Last but by no means least is the subject particle, が. This is the one particle that many learners of Japanese wish didn’t exist: its usage from the topic particle は is subtly different and is to blame for many a headache.
The confusion can partly be put down to the fact that we don’t have both topic and subject constructs in English. “Topic” for us is not something we can define grammatically—it is just what the conversation is about. This is not the case in Japanese—as we have seen the topic of the sentence is defined grammatically by は.
が is often referred to as the subject particle in textbooks, but it may be more appropriate to call it the bonding particle as that reveals its one key grammatical strength: the ability to exclusively link the noun to the following adjective or verb.
Let’s take a look at a simple example sentence.
|As for Saori, her younger sister is kind.|
Here the topic is Saori and the subject is her younger sister. The が particle directly and exclusively links the word “younger sister” with the adjective “kind”. By doing so, there is no doubt that the one who is kind is the younger sister (we can infer nothing about Saori’s nature). This linkage should become clearer with the following dialogue.
|Yusuke||What food do you like?|
|Yusuke||Really? I like tempura. What about you, Ichiro?|
|Ichiro||As for me, sushi.|
This dialogue works because in the final sentence Ichiro used the topic particle は. If he had instead said…
… it would have meant “I am sushi” because the が would have made a direct link between the pronoun and sushi. The use of は allows us infer that the full sentence is actually:
|As for me, I like sushi.|
This is the critical difference between が and は and the reason that は is often taught to literally translate as, “As for…”
This can be all be a bit confounding at first. In truth, it’s not a particularly easy topic and even advanced learners are not immune to slip ups. But this power to bond nouns with verbs and adjectives becomes hugely important when we start to create more complex sentence structures with embedded clauses because the が particle makes it clear who is doing what action.
I said above that the が particle exclusively links the noun with the verb or adjective. This requires a little more explanation which is best done by comparison to the は particle. Take the following two simple statements.
|ロスは パーティーに |
|Ross came to the party.|
|ロスが パーティーに |
|Ross came to the party.|
In English they translate as the same thing, but in Japanese the nuance is subtly different. The topic particle は is used to contrast two statements or situations, whereas the が particle makes only a matter-of-fact statement, in this case the fact that Ross came to the party. In other words, a fuller translation for the sentence with は might be:
|ロスは パーティーに |
|I don’t know about other people, but, as for Ross, he came to the party.|
Whereas the sentence with the subject particle can only be translated as “Ross came to the party”—it does not recognise the context of the situation nor indirectly link anyone else with the verb “to go”.
If the organisers of an event are waiting around nervously wondering why no-one has showed and some asks “What about Ross?” a reply using the topic particle would be more natural.
With the foundations laid, let’s take a look at the grammatical usages of が.
- Intransitive verbs
- Special verbs
- Embedded clauses
- New sentence topics and questions
In case you’re not familiar with the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs, here’s a basic explanation. In English we have transitive and intransitive verbs. Transitive verbs are those that can take a direct object; intransitive are those that cannot. This is the same in Japanese.
James broke a glass.
The sentence “James broke” has no meaning in English—it needs a direct object (what did he break?). The verb to break is therefore an transitive verb.
The train arrived.
The verb “to arrive” has no direct object but the meaning is clear. “To arrive” is therefore an intransitive verb. In English, some verbs can be transitive or intransitive depending on the context.
|Brian moved the chair.|
|Brian moved to Scotland.|
The verb “to move” is transitive in the first (he moved the chair) and intransitive in the second.
In Japanese a verb is transitive or intransitive depending on whether it can take the object particle を (this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, as I’ll show you below, but it works pretty well in most cases). In Japanese the difference is especially important because the form—and thus the conjugation—of the verb changes depending on whether it is a transitive or intransitive verb. Take the verb “to wake up”. In English this can be both transitive and intransitive and the form of the verb doesn’t change:
|I will wake up at 8 o’clock.|
|I will wake up Saori at 8 o’clock.|
In Japanese the form of the verb changes: the transitive is おこす and the intransitive verb is おきる.
|I will wake up at 8 o’clock.|
|I will wake up Saori at 8 o’clock.|
This is a bit of a pain because for many verbs it means you have to learn two forms—the transitive and the intransitive. However, you will notice patterns in how the verbs change between their transitive and intransitive forms, meaning that if you know one form you can work out the other.
For example, intransitive verbs ending in 〜まる can be changed to 〜める to create the transitive and vice versa. Grammatically, the critical point to remember is this: when the verb is intransitive we need to use が instead of を.
|To put out a fire.|
|The fire goes out.|
|To gather people.|
|The people gather.|
Now, as mentioned above, just because a verb takes を doesn’t always mean that it is transitive. There are exceptions as を can also be used to signify the point of departure (for example) for intransitive verbs.
|To get off the train.|
|To graduate from university.|
|To leave the room.|
In all of the above sentences, the topic (you) is the object of the action. You are not performing the action on an object. These verbs are therefore intransitive despite the fact that they can take を.
