An Introduction to Japanese Particles: (は, が, に, へ, で, を )

Japanese particles are among the most fascinating and important to your understanding of the language. Particles are suffixes – they attach themselves right after words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) and phrases in the sentence.

Think of a Japanese sentence as being built out of separate blocks of information. Particles work as the glue and the labels – they simultaneously hold the blocks of information together, and also labels these blocks to give them meaning.  Let’s take a look at 6 of the most commonly used Japanese particles.

1. は (wa):  Marks the Topic of a Sentence

The Japanese hiragana character for “ha” is ” は,” but it’s pronounced “wa.” Why is “は” read as “wa” and not “ha?”

When used as a particle, “は” is always read as “wa.” If you would like to know the history of why this is, check out the video below.

 

How は Works

は (wa), is the topic marker.

What does this mean? Let’s begin with an example sentence:

 

ボブ眠たいです。(Bobu wa nemutai desu)

English Translation: Bob is sleepy.

 

As I mentioned in the intro, particles are suffixes. They attach themselves after words and phrases it wants to affect.

Since は (wa) comes after ボブ (Bobu), は (wa) is marking ボブ (Bobu) as the topic of the sentence.

 

Let’s try a more complicated sentence:

The capital of the United States is Washington D.C.

 

In English sentences with a “noun + is” format, the topic is generally the word or phrase that comes before “is.”

In our example sentence, “The capital of the United States” is the topic of the sentence.

Japanese sentences work the same way.

 

は (wa) Also Comes After the Topic of the Sentence

Using “The capital of the United States,” (アメリカの首都 in Japanese) the general sentence structure in Japanese will look like this:

[The capital of the United States] + “は (wa)” + description + desu.

Example: The capital of the United States は Washington D.C. desu.

In Japanese: アメリカの首都ワシントンD.C.です. (Amerika no shuto wa Washinton D.C. desu).

 

が (ga) – The Subject Marker

So は (wa) is the topic marker and が (ga) is the subject marker…

What’s the difference? There’s a lot of differences between は and が , but let’s learn the basics first.

  • The topic of a sentence is usually the main idea you are talking about. Whatever comes after the topic is usually emphasized.
  • The subject of a sentence usually emphasizes what comes before it, and is often doing an action.

 

A General Concept You Can Use When Introducing New Information

While there are many differences between the nuances of using は (wa) or が (ga), a general rule is that you will use は (wa) whenever you are introducing new information to someone.

For example, if it’s your first day of work at a company in Japan, you will most likely have to give a self-introduction to your co-workers.  Since no one knows you yet, you will be talking about new information (in this case, about yourself).  Since you are introducing new information about yourself, you’ll use the particle は (wa).

Example: はじめまして、 私テイラー・スウィフトと申します。 (Watakushi wa Teira Suwifuto to mou shimasu.)

English Translation:  I’m Taylor Swift.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.

 

Also, while this doesn’t work for all cases, you may notice that は is often used for nouns or adjectives that describe the topic, while が can be often seen with verbs.

What makes this difficult is the location where you use は (wa) or が (ga) is exactly the same. You can also use both for many situations.

Let’s take a look at some examples to help clear things up.

 

ボブ男の子です。(Bobu wa otokonoko desu.)

English Translation: Bob is a boy.

The sentence, “Bob is a boy,” will be expressed using は (wa) because “boy,” a noun, is being assigned to “Bob.”

 

ボブかっこいいです。(Bobu wa kakkoii desu.)

English Translation: Bob is cool.

“Bob is cool” will also be expressed using は (wa) because “cool” is an adjective and is being assigned to “Bob.”

 

Using が (ga)

ボブが走っています。(Bobu ga hashitte imasu.)

English Translation: Bob is running.

This sentence will use が because “running,” a verb, is being assigned to “Bob.”

But there are always exceptions to this rule.

 

A Deeper Look Into は (wa) and が (ga): Nouns and Adjectives

The particles は (wa) and が (ga) also can be used to express exclusivity and contrast.

 

What Does That Mean?

A good way to think of は (wa) is with the translation “As for.”

As for Bob, he’s sleepy.

Or As for John, he’s smart.

This gives you the feeling that Bob is sleepy, but other people might not be.

For sentences where you describe something with a noun or adjective, は (wa) expresses contrast and が (ga) is used to express exclusivity.

 

Let’s look at some examples.

“Bob is a/the CEO. ”

This phrase can either use は (wa) and が (ga). Let’s see the differences between the two.

ボブ社長です。

Bobu wa shachou desu.

and

ボブ社長です。

Bobu ga shachou desu.

 

The first sentence, ボブ社長です。(Bobu wa shachou desu.) conveys the idea that Bob is CEO, but so can other people be. Kind of like saying, “Bob is a CEO.”

The second sentence, ボブ社長です。(Bobu ga shachou desu.) conveys the idea that Bob is the CEO, and not anyone else. Kind of like saying, “Bob is the CEO.”

 

This is the same with adjectives as well.

“Bob is cool.”

