Fed up with unclear explanations of Japanese grammar?
Too often we are taught to accept grammar rules blindly, without understanding how they work.
Invariably, someone will tell you that は (wa) is the topic marker and が (ga) the subject marker and expect you to be satisfied with that.
Yeah, thanks a lot…
Well, we are here to learn.
Chances are, you have started learning kanji and have immersed yourself in Japanese by practicing your reading comprehension with manga and using other targeted study methods. So, why is it that you still cannot grasp the details of grammar?
One of the most important topics for new Japanese learners is は vs. が. It is, of course, equally important when they get omitted.
Being a learner of the Japanese language, I have come across many different explanations of these particles. Some explanations work well, but are not communicated well. People explain away without being sensitive to the fact that you have to learn new things in a way that makes sense to you as an individual learner.
Many guides out there try to condense the difference between は and が into one single, simple rule. This is something I am guilty of as well, so it is my responsibility to inform you that this topic has been discussed extensively and many books and articles have been written on it.
No matter what classification schemes and rules you come up with, you will eventually run into trouble because there are exceptions, fuzzy details and edge cases.
This partly comes from the way は specifies the topic of a sentence. What does that even mean? I’m not sure anyone knows exactly. Suffice it to say it doesn’t translate well into English.
Here, I intend to explain the ins and outs of は and が with a thorough narrative. We are going to walk through each essential step to understanding these basic particles, giving your mind time to process the information and finally bring all the pieces of the Japanese puzzle together. (And by the way, if you’re enjoying this post, then don’t miss our post on the ne particle.)
How to Level Up Your Japanese By Mastering the Particles Ga and Wa
Why Do は and が Seem Almost Interchangeable?
Because は and が are interchangeable! As a matter of fact, it is often grammatically correct to switch them around, but in doing so you will change the meaning of that sentence.
Having said that, just to make myself clear, you cannot switch them around like that all of the time. は indicates the topic of a sentence while が indicates the subject, and those are two separate things in Japanese.
Typically, when you use は you are making a more general statement about who is performing an action than when you use が.
が implies that the one who is performing that action is the only one doing it. In other words, が implies definiteness.
This means, for instance, that if you want to insist on paying for dinner for everyone, you will say 私が払います(わたしが はらいます). If you are only paying for your own dinner and you do not expect to pay for everyone else as well, you would say 私は払います (わたしは はらいます).
Imagine the problems not having this information could cause while trying to enjoy a delicious meal at a Japanese restaurant. You did not learn all that essential food vocabulary just to get confused by a tiny little particle!
Keep practicing by listening to music, podcasts and television. The more familiar you become with the Japanese language, the more you will come to naturally know the distinction. To start, listen to authentic Japanese resources carefully and actively. Pay close attention to particle use, and try transcribing sentences from audio sources that employ these particles in different ways. Soon, you won’t even have to give it a second thought!
Use This Simple Rule to Distinguish Between は and が
The above example about paying for dinner, and others sentence constructions like that example, can really be boiled down to one big step: identifying whether you want to put an emphasis on the subject of the sentence or not. Fortunately, there is a simple rule for identifying which particle you need to use.
When you want to use either は or が, see if it makes sense to use the English “are/am/is/” followed by “the one(s) who…” If so, then you need to use が. Otherwise, use は.
Our example from before, i.e. “I will pay” becomes “I am the one who will pay.” Since we want to pay for everyone and this phrase works out for us in English, we have to use が. In the case where everyone is paying individually, you can’t do that, so you use は instead.
You might notice that “I will pay” can be used in both contexts. You could say it is a weaker sentence since it isn’t as specific. This is why we use the more specific sentence “I am the one who will pay,” and check only for が.
So from now on we will only use that rule, right?
Too bad for us, there are many different uses and meanings of はand が. The rule above generally works. You usually will not make mistakes if you use it, but there are more uses of those two particles. Keep in mind that this is just a rule of thumb for everyday use, so do not base your understanding of the particles on it entirely.
Specific Constructions and Their Use of は and が
Of course, we have to consider the cases which are different enough to warrant special attention. Now, the bottom line is just to learn these cases. When you think about it, it is not really that hard. It just takes time to fully remember special cases, since there are quite a few of them.
On the flip side, you will discover some cool uses of the particles that you may not have known. Try to have fun experimenting with them!
1. Declaring the topic of a sentence
For English speakers, it is very difficult to understand は because we do not have anything quite like it in our language. が on the other hand makes some sense to us. This is because subjects exist in English, while topics are not really a grammatical construct.
So how should we think of the topic in a sensible way? Forget trying to relate it to English grammar. This is going to be a bit gnarly and involved, so bear with me.
When you have some sentence “A はB” you can think of this sentence as describing something inside a closed room. We can imagine that this room contains everything related to A. By saying “A はB” we indicate that B is one of the things that goes on inside that room.
So, take for instance 私は学生です (わたしは がくせいです – I am a student). The topic is 私 (I), so that sentence can be read as “there is a student inside the room which contains everything related to me.” Oh, okay, I guess you are a student then. But here you could still make a sensible sentence using が, so why does it even matter?