The verbs “to understand” (わかる) and “to exist” (ある and いる) are special verbs because they take が as their object particle instead of を.
|I don’t understand the meaning|
|I understood the teacher’s explanation.|
|I have a temperature.|
|Wada-san has lots of money.|
|Suzuki-san has a handsome boyfriend.|
Incidentally, the verb “to exist” can also be intransitive (i.e. it doesn’t require a direct object).
|I am here.|
The reason why が is indispensable to Japanese grammar is because it marks who is performing the action in the sub-clause. For example, with the grammar we’ve learnt so far we can say, “I went to the restaurant” but we can’t yet say “I went to the restaurant that Tanaka-san recommended” or “I watched the film that she likes”.
In the same way we can place the adjective before the noun to form sentences like “the quick train”, we can move the verb to modify the noun. When we do so we can only use the standard form of the verb.
|I will send a letter|
|Letter I will send.|
Let’s try building up a more complex sentence from the basics.
|This is a letter.|
Now let’s add some details—who wrote the letter?
|This is a letter I wrote.|
In other words, the letter (“this”) is the topic of the sentence and the speaker is assumed to have written it because we don’t have enough information to assume otherwise.
We certainly understand the structure in the following basic sentence:
|The teacher wrote a letter.|
But we cannot just bring the verb before the noun and add the auxiliary verb because the topic would still be “the teacher” and the sentence would have no meaning.
|The teacher is a letter (he? someone?) wrote [nonsense].|
The topic of the sentence needs to be “this”, but we cannot have two topics in our sentence.
Here we use が to indicate that “the teacher” is the one who performed the action of writing the letter (directly linking “the teacher” to the verb “to write”).
|This is the letter the teacher wrote.|
Nor are we limited to sentences which end with the auxiliary verb.
|I read a letter.|
|I read the letter that my daughter sent.|
In the last sentence, by using が it’s clear who is doing the reading and who is doing the sending. You can see that the topic particle really only has the ability to link the topic to the final verb in the sentence—everything else is just inferred in the absence of information.
Note further that the overall sentence structure of topic-details-verb still holds.
Some more example sentences using が.
|That is the television programme that I saw yesterday.|
In the above sentence the target particle に is omitted after 昨日 because for relative dates (e.g. yesterday, today, last year, next year, etc.) it is more natural to do so.
|I ate the sweets my mother made.|
|She sung the song that Tanaka-san likes.|
New Sentence Topics & Questions
The topic particle assumes that the topic is commonly understood by both speaker and listener. In the case where a new topic will be introduced we need to use the subject particle.
|A long, long time ago there was a bear. The bear was very big.|
In the first sentence the existence of the bear is introduced. In the second sentence, both speaker and listener are now familiar with the bear and so は is used. If we’d used は in the first sentence, the listener would have been thinking, “What bear?” Now this is the same in English (we use “a” in the first sentence and “the” in the second), so there is a parallel to be drawn between the indefinite and definite articles in English.
|There is a cat on top of the desk.|
|The cat is on top of the desk.|
The use of が with question words is related to this concept of new topics because when we ask “who” or “what” the topic is by definition not known by both the speaker and listener (otherwise we wouldn’t be asking the question!). When I introduced the question particle か and some basic question words I deliberately constructed the questions in a way that did not require the use of the subject particle. Take a look at the following two sentences.
|As for the teacher, who is it?|
The above question structure we know. But what about if we flip the words “teacher” and “who” around?
|As for who, are they a teacher?|
This no longer makes sense as “who” is not defined and thus not commonly known by both speaker and listener. Let’s take another example (at a restaurant, say).
|Is “what” good? [As for “what”, is it good?]|
Obviously this is not the meaning that was intended—”what” is not something that you’ll find on the menu. The topic here is not something definite or fixed. But what about if we use the subject particle instead?
|What is good?|
This is correct because “what” is directly linked to the adjective, freeing up は to be used with something that would give meaning to the sentence. Our new topic would be obvious from the context (e.g. you’ve just sat down at a table in a restaurant and glanced at the menu). Essentially, the “full” sentence would be:
|As for this restaurant, what is good?|
This is no different from English. If someone walked up to you in the street at asked, “What is good?” you’d have no idea what they’re talking about, but if the same person leant across from the adjacent table in a restaurant and asked the same question there would be no confusion.
Going back to the teacher example, we can make our sentence work through the use of the が particle.
|Who is your teacher?|
Here the topic is presumed to be “you” (in the absence of any context). I’ve used だれ and なに in the above examples, but the same logic applies to the other question words.
|(As for your body) where does it hurt?|
|(As for dinner) when is good?|
I’m making up these topics, but the point is that for any given question with this structure I could put it in a context that would make sense. The two ways of constructing questions (with and without the subject particle) are not just two ways of saying the same thing. Take our restaurant example for instance. If you look at menu and ask your friend…
|As for the food that is delicious, what is it?|
… the topic just becomes “delicious food” in general—not necessary limited to that particular restaurant or even the menu at which you’re both looking. Consequently, although it is grammatically correct, it sounds unnatural. The following is unnatural, but it at least conveys the intended meaning correctly.
|(As for this restaurant) what is the good food?|
は and が are not the easiest particles to get your head around. But part of the reason learners struggle with the difference is that they are introduced to が via example sentences without a logical comparison with its closely related cousin は.