Particles are like flavors.
It’s not much use having an espresso shot of hazelnut or vanilla if you don’t have a coffee to mix it with.
Furthermore, while vanilla coffee and hazelnut coffee are both still coffees, they’ve also become something slightly (yet distinctly) more than just a generic coffee thanks to this flavor infusion.
Likewise, particles in Japanese don’t have any meaning on their own but in sentences, they’re used to bind words together like an infusion of delicious taste.
Particles might be small—the word actually comes from the Latin particula, meaning “little bit” or “part”—but they’re essential parts of Japanese sentences and learning to use them correctly is crucial to acquiring Japanese fluency.
Why Do We Need Particles in Japanese?
Grammatical particles tell us how words in a sentence are related, and these relations are important.
After all, we’re not content with the simple existence of coffee. We need to know if it was given to us or taken from us. If it comes with lunch or we need to purchase it separately. If we were inadvertently burned by coffee or, heaven forbid, were able to drink it in peace. Before putting it into our mouths, we also surely want to double check: “This is coffee, right?”
Particles can give us all that information with just one simple hiragana character. Coffee is on the table but particles determine what happens to it.
A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Particles for Perfect Sentence Construction
A grammatical particle immediately follows the word (or even sentence) it modifies and there are lots of them. In this post, we’ll look at 10: は, が, と, か, の, を, も, に, へ and で.
English gives similar information in sentences via prepositions like “in” or “on,” but since Japanese particles go after the words they modify, you might think of them as postpositions.
Particles show up literally everywhere, so it’s extremely important to get them right. Some of these will make sense to an English speaker since an equivalent exists in the language. Others will take a while longer to grasp since they’re completely new concepts.
The best way to get the hang of these particles and their uses is through practice and exposure to the language. For help with the latter, head over to FluentU for authentic content where you can hear these little words in use by real Japanese speakers.
It’s an entertaining method to immerse yourself in Japanese the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.
The Subject Marker が and the Topic Marker は
The particles が and は do distinctly different things in Japanese but somehow seem frustratingly identical when explained in English. This is because Japanese clearly differentiates between subjects (a grammatical case) and topics (a non-grammatical sentence focus) but English doesn’t. Japanese speakers see tangerines and mandarins but English speakers only see a pair of oranges.
Because they’re hard to differentiate, I’d like to approach them with a fixed sentence structure used to describe what we like and don’t like:
Person or thing doing the (dis)liking + は + thing that’s (dis)liked + が + like/dislike + です。
There are a few important things to point out here.
Showing (dis)likes with が
Let’s start with an example:
(わたしは ねこが すきです。)
I like cats.
The sentence above does mean “I like cats,” but it doesn’t exactly mean that grammatically. The subject of the English sentence is “I,” but because 猫 is followed by が, the subject of the Japanese one is actually “cats”! If we were to reorganize the sentence accordingly, we might get something like: “As for me/speaking for myself, cats are likable/pleasant.”
Although that might seem confusing at first, it’s actually good news for us! Without doing a lot of grammatical work, we can say quite a lot just by replacing the words 好き and 猫.
You can make use of the same structure, replacing “cat” with different words, to show what you like. Perhaps you like “ONE OK ROCK,” コーヒー (こーひー) — coffee or メロンパン (めろんぱん) — melon bread. Just swap it out with “cat” using the same structure as the example.
Note: If you want to use a verb here, you’ll need to tack a の onto it first. This の is sort of like -ing in English.
(わたしは はしるのが すきです。)
I like running.
Similarly, が can be used with a few other words in the same structure. You can use 好きじゃない to say what you don’t like, ほしい to say what you want or perhaps 怖い (こわい) to show what you’re afraid of:
(わたしは くもが こわいです。)
I’m afraid of spiders.
(わたしは なっとうが すきじゃないです。)
I don’t like natto.
I want some melon bread.
In addition to 好き, potential form verbs can follow the particle が. The potential form of Japanese verbs is used to show that you’re able to do something. The word わかる, to understand, is also used with が.
