Fundamentals of Japanese – Part 3: Particles

Now that I’ve covered the Japanese syllabary and writing systems, in this section I’ll be going over the basics of Japanese sentences. To me, the most fundamental parts of Japanese grammar are particles and the “to be” verb, です(desu), which is what I’ll be discussing here in Part 3…


です(desu)/だ(da)

The verb です(desu) and its informal equivalent だ(da) are often called the “to be” verb in Japanese, though they don’t have an exact English translation. In most cases they’re used to indicate if something “is” or “isn’t.” Like other verbs (which I’ll discuss in Part 4), です(desu) and だ(da) conjugate.

Present tense:

私は弁護士です
Watashi wa bengoshi desu.
I am a lawyer.

田中
Tanaka da.
I’m/He’s/She’s/It’s Tanaka.

The reason the hiragana は(ha) is pronounced “wa” in the first sentence and others will be explained in a bit.

Like in Spanish, if the subject of the sentence is already understood, pronouns such as “he” and “she” aren’t typically used in Japanese. Therefore, in the case of the second sentence, who Tanaka is would depend on the context (for simplicity’s sake in the following sample sentences, I’ll keep it as “It’s Tanaka.”) The first sentence however, specifically states who the lawyer is, in this case it’s the speaker. If it only said 弁護士です。(bengoshi desu.) without the pronoun for “I,” like the second sentence we’d have to determine who it’s talking about through context.

Past tense:

私は弁護士でした
Watashi wa bengoshi deshita.
I was a lawyer.

田中だった
Tanaka datta.
It was Tanaka.

Present-Negative tense:

私は弁護士ではありません
Watashi wa bengoshi dewa arimasen.
I am not a lawyer.

田中ではない
Tanaka dewa nai.
It isn’t Tanaka.

In more colloquial, casual speech, では(dewa) is contracted to じゃ(ja). With that, the present-negative conjugations of the sentences would be じゃありません(ja arimasen) and じゃない(ja nai) respectively.

Past-Negative tense:

私は弁護士ではありませんでした
Watashi wa bengoshi dewa arimasen deshita.
I was not a lawyer.

田中ではなかった
Tanaka dewa nakatta.
It wasn’t Tanaka.

Again, では(dewa) can be contracted to じゃ(ja) for colloquial speech, so the first sentence would be じゃありませんでした(ja arimasen deshita) and the second would be じゃなかった(ja nakatta).


Particles

Particles in Japanese sentences are used to “codify” words and connect nouns, verbs, and adjectives together. They can be tricky for English-speakers to grasp since English has very few particles in comparison and they’re used quite differently. There are a lot of particles in Japanese and I won’t be able to cover every single one in this post series. But I will cover the most basic ones in this part and will cover a few more in later parts.

は(wa): は is the particle that marks the topic of the sentence and introduces what the sentence is going to be about. Although it’s usually translated as “is” or “are,” it more specifically means “as for…” Like in the sample sentence I used for です(desu), the は(wa) in 私は弁護士です(watashi wa bengoshi desu) indicates that “As for me(私/watashi), I’m a lawyer(弁護士/bengoshi).” It’s written with the hiragana symbol は that’s usually pronounced “ha,” but as a particle it’s pronounced “wa.”

Example: 正子学生です。
Masako wa gakusei desu.
Masako is a student/As for Masako, she’s a student.

Again, if it’s already understood that you’re talking about Masako, you could just say 学生です。/gakusei desu. (She’s a student.)

—–

が(ga): While は(wa) marks the topic of the sentence, が(ga) marks the subject of the sentence. It’s easy to get these two mixed up so let’s look at an example.

Example: 兄はすし好きです。
Ani wa sushi ga suki desu.
My brother likes sushi.

First is the topic 兄/ani (my brother) followed by は(wa). This indicates that what follows is going to be concerning the speaker’s brother. Then the subject すし/sushi marked by が(ga) indicates what the verb or adjective is acting upon. In this case, the adjective 好き/suki (likable) is describing where the topic (my brother) stands as far as the subject (sushi) is concerned. Translated very literally, this sentence would mean “As for my brother, sushi is likable.” And again, if “my brother” is already understood as the topic under discussion, you could just say すしが好きです。/suchi ga suki desu.(He likes sushi.) Not all は(wa)/が(ga) sentences follow this pattern though…I personally still have trouble differentiating the two particles.

—–

(ni): に(ni) is a direction or placement particle; it indicates direction towards which a verb is heading or where something is located. It comes before “movement” verbs such as 行く/iku (to go) and 来る/kuru (to come) and after a location where something is indicated to be. It usually translates as “to,” “on,” or “in.”

Example: 山本はアメリカ行きました。
Yamamoto wa Amerika ni ikimashita.
Yamamoto went to America.

The verb 行きました/ikimashita, conjugated from 行く/iku (to go), is a verb indicating movement. So に(ni) following アメリカ(America) indicates that it’s the place of destination.

