Particles in Japanese are postpositional—they immediately follow the modified component. A full listing of particles would be beyond the scope of this article, so only a few prominent particles are listed here.
It should be noted that the pronunciation of some hiragana characters is altered when used as particles, namely は (ha -> wa), へ (he -> e), and を(wo -> o). The altered pronunciation is usually used in rōmaji.
Topic, theme, and subject: は (wa) and が (ga)
The distinction between the so-called topic (は wa) and subject (が ga) particles is not straightforward, and in fact has been the theme of many doctoral dissertations and scholarly disputes. The reader is warned to take the material in this section, more than any other part of this article, as a poor and approximate guide. Interested readers are referred to two major scholarly surveys of Japanese linguistics in English, (Shibatani 1990) and (Kuno 1973). To simplify matters, the referents of wa and ga will be called the topic and subject respectively, with the understanding that if one or the other is absent, then the grammatical topic and subject may coincide depending on context.
As a first approximation, the difference between wa and ga is a matter of focus: wa gives focus to the action of the sentence, i.e., the verb or adjective, whereas ga gives focus to the subject of the action. However, this description is too abstract; a more useful description must proceed by enumerating uses of these particles.
The use of wa to introduce a new theme of discourse is directly linked to the notion of grammatical theme. Opinions differ on the structure of discourse theme, though it seems fairly uncontroversial to imagine the first-in-first-out hierarchy of themes that is threaded through the discourse. Of course, human limitations restrict the scope and depth of themes, and later themes may cause earlier themes to expire. In these sorts of sentences, the steadfast translation into English uses constructs like “speaking of X” or “on the topic of X“, though such translations tend to be bulky as they fail to use the thematic mechanisms of English. For lack of the best strategy, many teachers of Japanese drill the “speaking of X” pattern into their students without sufficient warning.
JON wa gakusei de aru
(On the topic of John), John is a student.
The warning against rote translation cannot be overemphasized. A common linguistic joke is the sentence僕は鰻だ (boku wa unagi da), which according to the pattern should be translated as”(Speaking of me), I am an eel.” Yet, in a restaurant, this sentence can reasonably be used to say “I’d like an order of eel”, with no intended humour. This is because the sentence should be literally read, “As for me, it is an eel,” with”it” referring to the speaker’s order. We can clearly see that the topic of the sentence is not its subject! (As a side note, these partition of grammatical topic and subject is sometimes transported by native Japanese speakers to other languages; for example, a Japanese with a shaky grasp of English might say “I am an eel” in a restaurant in an attempt to order eel.)
Related to the role of wa in introducing themes is its use in contrasting the current topic and its aspects from other possible topics and their aspects. The suggestive pattern is “X, but …” or “as for X, …“.
ame wa futte imasu ga…
It is raining, but…
Because of its contrastive nature, the topic cannot be undefined.
*dareka wa hon o yonde iru
*Someone is reading the book.
In this situation ga is forced.
In practice, the distinction between thematic and contrastive wa is not that useful. Suffice it to say that there can be at most one thematic wa in a sentence, and it has to be the first wa if one exists, and the remaining was are contrastive. For completeness, the following sentence (due to Kuno) illustrates the difference.
boku ga shitte iru hito wa daremo konakatta
(1) Of all the people I know, none came.
(2) (People came but), there wasn’t any of the people I know.
The first interpretation is the thematic wa, treating “the people I know” (boku ga shitte iru hito) as the theme of the predicate “none came” (dare mo konakatta). That is, if I know A, B, …, Z, then none of the people who came were A, B, …, Z. The second interpretation is the contrastive wa. If the likely attendees were A, B, …, Z, and of them I know P, Q and R, then the sentence says that P, Q and R did not come. The sentence says nothing about A’, B’,…, Z’, all of whom I know, but none of whom were likely to come. The sentence is ambiguous up to this difference. (In practice the first interpretation is the likely one.)
Unlike wa, the subject particle ga nominates its referent as the sole satisfier of the predicate. This distinction is famously illustrated by the following pair of sentences.
JON wa gakusei desu
John is a student. (There may be other students among the people we’re talking about.)
JON ga gakusei desu
(Of all the people we are talking about), it is John who is the student.
For stative transitive verbs, ga instead of o is typically used to mark the object, although it is sometimes acceptable to use o.
JON wa FURANSU-go ga dekiru
John knows French
Objects, locatives, instrumentals: を (o), に (ni), で (de), へ(e)
The direct object of non-stative transitive verbs is indicated by the object particle を (o).
JON wa aoi SE-TA- o kite iru
John is wearing a blue sweater.
This particle can also have an instrumental use for motion verbs.
MERI- ga hosoi michi o aruite ita
Mary was walking along a narrow road.
English allows a similar concept (“walk the road”), though it is usually literary. The general instrumental particle isで (de), which can be translated as “using”.
niku wa NAIFU de kiru koto
Meat must be cut with a knife.
This particle also has other uses: “at” (temporary location):
machikado de sensei ni atta
(I) met my teacher at the street corner.
umi de oyogu no wa muzukashii
Swimming in the sea is hard.
“With” or “in (the span of)”:
geki wa shujinkō no shi de owaru
The play ends with the protagonist’s death.
ore wa nibyou de katsu
I’ll win in two seconds.
The general locative particle is に (ni).
tōkyō ni ikimashō
Let’s go to Tokyo.
