ います。 There is a dog.
ねこ たべて います けど, いぬ たべて いません。 The cat is eating, but the dog is not.

Often the grammatical subject may also be the topic. In this case, "は" normally replaces "が". However, if the subject is never known, you cannot use "は" and must use "が". This is similar to using pronouns: You can't state, "It is over there", without first stating what "it" may be.

The direct object marker を[edit]

The particle "を" (predominantly pronounced "お") is the direct object marker and marks the recipient of an action.

おさけ のむ。 To drink sake.
ざっし よむ。 To read a magazine.
ねこ が みず のんで います。 The cat is drinking water.

It also indicates the place through which the action occurs:

そら とぶ。 To fly through the sky
みち あるく。 To walk down the street

As with much of the language, parts of a sentence that can be assumed from context are often omitted and the direct object particle is commonly dropped in conversational (colloquial) Japanese.

The indirect object marker に[edit]

"に" marks the verb's indirect object (i.e. the destination of a targeted verb action) translating as "to", "in", "at" or "by". It also indicates the location touched or affected by an event or action:

ほしとんでいく。 Fly to the stars.
友だち プレゼントを あげる。 Give a present to a friend.
せんせい いう。 To tell (something) to the teacher.
学校 いる。 To be at school.
うち いる。 To be at home.
どようび あう。 To meet on Saturday

"に" can also be used as an "object of a preposition" marker when found in prepositional phrases like の前 (no mae ni), which means "in front of" or "before" depending on the context of the sentence. The particle "へ" described below is used exclusively for marking the destination.

The destination marker へ[edit]

へ (pronounced "え" when used as a particle) indicates the direction of an action, roughly the equivalent of "to" or "toward" in English.

おかあさんはみせ いく。 Mother is going to the store.
東京 いく。 To go to Tokyo.

The question marker か[edit]

Placing か at the end of a sentence changes a statement into a question. Use it at the end of a verb to make it a question, or at the end of an interrogative pro-form to make it into a demonstrative pronoun.

私は男です Am I a man?
これは どういうもの です How do you describe this?
ねこ は います Is there a cat?
どこ いきました Did you go somewhere?

For more on the question marker, see: Sentence ending particles.

The possessive marker の[edit]

"の", is most commonly used as a possessive marker (similar to the English "'s").

せんせいりんご。 The teacher's apple
わたし かばん。 My bag.
かれ とけい。 His watch.

The particle can also function as a noun link, indicating that the preceding noun (or adjectival noun) modifies the following noun.

とうきょう たてもの。 Buildings in/of Tokyo.
みどり ほん。 A green book.

It can also be used for nominalisation, converting verbs and (proper) adjectives into nouns.

よむ が いい。 Reading is good.

Note that in this last example two particles are used together: の and が: the first makes the action a noun, and the second tells that this action is what the sentence is all about.

The exhaustive list conjunction と[edit]

This particle acts as a conjunction on the words it separates. Unlike conjunctions of more than two words in English, where only the last two are separated with an "and" and the rest with commas, the Japanese conjunction separates each word and commas are not used.

これ それ が みどり です。 This and that are green.
ほん ざっし。 A book and a magazine.
かばんに ペン えんぴつ 消しゴム 定規がある。 There is a pen, a pencil, an eraser and a ruler in the bag.

This applies to exhaustive lists, i.e. when all objects are explicitly mentioned.

The particle is used to indicate parallelism with the subject, often meaning "with":

話をしました。 I spoke with him.
彼女 いった。 {I/He/She/They} went with her.
スミスさん テニス を しました。 (I) played tennis with Smith"
わたし は あなた けっこん する。 I will marry you. (I will get married with you)

The incomplete list marker や[edit]

This particle is used to connect various words implying that the listing is not exhaustive. The particle "など" may be added after the list to emphasise that the list is incomplete.

Noun Particle Noun ... など
ほん ペン があります。 There are books and pens (among other things).
ほん ざっし。 A book and a magazine (among other things).
サラダ 鳥肉 など が必要だ。 (I) need eggs, salad, chicken and such.

The "also" marker も[edit]

も is quite simply a marker that says "also". It replaces the particles は, が and を but can also follow other particles. This can also be used to form a large list of words all acting as though one of the basic particles (は, を, or が) were affecting the whole list.

Subject Particle Verb
ねこ のみます。 The cat also drinks.
わたし いく I'm going too.
しょうねん しょうじょ じょせい だんせい にんげん です。 Boys, girls, women and men are human.
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Worth noting is that used with an interrogative pro-form (e.g. who, where, how) the も particle negates the pro-form:

だれも① anybody
e.g. だれもが知っていること General knowledge.
だれも② nobody
e.g. だれもいない Nobody's here.

The means particle で[edit]

The particle で can be used in several situations indicating means. These can be for example an instrument, a location or a language.

Means Particle Verb
だいがくに なん いきますか。 By what means do you go to University?
じてんしゃ いきます。 I go by bicycle.
くるま いく。 I go by car.
わたしは レストラン たべます。 I eat at a restaurant.
スミスさんと こうえん テニスを しました。 I played tennis with Smith at the park."
がっこう ならう。 To learn at school.

As a note of interest, the で from the copula である is also actually an instrumental-maker. で marks the whole previous expression instrumental to the verb ある. However, this is the classical meaning of the copula and rarely explicitly treated this way in modern Japanese.

Origin and limit から and まで[edit]

These particles indicate the starting point or border of an action. This may be a location as well as a time and corresponds roughly with "from" and "until".

とうきょう から くる。 Come from Tokyo.
やま まで いく。 To go to the mountains.
時間(じかん)9時(きゅうじ)から 5時(ごじ)まで です。 The hours are from 9 to 5.