Example: テーブルの上新聞がある。
Teeburu no ue ni shinbun ga aru.
There’s a newspaper on the table.

The words translate as follows; テーブルの上/teburu no ue (top of the table), 新聞/shinbun (newspaper), and ある/aru (to be/exist).

—–

へ(e): へ(e) indicates the direction of motion and is interchangeable with に(ni) in these cases. In my first sample sentence for に(ni) for example, へ(e) could be used in its place. It’s written with the hiragana symbol へ that’s usually pronounced “he,” but as a particle it’s pronounced “e.”

—–

で(de): で(de) indicates where an action is taking place or by what means some action was done.

Example: 私は図書館待ちます。
Watashi wa toshokan de machimasu.
I will wait at the library.

待ちます/machimasu (to wait) is the verb. で(de) follows 図書館/toshokan (library) indicating that it’s the place where the action of waiting is or will take place.

Example: バス学校に来た。
Basu de gakkou ni kita.
I/He/She came to school by bus.

バス/basu (bus) で(de), literally “by means of the bus,” 学校に来た/gakkou ni kita (I, He, She, etc, depending on the context, came to school).

—–

を(o): を(o) is the direct object particle. It comes before a transitive verb and after the thing to which the action is being done. It’s written with the hiragana symbol を that’s usually pronounced “wo,” but as a particle it’s pronounced “o.”

Example: リンさんはレストランでピザ食べた。
Rin-san wa resutoran de piza o tabeta.
Mr. Lin ate pizza at the restaurant.

食べた/tabeta (ate) is the action, so the direct object which has the action being done to it is the food, ピザ/piza (pizza).

Example: 本読みました。
Hon o yomimashita.
I/He/She read a book.

読みました/yomimashita (read) is the action, and 本/hon (book) is the direct object that this action is acting upon.

—–

と(to): と(to) generally translates as “and” or “with.”

Example: 私明は大学生です。
Watashi to Akira wa daigakusei desu.
Akira and I are college students.

と(to) can only be used as “and” for nouns. It can’t be used in such a sentence as “he’s nice and handsome” since those are adjectives being listed.

Example: 友達宿題をした。
Tomodachi to shukudai o shita.
I did homework with a friend.

Here と(to) translates as “with.” The rest of the words are 友達/tomodachi (friend), 宿題/shukudai (homework), and した/shita (did).

—–

の(no): の(no) is the possession particle. It acts a lot like the “apostrophe ‘s’” in English. It comes before the noun that is in possession and after the noun that is the “possessor.” It can also mean “of” or “from” when describing how one noun relates to another.

Example: さき車だ。
Saki no kuruma da.
It’s Saki’s car.

Example: これは日本歌です。
Kore wa nihon no uta desu.
This is a Japanese song/This is a song from Japan.

—–

か(ka): か(ka) is the question particle. It acts like a question mark in English (though question marks are also used to some extent in Japanese). Unlike English however, there’s no need to change the original sentence when making it a question – just putting か(ka) at the end makes it a question in Japanese. か(ka) can also mean “or” within a choice of noun as in the second sample sentence below.

Example: 昨日テレビを見ました
Kinou terebi o mimashita ka.
Did you watch TV yesterday?

Taking the か(ka) away simply changes the sentence to a statement, 昨日テレビを見ました/kinou terebi o mimashita (I watched TV yesterday).

Example: 車タクシーで行く。
Kuruma ka takushii de iku.
I will either go by car or taxi.

—–

And that’s all the particles I’m going to cover here. Like I said, I feel that these are the most fundamental ones and I’ll most likely be discussing a few more in later sections.

So to end this post, below are simple anime-related sample sentences I made up to help reinforce what I covered in this part =)

ピカチュウポケモンです。
Pikachuu wa pokemon desu.
Pikachu is a pokemon.

シンジエヴァンゲリオンパイロットだった。
Shinji wa Evangerion no pairotto datta.
Shinji was an Evangelion pilot.

こなたかがみつかさコミケット行った。
Konata to Kagami to Tsukasa wa comiketto ni itta.
Konata, Kagami, and Tsukasa went to Comiket.

ライトデスノート持っている。
Raito wa desu nouto o motteiru.
Light has a Death Note.

ケーキ食べたい。
Yui wa keeki o tabetai.
Yui wants to eat cake.

キュゥべぇ契約します
Kyuubee to keiyaku shimasu ka.
Will you make a contract with Kyubey?

エルリック兄弟錬金術何か作った。
Erurikku kyouda wa renkinjutsu de nanika o tsuktta.
The Elric brothers made something with alchemy.

—–On to Part 4: Verbs and Adjectives
—–Back to Part 2: Reading

21 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Mushyrulez says:

    Ahhh!! “Pikachu is a pokemon” should be “Speaking of Pikachu, [he is a] Pokemon”, shouldn’t it? All the は examples I went through used it as a form of ‘to be’, which thoroughly confused me for several centuries when I realized は only marks the topic.