I don’t understand Korean.
Showing Contrast with は
By this point, you might be asking yourself: If the subject of “I like cats” in Japanese is actually “cats,” rather than “I,” then what role is 私 playing here and what does は have to do with that?
The “I” of “I like cats” is really important in English, but what’s marked by は in Japanese isn’t as important as what’s marked by が. In fact, if it’s obvious who’s being talked about, the 私は bit is commonly omitted: The purpose of は in this sentence is basically to show that 猫が好きです is a comment that applies to 私.
Sometimes that’s a simple statement of fact: “I like cats.” Nothing to see here, we’ve just made a neutral statement about ourselves. Move along, chap. But not always! “Applies to 私” can also be a quite loaded phrase: Just because something applies to me doesn’t mean that it applies to you, and showing this specific contrast is a major job carried out by the particle は.
Say that my roommate and I were in a pet store when a staff member approached us:
Which pet do you like?
(Did you notice how the Japanese sentence doesn’t include “you”? It’s obvious who’s being talking to from context.)
Upon hearing his question, I make use of that handy-dandy structure we just learned:
As for me, I like cats.
“As for me” doesn’t include my roommate and this is inherent to は. If we really break this sentence down, it means something like “As for me―and I’m only speaking for myself, I don’t know about my roommate or anyone else―I like cats.”
The staff member looks at my roommate:
Do you like cats, also?
At which my roommate blushes a bit and says:
Well, I like dogs, but…
In this case, my roommate chose to use は where we’d expect が to go, seemingly ignoring the structure we just learned. But, with good reason! In the structure we learned above we used the topic marker は, but here my roommate is actually using a different は: the contrastive は.
The type of は can replace が in sentences like this and also be tacked onto other particles like に or で to get には and では. This adds a special feeling to the sentence that I’ve tried to reflect in English.
My roommate hasn’t actually said “well” or “but” in Japanese, but using は in this way creates a feeling of contrast so obvious that it’s almost tangible. The meaning conveyed by the sentence is something like: “I like dogs (and I’m not going to name any names, but there’s something else I don’t like).”
She’s still saying “I like dogs.” Meanwhile, she just happens to also be politely sneaking in “but I don’t really like cats” at the same time.
Questions with が and か
When a question word like “who,” “what” or “which” is the subject of a sentence, these words are always followed by が. (After all, が is the subject marker.)
To indicate a question, all you have to do is tack the particle か onto the end of any sentence. You can learn more about Japanese questions and the words they use in another article, so we’ll stick to the basics here.
([おきゃくさんは] どのぺっとが すきですか？)
Which pet do you (the guest) like?
To respond, simply replace the question word with an appropriate response and remove か. No other changes are necessary.
When I responded to the shopkeeper, I maintained this format. All I did was replace どのペット with 猫 and dropped the か:
As for me, I like cats.
Similarly, my roommate did replace どのペット with 犬 and dropped the か, but she also replaced が with は. Part of the nuance here comes from this modification. Unlike me, she didn’t simply respond to the question but intentionally went a step further.
Well, as for me, I like dogs, but…
Let’s quickly touch on everything we’ve covered with another scenario. You’ve walked into a school and want to talk to the teacher. Before you can do that, you need to find out who the teacher is.
Who‘s the teacher?
Tanaka is the teacher.
The question word 誰 is followed by が and か gets tacked onto the end of the sentence to form a question. Then, simply replace 誰 with the answer, in this case, 田中さん.
To be clear, か is a powerful word: It’s the only difference between a question and a statement. The question doesn’t go away just because we get rid of 誰.
Tanaka is the teacher?
Oh, sorry. Nakatani is the teacher. Tanaka is the principal.
Just like in the last example, 田中さん is intentionally followed by は in order to show contrast. Here, it emphasizes the fact that Tanaka isn’t a teacher but a principal. Accordingly, 中谷さん takes が because it’s the correct response to 誰―no contrast or clarification needed.
Listing Options with か
If you want to limit the scope of the XはYが好きです structure, か can be used to list specific options. Simply pick out specific things, separate them with か and add your clarification to the beginning of the structure.
