I’m going to introduce a full Japanese sentence to give you an idea of the grammatical structure because it’s important to realise from the outset just how much the syntax differs from English. Above all else, the point here is to make you aware of two key concepts:

  • Japanese is a language of particles
  • Japanese sentences always end with a verb

In English we have dependent prepositions—prepositions that go with verbs. We don’t “apply on a job”, we “apply for a job”; we don’t “sort to the documents”, we “sort through the documents”, and so on. While in some respects Japanese is similar, particles play a far deeper role. In many cases there is no direct translation because particles often denote abstract constructs such as “place of action”, “sentence topic”, or “sentence object”. These particles attach themselves to words, defining that word’s relationship to other words within the sentence to create a coherent structure. Simply put, particles are the building blocks of Japanese grammar.

There are many particles in Japanese and certain particles can have multiple meanings depending on their usage; however, there is a sub-set of particles that are used in just about every sentence. We will look at these first so that we can begin to construct more complex sentences.

But first, a word on sentence structure. For the time being, you should think of the overall sentence structure in the following manner:

【TOPIC】【DETAILS】【VERB】

In other words, the topic sits at the front of the sentence, the verb at the end, and the “details” (the what? when? where? with whom?) are sandwiched in between. Take a look at the following example sentence. The particles are coloured orange.

【わたし】 I
友達 【とも・だち】 friend
【いえ】 house
寿司 【す・し】 sushi
食べる 【た】べる to eat (v.)
 友達 家 寿司 食べました。
I ate sushi at a friend’s house.

At its most basic level the sentence is saying, “I ate”. The fact of where and what you ate are the details, and as you can see these are sandwiched in between the topic and the verb. Note further that every word with the exception of the final verb is followed by a particle which defines the role of that word, e.g. the place of action (where did you eat?), the object (what did you eat?), the possessive (at whose house did you eat?).

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