Last chapter we delved deep into some of the rules governing the use of polite language in Japanese. In this chapter we once again turn our heads to the tricky topic of particles. Not only we will address a very common issue that plagues learners of Japanese – namely, the difference between は and が – but also learn a few new useful particles.
は vs が
When we first learned about the particles は and が, I suggested treating は as the topic marker – that is, the particle that introduces the topic or theme of a sentence – and が as the subject marker, and to leave it at that. That is still my recommendation. While は and が have some substantial differences, native speakers can often infer what you mean even if you mix the two. Having said that, it is worth to delve a bit deeper in their usage.
Let’s start with は. The best definition I have come across for は is that it is 1) a particle used to convey information about which the hearer is already familiar with or 2) to state/imply a contrast.
“Convey information about which the hearer is already familiar with” does not mean that the hearer needs to be intimate or have intimate knowledge about the topic being talked about, only that the topic needs to be known by both parties in a conversation – hence it being called the topic marker. That means it is inappropriate to introduce new topics in a conversation using は.
Hiroki: There’s the game tonight, right?
Doudou: Hm? Game?
It is often said that, in Japanese, you introduce new information in conversations with が, and talk about things already referenced with は. If you ever studied this before, I am willing to bet you have seen the sentence 昔々、おじいさんが住んでいました。 おじいさんはとても親切でした (Once upon a time, there lived an old man. The old man was very kind).
The first sentence introduces the old man into the conversation, and the second sentence gives more information about something we, as the hearers/readers, are now familiar with. In this sense, and in this sense only, は and が could be compared to the indefinite and definite articles “a” and “the” in English as used in the translation.
Now, it does not mean you need or should introduce every single subject with が first before using は. In fact, most of the time in our actual conversations in English we talk about things we are in the know. In my previous example, for example, maybe Doudou had ways to know about which game Hiroki was talking about – perhaps he and Hiroki had talked about it the day before – and therefore, は would be appropriate. Also remember we can use nonverbal cues to imply about what we are talking about, so if you are in a shop and point at something to ask about its price, it is clear about which thing you are talking about. Again, you would probably use は in this case.
In addition to being used with words that have already been, directly or indirectly, introduced in a conversation, は is also used with proper nouns and with unique objects. Again, the comparison with “a” and “the” is helpful here: just as you say “the Sun”, you would say 太陽は. You could also use with generic objects or general statements, such as アメリカ人は変 “Americans are strange” or 日本人はやさしい (“Japanese are kind”).
The second use of は is as a contrastive marker. Think of statements like “I like X, but I do not like Y”, or “I do not eat X, but I eat Y”. These sentences are normally stated using は, even if you are introducing new information to a conversation.
For example, “お酒は飲みますが、ウイスキーは飲みません (“I drink alcohol, but I do not drink whiskey”). In the sentence above, we substituted the particle normally used for the direct object を with は to imply a contrast.
Also, please note that the thing being contrasted with は may or may not stated, as long as the contrast is implied. For example, let’s imagine the exchanges below:
Kayoko: Do you drink (Would you like a drink?)
Hiroki: Thank you. (After she starts pouring) Ah! I am sorry, I do not drink whiskey (as opposed to other types of alcohol).
Combined with speech stress, the particle は can be particularly useful in negative sentences to imply contrast. Let’s imagine the sentence 私はきのう彼女とシネマに行かなかった (Yesterday I did not go to the cinema with her).
Let’s see how this sentence changes according to where we place the は:
私はきのうは彼女とシネマに行かなかった。(I did not go to the cinema with her yesterday – We went on another day).
私はきのう彼女とはシネマに行かなかった。(Yesterday I did not go to the cinema with her – I went with someone else).
私はきのう彼女とシネマには行かなかった。(Yesterday I did not go to the cinema with her – We went somewhere else).
Many years ago, I remember reading an Agatha Christie book where the victim, shortly before being killed, had uttered a sentence – “”She wasn’t there!” – and it was a crucial point that her friend could not remember which part she had stressed. Interesting writing, but if Agatha Christie wrote in Japanese, it would be much harder for her to not explicitly state the stressed part!
Now that we know these peculiarities of は, we can move on to が, which, as we have seen, is often called the subject particle. We also saw that it can also be used to mark the object of some verbs and adjectives that express like or dislike, desire, knowledge, and other feelings, as in the sentences below.
テニスが好きです。(I like tennis.)
日本語が分かる。(I understand Japanese.)
Now let’s see some other uses for が. One very good definition I have read for が is to think of it as the identifier particle. Remember, you cannot use は to refer to words that have already been, directly or indirectly, introduced in the conversation – you use が to identify those words. Let’s return to the game example:
Hiroki: There’s a game between Brazil and Japan today, you know.
Doudou: Really? Are you watching?
Because が is used to identify things, there are certain sentences where you simply cannot use は. One example are with “wh-words”, such as “who” or “what”. It makes sense: since は cannot be used to refer to words that have not yet been mentioned, you must use が to inquire about something you do not know. Similarly, you use が to reply to such questions.
