Like the も particle, the topic particle は can also append itself to other basic particles. The fact that it can do so can cause issues not just for beginners but also for more advanced learners of the language. This is partly because particle combinations with は are used in textbooks and example sentences, but the grammatical nuance is rarely explained.

Take the following two sentences, for example:

ロバート います。
I will meet Robert.
ロバートには います。
I will meet Robert.

Both are grammatically correct. Both mean the same thing in English. So what’s the difference?

The topic particle actually has one other important attribute: it indirectly contrasts. We have already met the first example sentence above. It is a factual statement that you will meet Robert. The second sentence contrasts Robert with other people, effectively saying: “I may not meet other people, but, as for Robert, I will meet him”. This is a subtle but important nuance.

Another example. Suppose a couple have just had an argument and the girl is complaining to her friend about her boyfriend. She could say:

かれと はなしません。
I will not speak with him.

This is entirely grammatically correct. But it would be more natural given the situation to say:

かれとは はなしません。
I will not speak with him.

Here by contrasting “him” with other people (to whom she might speak) she is singling out her boyfriend as a person to whom she will not speak and so the statement has more impact.

大学だいがくでは、優秀ゆうしゅう学生がくせいでした。
In university I was a distinguished student [but now is different].
今年ことしは 海外かいがいには きません。
This year I won’t go abroad [but I might go somewhere within Japan].

Because of its ability to contrast and compare, は can sometimes take the place of the object particle.

野菜やさいは べません。
I won’t eat vegetables [but I will eat other things].

Basic sentences like the above can prove a major headache (why are vegetables the topic of the sentence!?). Just when you think you’ve got to grips with all the basic particles a seemingly innocuous sentence like “I won’t eat vegetables” starts throwing doubts in your mind!

Just remember that all of the above sentences are grammatically correct. The difference is a subtle one of contrast. Understanding this will help you get to grips with what many students of Japanese consider to be the most difficult particle: the subject particle.

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