ボブかっこいいです。

Bobu wa kakkoii desu.

and

ボブかっこいいです。

Bobu ga kakkoii desu.

The first sentence, ボブかっこいいです。(Bobu wa kakkoii desu.) conveys the idea that Bob is cool, but so can other people be. Kind of like saying, “Bob is a cool guy.”

The second sentence, ボブかっこいいです。(Bobu ga kakkoii desu.) conveys the idea that Bob is the cool guy, and not anyone else. Kind of like saying, “Bob is the cool guy.”

 

A Deeper Look Into は (wa) and が (ga): Verbs

Just like with nouns, you can decide to use は (wa) instead of が (ga) when assigning a verb to the topic, you can express a subtly different nuance too.

 

For example:

Bob is running.

Can be translated in two ways, using が (ga) and は (wa) respectively:

ボブ走っています。

Bobu ga hashitte imasu.

and

ボブ走っています。

Bobu ha hashitte imasu.

The first sentence, ボブ走っています。(Bobu ga hashitte imasu.) conveys the idea that Bob is running, and doesn’t really mean anything else.  “Bob is running.”

The second sentence, ボブ走っています。(Bobu wa hashitte imasu.) conveys the idea that Bob is running, but strongly implies others aren’t.   “As for Bob, he is running.”

The differences in nuance and usage between は and が can be very complicated, and gives most Japanese learners trouble.  If you would like to learn more about the differences between は and が, check out our detailed guide here:  Japanese Particles: Wa vs Ga

 

に(ni): The Location Marker

The に (ni) particle allows us to label things in our sentences as locations. Specifically, に (ni) expresses locations which are destinations, and locations where things are at.

So sentences like, “I’m going to the supermarket,” and “My car is in Japan,” all use the location marker, に (ni).

As a suffix, you can immediately imagine where these particles end up in the sentence:

“I’m going to the supermarket” becomes:

私はスーパー行きます。(Watashi wa suupaa ni ikimasu)

“My car is in Japan” becomes:

私の車は日本にあります。(Watashi no kuruma wa nihon ni arimasu).

 

へ(e):  The Direction Marker

へ (e) is like に (ni), but it expresses direction and not destinations.

This is a very subtle nuance, but it’s very important.

It’s the difference between saying, “I’m going to Japan” versus, “I’m headed to Japan.”

You might be physically transporting yourself to Japan in both sentences, but “I’m going to Japan” uses に(ni) and “I’m headed to Japan” uses へ(e).

 

English Sentence:  I’m going to Japan

わたしは日本行きます。

Watashi wa nihon ni ikimasu.

Versus

English Sentence:  I’m headed to Japan.

わたしは日本行きます。

Watashi wa nihon e ikimasu.

 

Just remember that へ (e) is focuses on the direction that something is moving towards.

 

 

で (de): The Marker to Indicate the Location of an Action

The particle で (de) also allows us to label things in our sentences as locations. Specifically, で (de) expresses locations where actions/activities take place.

So sentences like, “I will be shopping at the supermarket,” and “I will drive in Japan,” all use the location marker, で (de).

 

As a suffix, you can immediately imagine where these particles end up in the sentence:

English Sentence:  I will be shopping at the supermarket.

私はスーパー買い物します。(Watashi wa suupaa de kaimon o shimasu).

 

English Sentence:  I will drive in Japan.

私は日本運転します。(Watashi wa nihon de unten shimasu).

 

を (wo): The “Being Done To” Marker (Direct Object of a Verb Marker)

I call を (wo, or o) the “being done to” marker because this particle marks what is being affected.

Sentences like, “I ate the cake.”

What was eaten? The cake was. The cake is the direct object of the verb eat (taberu), so we mark it with the を (wo) particle.

 

English Sentence:  I ate the cake.

私はケーキ食べた。(Watashi wa keeki wo tabeta).

 

English Sentence:  I ran a marathon.

私はマラソン走った。(Watashi wa marason wo hashitta).

 

Exceptions

But what about a sentence like, “I met him.” This is a perfectly valid answer to the question, “who did you meet”?

However, this sentence uses, に (ni).

English Sentence:  I met him.

私は彼に会った。(Watashi wa kare ni atta).

Using を (wo) there would be very awkward here, as it implies that you are “using” the person you met like an object.

This is something Japanese people learn as they grow up around the language, but if I may, I’d like to add my interpretation of the grammar here.

When you meet someone and talk to them for the first time, it’s a bit nerve-wracking. It’s a bit fun and exciting, but is also a little scary. It’s an adventure. And adventures are something you go to (に). So this might be the Japanese language way of telling us, meeting people is an adventure.

 

Conclusion

Particles are wonderful pieces of the Japanese language that can when utilized correctly, amplify the effectiveness of your sentences significantly.

In this article, I briefly went over each particle. However, there’s enough information about particles for someone to dedicate their entire lives exploring their subtle nuances.

Don’t believe me?

There’s even a 331-page book on the subject of the differences between は (wa) and が(ga).

If you have any questions or insights, please let us know in the comments below!

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