Japanese Particle Ga: Your Ultimate Guide to Using Wa and Ga in Japanese
Have you started learning kanji or reading manga to improve your understanding of Japanese grammar but still feel that you cannot grasp the details?
One of the hardest things for new Japanese learners is knowing when to use specific particles, especially は vs. が.
As you might know, は (wa) is the topic marker while が (ga) is the subject marker. These may seem almost indistinguishable, but they are in fact different.
In this post, I’ll explain the ins and outs of は and が with real-life examples so you know what situations you’ll need to use these particles.
- Use This Simple Rule to Distinguish Between は and が
- Specific Constructions and Their Use of は and が
Use This Simple Rule to Distinguish Between は and が
We can answer the question of when to use ga or wa with one big step: identifying whether you want to put an emphasis on the subject of the sentence or not.
There’s a simple rule that can help you do that:
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.
Let’s take the phrase “I will pay” as an example.
It becomes “I am the one who will pay.”
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).
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.
However, there are many different uses and meanings of はand が, but the above rule generally works.
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
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?
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.
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.”
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 – 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.
2. Topic and subject in the same sentence
Here you see another common usage of は and が:
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).
They appear in a sentence with the structure “topic はsubject が action.”
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.
お母さんが。。。 (おかあさんが。。。- Mother is…)
Here 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.
4. Known and unknown subjects
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.
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.
5. Asking and answering questions
When the subject of a sentence is 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.
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.
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 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 kinds of fish, and, perhaps, it is 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.”)
Why Do は and が Seem Almost Interchangeable?
は and が are interchangeable and it is often grammatically correct to switch them around, but it will change the meaning of that sentence.
But 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.
You’ll get better at using these particles with more practice.
You can try 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.
The FluentU program makes it extra easy to pick up new vocabulary and see how Japanese people use ga and wa particles thanks to dual-language subtitles that include a furigana option in case you need some additional help.
You can also hover over or click on any word in the subtitles to see an in-depth definition, read or hear example sentences and even view clips from other videos where the word is used.
Add words to your flashcard lists to continue studying them when you’re ready to review through spaced-repetition-based multimedia exercises.
FluentU is available as a browser-based program as well as an iOS and Android app.
Soon, you won’t even have to give a second thought when using ga or wa particles!
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.