Well, we can put other things into that room as well. Take the sentence ゾウは鼻が長いです (ぞうは はながながいです), which means “An elephant has a long trunk.” If a sentence like this is translated word for word we get something like “An elephant, a trunk is long.” Which is, of course, completely different from what we want to say.
The は in the sentence indicates that everything in that room, including the long trunk, is in relation to an elephant since it is the topic. We imagine that, in this abstract room, there is an elephant that has a long trunk.
One reason why it is so difficult to understand the topic in Japanese is that you have to sometimes guess the meaning of sentences like that. It does not really seem like there is a strict grammatical rule, you just sort of figure it out.
You can learn about how to use the topic, but mastering it will take a long time. There is a way to translate sentences using it correctly, but you sometimes have to know about the speaker before you are able to do so, which just seems crazy to English speakers – we do no such thing in English!
2. Topic and subject in the same sentence
One of the first sentences I learned in Japanese was 京都にはお寺が多い (きょうとには おてらがおおい – There are many temples in Kyoto). Here we see another common usage of は and が. They appear in a sentence with the structure “topic はsubject が action.” I gave a brief example of this above.
This confused me a lot at first since it did not seem to follow the usual rule of は/が followed by a verb. But it turns out that this form appears a lot. You can roughly think of it as saying “in the context of topic, subject does action.” In the example above, “in Kyoto” is the topic and the subject is “temples.”
In this construction, が does not imply definiteness. It just works like は normally does.
When I first learned this, I kept using it all of the time. It is a pretty cool construct that we do not have in English.
3. Using が to place emphasis
When you use が you are usually talking about something in particular rather than something in general. If you have the sentence お母さんが。。。(おかあさんが。。。- Mother is…) then you are talking about one person in particular. Emphasis is placed on the person doing an action rather than the action itself.
This is the usual use of が, and it is the reason why we have that nice rule of thumb I explained earlier.
You will see this play a role in many different constructs in Japanese. This, among other things, actually makes Japanese grammar very circumstantial, and it means that context is very important.
Which brings us to…
4. Known and unknown subjects
Alright, now for a prominent exception to the rules. Whenever someone or something is introduced for the first time, we introduce that new person or thing with が, even if it otherwise makes sense to use は in that context.
For instance: 今日、先生が来る。彼は優しい人らしい。(きょう、せんせいがくる。かれは やさしいひとらしい。- Today, the teacher is coming. He sounds like a kind person.)
This makes a lot of sense when you think about how が places emphasis on the object or person being introduced. が tells us that we are talking about one person in particular rather than a general concept. Rather than saying “A teacher is coming” we say “The teacher is coming” because we want to introduce a specific person.
Anyway, do not use は in this case. You can use は right away after he has been introduced.
5. Asking and answering questions
When the subject of a sentence is an unknown, it is paired with が. The above example, for instance, could be the answer to this question: 誰が来る？(だれがくる？- who is coming?) Here it is necessary to use が. Again, we see that it sort of makes sense from the point of view that emphasis has to be placed on the unknown.
In any case, just try to remember to use が. When answering the question, you should also always use が, even if the subject is already known.
6. Contrasting and comparing
When contrasting sentences against each other you should use は. For example: クラッシックは聞きますが、ジャズは聞きません (くらっしっくは ききますが、じゃずは ききません – I listen to classical, but I do not listen to jazz.)
One of the cool things about using は for contrast is that you can use it to imply a contrast. You could pick out a record in a collection and say: このレコードは知らない (このれこーどは しらない – I don’t know this record). You then imply that you know the other members of the collection at the same time.
Notice how this works because that record is the topic. That means that its action in the sentence is descriptive of it. When the fact that it is unknown has to be pointed out, it thus means that other records are known. If the sentence had been 私はこのレコードを知らない (わたしは このれこーどをしらない- I don’t know this record), then it is descriptive of you, not the record. Now it may be the case that others know about the record and you are the odd one out.
私は絵を見るのが好きです 。(わたしは えをみるのが すきです。) – I like looking at paintings.
Here we see the common application of both はand が in one sentence.
日本酒は飲みますが、ワインは飲みません。(にほんしゅは のみますが、わいんは のみません。) – I drink rice wine, but I don’t drink wine.
この街にはとても高いビルがある。(このまちには とてもたかいびるがある。) – In this town, there are very tall buildings.
With towns and cities one typically uses には instead of は on its own.
何が面白いですか？日本語が面白いです。(なにが おもしろいですか？にほんごが おもしろいです。) – What’s interesting? Japanese is interesting.
Easy enough, just apply the rules from before.
その魚は食べたことがありません。 (そのさかなは たべたことが ありません。) – I haven’t eaten that fish.
Here we are implying that this person has tried many different kind of fish, and perhaps it is even unexpected that he has not tried this particular fish.
私が行きましょう。 (わたしが いきましょう。) – “Why don’t I go?” or, perhaps more accurately “Let me be the one who goes.”
Now that you know the basics of how to use は and が, try to notice when Japanese people use them and what meanings they are trying to convey.
From this point onward, you are on your own. It is going to take a while to really get comfortable using those two particles, but if you keep practicing it will eventually become instinctive.