Do you like cats or dogs? (Literally: “Cats or dogs, which one’s pleasant?”)
Who’s the teacher, Tanaka or Nakatani?
Review: Wrapping Up は, が and か
That’s a lot of complex information above, so let’s quickly note the functions of what we’ve learned. Although we used the specific structure of “X (dis)likes Y” to illustrate the uses of these particles, remember that you can apply this information to every other sentence and construction in Japanese.
は is used to…
- Introduce the topic, which is the thing we’re going to comment on (“as for…”).
- Show contrast.
が is used to…
- Establish the subject of a sentence.
- Accompany a few specific words like “fear” and “like.”
- Follow potential form (“can”) verbs and わかる.
- Follow question words like 誰 (だれ) — who, 何(なに) — what and どちら・どっち — which.
か is used to…
- Turn a statement into a question.
- List options with the approximate meaning of “or.”
The rest of the particles are much more straightforward (even in English) and take much less effort to get your head around, so hang in there!
Stating Actions with を
The particle を is used to mark the direct object of a sentence or the target of an action. Like all particles, を gets tacked directly onto the thing you’re doing.
The direct object might be a song you’re listening to in order to learn Japanese, the thing you’re studying, the particular food you’re eating or any other action recipient.
(わたしは にほんごを べんきょうしています。)
I am studying Japanese.
(わたしは ねこを みます。)
I see a cat.
Listing Things (and People) with と
Just as you can reduce the scope of a question with か, you can use と to expand the scope of a response.
Upon being asked which pets I liked, I might have responded:
I like cats and chinchillas. (Literally: “[As for me,] cats and chinchillas are pleasant.”)
The particle と can also be used to show who you do something with. It’s often followed by 一緒に (いっしょに) — together to emphasize the feeling of doing something with someone, and goes after the particle は.
([わたしは] かれと いっしょに にほんごを べんきょうしています。)
I am studying Japanese with him.
Who are you talking with/to right now?
Again, to respond, simply replace 誰 with the person you’re talking to.
I’m talking with my mom.
Showing Possession with の
Showing possession in English is quite complicated. For example: “of” can go before a word and ‘s or s’ can get added to it. We even have special possessive forms of some words: “I” becomes “my,” “she” becomes “her” and if these words come at the very end of a sentence then they become “mine” and “hers.”
Japanese doesn’t bother with all that nonsense: Just tack の onto any noun and it becomes possessive.
Whose cat is that?
That’s my cat.
(うわ、ねこの めが とてもきれいです！)
Wow, the cat’s eyes are really beautiful！
Be careful, here: If we were to say 猫の目はとてもきれいです, what was a nice compliment with が suddenly becomes a sort of veiled insult. Changing が to は makes this sentence sound like “Well, the cat’s eyes are beautiful… but the rest of it isn’t.”
Being Inclusive with も
This is a cool particle that’s sort of like the Pokemon Ditto—it can attach onto and even replace other particles to infuse a meaning of “also” or “too” into them. The meaning of the original particle is maintained when this happens, but も just shows that whatever we said applies not only to the original thing but “additionally to this other thing,” also.
I like cats. I also like dogs.
I’m studying Japanese. I’m studying Mandarin, too.
It can also mean “both.”
Do you like dogs or cats?
Both! I like cats and dogs.
どっち is the colloquial version of どちら, both meaning “either,” suggesting that one of two choices should be picked. Do you like this one or that one? Changing が to も causes 好き to apply to not one of the two things but rather both of them.
Review: Wrapping Up も, の, を and と
As a matter of serendipity, ものをと sounds like 物音 (ものおと), the Japanese word for “sound.” That is, sound as in “not a sound was heard,” not “this sounds like a really boring way to introduce a review section, Sami.”
The English word is a bit ambiguous and requires context to be understood, but if you know your kanji, the connotation of basically any Japanese word is crystal clear at a glance!
も is used to…
- Make a comment about more than one thing.