Doudou: Who is coming (to watch the game)?
Hiroki: Kayoko is coming.
In addition to identifying previously unknown information, が can also be used to emphasise something. For example:
Tanaka-sensei: Are you Hiroki?
Doudou: No, my name is Doudou.
Hiroki: I am Hiroki.
Tanaka-sensei: Anyone likes beer?
Doudou: I do not like beer very much.
Midori: Me neither…
Kayoko: Well, I like it…
This is in contrast with は, which, if anything, places the emphasis on the part that comes after it. It can be said that when a topic is marked with “は”, the comment is the most important part of the sentence, while when we use が, the subject is the most important part.
Hiroki: I went (I did not stay).
Hiroki: I went (it was I who went, not another person).
Finally, please do not mix the particle が used to identify the subject of a sentence with theがroughly equivalent to the English conjunction “but” and that we previously studied in “Vocabulary 2” article.
I drink alcohol, but I do not drink whiskey.
Other useful particles
でも (which is incidentally not the same thing as で+も) is a very useful particle which has three main uses. The first one could be translated as “or something like that”.
Doudou: Hiroki, if you have time, let’s drink tea or something else?
Hiroki: Thanks, that sounds nice.
The second use of でも means “even” in both the “Even I can do this” and “I can do even this” modes.
日本語が子どもでも分かりますね。(Even a child can understand Japanese, right?)
私は日本語でも語します。(I can even speak Japanese.)
日本人でも間違いますよね。(Even Japanese people make (Japanese) mistakes, you know.)
Finally, the third meaning of でも implies something as “will work”, or asks “it is okay?”, such as in the sentences below.
Doudou: Hiroki, if you have time, let’s drink tea or something else?
Hiroki: That sounds nice, but would Sunday be okay (to you)?
Doudou: Tea, please
Waiter: I am very sorry, but we do not serve tea.
Hiroki: That’s okay, coffee is also fine.
In addition to the three uses above, でも can also combine with the “wh-words” like what and when to create “anything”, “any time”, and other similar words.
* Take care with the last one – it may sound a bit dismissive, and in particular the expression “どうでもいい” is equivalent to “I do not give a damn” or “I couldn’t care less”.
だけ is another very useful particle that roughly means “only” or “just”. Let’s see the sentences below:
ドウドウ：いろいろな人を誘いましたが、ヒロキだけ来ました。(Doudou: I invited many people, but only Hiroki came.)
田中先生：たばこを１回だけ吸いました。(Tanaka sensei: I smoked only once.)
この話は私たちだけのことですよ。(This conversation is just between us.)
With だ or です, だけ can also be used to imply “merely” or “and that is about it”.
あの家は高いだけで魅力がない。(That house is merely expensive and has no charm.)
かれは友達だけです。(He is only a friend.)
Remember: if the だけです comes in the end, it modifies the entire sentence, implying “and that is about it, nothing else happened”. Please compare the sentences below:
彼女だけとでかけた。(I went out just with her (and no one else).)
彼女と出かけただけです。(I just went out with her (that is it, nothing else happened).)
Finally, there is a very helpful expression withだけthat is できるだけ, meaning something like “as much as you can”.
できるだけゆっくり話してください。(Please speak as slowly as possible.)
This is another useful expression (I know I am repeating myself, but what can I say? Words like “only”, “but”, “even” are among the most useful ones you can learn in any language, I believe) that is somewhat similar to だけ. However, while だけ can be used in any sentence, しか can only be used in negative sentences, and it implies something like “nothing but”.
Doudou: Hiroki, if you have time, let’s drink tea or something else?
Hiroki: That sounds nice, but would Sunday be okay? I am only free on Sunday.
Midori: You drink nothing but beer, right, Kayoko?
Kayoko: I drink other things too, you know!
Doudou: I invited many people, but no one but Hiroki came.
As you can see, in some sentences だけ and しか are interchangeable, but しか emphasises the negative or exclusionary aspect (“no one but”) while だけ is somewhat more neutral.
There is a common expression with しか that is しかない (the ない is the negative of the verb ある) meaning “There’s no choice”.
– I do not drink whiskey.
– I am sorry, but we have nothing buy whiskey.
遅くなった。タクシーで帰るしかない。 (It is late. There’s no choice but to return by taxi.)
This was an article very heavy on particles and on grammar, so we did not get to use many Kanji this time. Still, let’s check some of the ones we used so far, as well as checking some elementary ones in a learn-by-pattern approach. In total, we will see ten Kanji today.
This Kanji means “who” or “someone” – and that is pretty much it! You may remember the radical on the left 言, meaning “speak”, and it is worth remembering the radical 隹 on the left, as it is very common.
誰 has a Chinese reading すい, but I honestly do not remember ever seeing it being used. Instead, memorise the much more common Japanese reading だれ, meaning, as you know, “who”. It also appears in some words we have seen so far in this series, such as 誰か (someone), 誰も (everyone or, with a negative verb, no one), 誰でも (anyone) and 誰かさん (you-know-who).
Sameple sentence: それは誰でもできますよ. (Anyone can do that.)