In this function, it is interchangeable with へ (e). However, ni has additional uses: “at(prolonged)”:
watashi wa GUROSUTA- tōri 99 ban ni sunde imasu
I live at 99 Gloucester road
kōri wa mizu ni uku
Ice floats on water.
“In (some year)”, “at (some point in time)”:
haru no yūgure ni…
On a spring eve…
Quantity and extents: と (to), も (mo), か (ka), や (ya),から (kara), まで (made)
To conjoin nouns, と (to) is used.
BAGU ni wa kyōkasho san-satsu to mangahon go-satsu irete imasu
I have three textbooks and five comic books in the bag.
The additive particle も (mo) can be used to conjoin larger nominals and clauses.
YO-HAN wa DOITSU-jin da. BURIGE-TA mo DOITSU-jin da
Johan is a German. Brigette is a German too.
kare wa eiga SUTA- de ari, seijika de mo aru
He is a movie star and also a politician.
For an incomplete list of conjuncts, や (ya) is used.
BORISU ya AIBAN wo yobe
Call Boris, Ivan, etc.
When only one of the conjuncts is necessary, the disjunctive particle か (ka) is used.
SUSHI ka SASHIMI ka, nanika wo chūmon shite ne
Order sushi or sashimi or something.
Quantities are listed between から (kara, from) and まで (made, to).
92 do kara 96 do made no netsu wa shinpai suru mono de wa nai
A temperature between 92 F and 96 F is not worrisome.
This pair can also be used to indicate time or space.
asa hachi-ji kara jūichi-ji made jugyō ga aru n da
You see, I have classes between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Because kara indicates starting point or origin, it has a related use as “because”:
SUMISU-san wa gōin na hito desu kara, itsumo tanomarete iru kamoshirenai
Mr. Smith, I think it’s because you’re so assertive that you’re always asked to do everything.
The particle kara and a related particle yori are used to indicate lowest extents: prices, business hours,etc.
wareware wa shichi-ji yori eigyō shite orimasu
We are open for business from 7 onwards.
Yori is also used in the sense of “than”.
omae wa nē-chan yori urusai n da
You are louder/more talkative than my sister!
Coordinating: と (to), に (ni), よ (yo)
The particle と (to) is used to set off quotations.
“koroshite… koroshite” to ano ko wa itte’ta no
The girl was saying, “Kill… kill.”
neko wa NYA- NYA- to naku
The cat says: meaow, meaow.
It is also used to indicate a manner of similarity, “as if” or “like”.
kare wa “aishite’ru yo” to itte, pokkuri to shinda
He said “I love you,” and dropped dead.
In a related conditional use, it functions like “after”, or “upon”.
ame ga agaru to, kodomo-tachi wa mou gakushū o wasurete, taiyō ni omote wo mukeru mizu-tamari no yūwaku oshitagau
Rain stops and then: children, forgetting their lessons, give in to the temptation of sun-faced puddles.
Finally it is used with verbs like to meet (with) (会う au) or to speak (with)(話す hanasu).
JON ga MERI- to hajimete atta no wa, 1942 nen no haru no yūgure datta
John met Mary for the first time on a dusky spring afternoon in 1942.
This last use is also a function of the particle に (ni), but to indicates reciprocation which ni does not.
JON ga MERI- to ren’ai shite iru
John and Mary are in love.
JON ga MERI- ni ren’ai shite iru
John loves Mary (but Mary might not love John back).
Finally, the particle よ (yo) is used in a hortative or vocative sense.
kawaii musume yo, kao o shikamete watashi wo miruna
O my beloved daughter, don’t frown at me so!
Final: か (ka), ね (ne), よ (yo) and related
The sentence-final particle か (ka) turns a declarative sentence into a question.
sochira wa AMERIKA-jin deshō ka?
Are you perchance an American?
The particle ね (ne) softens a declarative sentence, similar to English “you know?”, “eh?” or “I tell you!”.
kare ni denwa shinakatta no ne
You didn’t call him up, did you?
chikajika RONDON ni hikkosareru sou desu ne.
I hear you’re moving to London soon. Is that true?
A final よ (yo) is used for emphasis.
uso tsuite nai yo!
I’m not lying!
The particles ぜ (ze) and ぞ (zo) are sometimes used similarly, particularly by boys in movie dialogue.
Compound particles are formed with at least one particle together with other words including, other particles. The commonly seen forms are:
- particle + verb (term. or cont. or -te form)
- particle + noun + particle
- noun + particle
sono ken ni kan-shite shitte-iru kagiri no koto wo oshiete moraitai
Kindly tell me everything you know concerning that case. (particle + verb in cont.)
gaikokugo wo gakushū suru ue de taisetsu na koto wa mainichi no doryoku ga mono wo iu to iu koto dearu
In studying a foreign language, daily effort gives the most rewards. (noun + particle)
ani wa ryōshin no shinpai o yoso ni, daigaku wo yamete shimatta
Ignoring my parents’ worries, my brother dropped out of college. (particle + noun + particle)
Japanese Grammar Contents
- Part 1: Textual classifications; nouns, pronouns, and other deictics
- Part 2: Conjugable words: verbs
- Part 3: Conjugable words: adjectives
- Part 4: Conjugable words: the copula だ da
- Part 5: Euphonic changes, colloquial contractions
- Part 6: Adverbs, sound symbolism, conjunctions and interjections
- Part 7: Particles
- Part 8: Auxiliary verbs