の is used to…
- Show who something belongs to or what it’s a part of.
を is used to…
- Mark a direct object, thereby showing what you’re doing.
と is used to…
- List more than one response to a question.
- Show who you’re doing something with.
Going (to) Places with に
The particle に is used to show the destination of a verb of motion. Simply attach に to the end of a location to mark it as a destination.
I’m going to Disneyland today！[informal]
You can also attach に onto question words.
Where did you go yesterday?
* The の here is used to emphasize that you’re seeking an explanation from someone.
In a sort of special exception, the word 住む (すむ) — to live is used with に.
Where do you live?
Doing Something (at) a Place with で
Unlike に, there’s no movement involved with the particle で. This particle is used to show the location of an activity.
Above, we asked somebody where they went the previous day. For the sake of this post, let’s take things full circle and say that he went to a pet store. You might then ask:
Oh? What did you do there? (What did you do at that place?)
(にほんで にほんごを べんきょうしています。)
I am studying Japanese in Japan.
Going (Toward) Places with へ
The particle へ can be used to describe where you’re going to, just like the particle に, but it doesn’t always carry the same nuance. へ can carry a stronger feeling of “towards” than “to,” so it’s important to pay attention to what context it’s being used in.
東京 (に・へ) 行った。
(とうきょう [に・へ] いった。)
I went to Tokyo. [Informal]
Whether に or へ is used, both of these sentences can simply mean “I went to Tokyo.” If you use へ, however, this could also be read as “I went/set off toward Tokyo,” leaving the possibility that you didn’t actually get to Tokyo but became distracted along the way.
Unlike に, the particle へ can be followed by the particle の, allowing a noun to be used. This can lead to many metaphorical statements.
A step toward peace.
Marking Indirect Objects with に
に is a particle that wears many hats. One more important hat to be aware of is its use in marking the indirect object of a sentence, which is fancy speak for saying that に is used to show “who” gets the result of an action. It’s not who something is “done” to, but who the action “goes” to.
(がくせいは せんせいに しゅくだいをていしゅつした。)
The student hands their homework in to the teacher. [informal]
We learned about を earlier and how it’s used to mark direct objects, the thing an action is done to. The student gave what? Their homework. To whom? The teacher. The teacher is where the sentence’s action is directed, making them the indirect object.
What’s given doesn’t need to be tangible. The only thing that matters so far as indirect objects are concerned is where an action is aimed at.
(わたしは ともだちに えがおを みせた。)
I smiled at my friend. (Literally: “I showed a smile to my friend”). [informal]
To simplify it:
Who did what to whom?
(Subject) did (direct object) to (indirect object).
Showing Existence with に
We actually hinted at this when we talked about に being used to show where you live, but the particle に (not で) is used to show where something exists. Japanese is a very flexible language, so while it won’t be the case every time, there’s a general structure that can be copied here:
(Somewhere) に (something) が (ある・いる)
The verb いる is used with living, animate objects whereas the verb ある is used with non-living, inanimate objects.
(つくえの うえに えんぴつが ある。)
There’s a pencil on the table. [informal]
(はこのなかに ねこが いる。)
There’s a cat in the box. [informal]
(It looks like my roommate got a cat after all).
Review: Wrapping Up に, で and へ
These particles are used to describe locations and movement. Additionally, they can be paired with other particles to create finer shades of meaning. Here’s a recap of their functions:
に is used to…
- Show the destination of a movement (“to”).
- Mark indirect objects.
- Show that something exists.
で is used to…
- Show where an action takes place (“in,” “at”).
へ is used to…
- Show the destination of a movement similarly to に, but with a stronger feeling of “toward.”
We covered a lot of ground today!
The Genki company estimates that each of the chapters in its books will take about six hours to get through and the particles/structures discussed here are spread out over 10 of the first 14 chapters in the Genki series. That means that the content of this post would normally take many class hours to cover. So don’t be discouraged if it takes time to sink in.
For now, just be aware of each particle’s existence and pay attention to how it’s being used if you stumble upon one in the wild!
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