This Kanji means “sell”. Please note that while the top radical looks similar to the Kanji for earth or soil (土), in 売 the top bar is longer that the lower one. Therefore, a more apt comparison would be with 士 (meaning gentleman).
The Japanese reading of this Kanji is う, appearing in the verb 売る (to sell), 売り物 (article for sale), 売り切り (sold out) and 売り場 (counter).
The Chinese reading is ばい, appearing in words such as 販売 (to sell), 自動販売機 (the ubiquitous vending machines – note じどう means automatic and き means machine) and one of the words that, in my humble opinion, display one of the best ingenious wordplay with Kanji compounds, 売春 (“selling your springtime” aka prostitution).
Sample sentence: 本をかいたかったが、うりきりでした → 本をかいたかったが、売り切りでした. (I wanted to buy a book, but it is sold out.)
This Kanji, meaning “read”, combines two Kanji we have seen – 言 (to speak) and 売 (to sell) – so when you are reading something, does it mean someone is selling you their words? Maybe, but I will leave the conclusions and mnemonics to each of you.
This Kanji’s Japanese reading is よ or よみ, as in 読む (to read) and 読売 (Yomiuri, the biggest newspaper in Japan). It also appears in the word 訓読み (Japanese reading!) and 音読み (Chinese reading!).
From now on, we will be using the words くんよみ and おんよみ instead of Japanese and Chinese reading, respectively.
The おんよみ of this Kanji is どく or どっ, for sounding reasons (normally, before a K sound, it will change to どっ). So we have words such as 読者 (reader), 読書 (reading), and 読解 (reading comprehension).
This Kanji, one of the very first I was taught, means “shellfish”. That is it, no tricks or cool words to teach – it is only taught early because it easy – it is basically the Kanji 目 (eye) with legs – and its pattern appears in the next two (quite common) Kanji we will learn today. By the way, the くんよみ is かい, if you ever want to order it at a restaurant.
This Kanji is the opposite of 売 – it means “buy”. As you can see, it is basically 貝 with the small grid or fence pattern on top. Also, its くんよみ is also かい or か – that is the payoff of learning 貝 first! This Kanji appears in the words 買い物 (to do shopping) and 買う (to buy) and 買い得 (bargain).
The おんよみ of this Kanji, interestingly, is also ばい, so that buying and selling is 売買 (ばいばい, trade – sometimes I forget the order of these Kanji; remember you sell first, buy later).
Very similar to the previous Kanji (and keeping the payoff of learning the “seashell” ideogram), this Kanji means “member” or “employee”. It does not have a くんよみ the おんよみ is いん. It normally appears as a suffix in words describing occupations or job positions, such as 社員 (company employee), 公務員 (public servant), 役員 (official, executive), 店員 (shop assistant), 販売員 (sales staff) 乗務員 (crew member) 教員 (teaching staff) , and many others.
This Kanji means “friend”! The くんよみ of this Kanji is とも, appearing in one of my favourite words in Japanese, 友達 (friend). The おんよみ is ゆう, appearing in many useful words such as 友人 (friend; somewhat more intimate than the previous word), 友好 (friendship), and 親友 (close friend).
Sample sentence: ヒロキは私の友人です. (Hiroki is my friend.)
This Kanji is a bit weird. We are learning it now because it is part of the very common word “friend” (友達) as we have seen above. However, its actual meaning is “accomplish” or “reach”, and this Kanji appears in normally more advanced words, such as 達成 (achievement), 達する (to reach), 上達 (improve) and 達人 (master) – as you can see, the おんよみ of this Kanji is たつ or たっ, depending on the following sound.
In addition, it is important to know that 達 (たち) is also used as a pluralising suffix. For example, the common pronoun meaning “we” is 私達 (we), although it is normally written as 私たち.
This Kanji, quite similar to 友, means “left”. The くんよみ is ひだり, which you will often hear in places such as subways and trains in words such as 左側 (left side as in “the doors on the left side will open”). It also appears in the word 左利き (left-handedness).
The おんよみ is さ, and appear in words such as 左翼 (left-wing).
Sample sentence: 左側の扉が開きます. (The doors on the left side will open.)
Next in our list is this Kanji meaning “right” as in opposite to left, but not in a legal way (as in “human rights” or “Miranda rights”). The くんよみ is みぎ, which also appears in words such as 右手 (right hand) and 右利き (right-handedness). The おんよみ is only う, appearing in words such as 右翼 (right-wing).
There are another two interesting things to talk about these last Kanji. The first is how to memorise which is left and which is right. The one that works the best for me is to check the other radical: for left, the radical is 工, which means “industry” or “labour” –in most countries, the Labour party is the left-leaning one. For right, the radical is 口, mouth; most people are right-handed and eat with their right hand (apologies in advance for left-handed people; at least the first metaphor still works).
The second thing to mention is that for some reason, 右 is written differently from 左 and 友. While 左 and 友are written from the horizontal bar first, 右 begins from the vertical bar first. There is a very complicated explanation for that that I honestly never truly understood nor thought it to be important.