    A sentence that might help with the distinction is ‘私はピカチュウ。’, which stresses that は introduces the topic. “I am Pikachu,” doesn’t make sense, but “Speaking of me, [I like] Pikachu’ does (well, I guess you have to put a sentence before that, “What Pokemon do you like,” which would already introduce yourself as the topic…).

    Those examples were probably all wrong, but oh well.

    P.S. I actually find that direct immersion is easier than building from fundamentals. For those completely new to the language, none of this makes sense at all since we haven’t had enough examples. For those who can understand this, well… they’ve already understood it. Not to say that these lessons aren’t educational; just that they actually seem much harder to grasp than simply working from commonly-used phrases. One major part of learning a new language is simply accepting everything the teacher tells you without question, and only learning the fundamental concepts of the language later. After all, one doesn’t need a perfect (or even a decent) grasp of even basic English grammar to competently communicate in it…

    (And I realize that you talked about it when introducing it, but people will easily forget about it!!)

    • Alterego 9 says:

      I think, all of us anime fans know enough common phrases to start here, even the ones like me, who I’ve never learned Japanese. I didn’t even really start to consciously learn it on my own, but I already knew quite a few words from watching a shitload of subbed anime. It’s especially entertaining to deduce the meaning of words from the translations of titles.

      For example Hanasaku, AnoHana, AnoNatsu, and Natsuiro, together give me four different esily memorable words. That, Flower, Summer, Color. Also learning the particles between these words, is like finally getting the last piece of a puzzle.

      • Yumeka says:

        Being an anime fan really is great for building vocabulary even if the words learned aren’t always useful. I learned a word like 槍/yari (lance, spear) from Evangelion a decade ago – not a word I’d need to use in everyday life, but it’s something XD

    • Yumeka says:

      For your first point, the sentence could also be translated as “As for Pikachu, he’s a pokemon.” But that sounds a bit too literal in English so usually sentences that start with” 私は…/watashi wa…” are translated as “I am…”

      Which leads to your second sentence, which would mean “I am Pikachu.” Even if the context beforehand was “Which pokemon do you like?” you’d have to say “私はピカチュウが好き/watashi wa Pikachu ga suki or just “ピカチュウが好き/Pikachu ga suki.” Other than that it wouldn’t be a complete reply to the question or wouldn’t make sense.

      As for your P.S, what I’m trying to do with this post series is present it in such a way that it will make sense even to people brand new to Japanese. Of course, everyone has different ways of learning and some may be like you described and learn better via “instant immersion.” But I think there are at least an equal number of people who learn from the basics upwards, which is what I’m trying to teach.

    • D. Gates says:

      I think it’s important to have both a grammatical foundation and sufficient exposure to real-world usage of the language.

      Understanding fundamental concepts about a language, its structure, and how it differs from the learner’s native language give a framework for analyzing and understanding the language. Going from Japanese to English, these would include concepts like particles and gobi; how particles, gobi, and verbs go at the end of their respective grammatical units; and the general contextual nature of the language. It’s also useful to know the basic differences in Japanese verbs and nouns (e.g. nouns aren’t inflected for plurality, and verbs aren’t conjugated to agree with the subject).

      On the other hand, just learning out of a textbook will create a mental model of the language that’s disconnected from reality. With any language, at some point you need to be able to think in the language instead of back-translating everything to English; otherwise, you’ll miss concepts and nuances that don’t have an English equivalent. This is particularly important for a language as fundamentally different as Japanese. Too many Japanese guides never show the way out of the English mindset, and only have examples where {Japanese concept} = {English concept}. 緑 (midori) is not exactly the same concept as “green”, just like “emerald”, “lime”, and “mint” are all different. 緑 ≈ “green” is a great starting point, though.

      Hearing or reading real-world language and watching for where it doesn’t fit your mental model lets you correct misconceptions and tune your understanding. Just how strong an augmentative is 絶対 (zettai)? What about ちょう (chou)? When can you use 力 (chikara) when you wouldn’t use “strength” or “power”? How is 神 (kami) different from “god”? I’ve seen guides that teach that Japanese is a Subject-Object-Verb language, and always puts subjects before objects. If you’re paying attention though, just hearing and reading real-world Japanese lets you identify and correct that misunderstanding. In keeping with this guide’s use of anime references, one example is AnoHana’s full title: あの日見た花の名前を僕達はまだ知らない (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai).

      I’m the opposite of most people learning Japanese that like Japanese media: I got into the media because I wanted to learn Japanese. I started with a good guide (that taught a Japanese mindset from the beginning), but my prior language-learning experience taught me the importance of immersion. While it’s important to have both, real-world exposure is essential; otherwise, you’re not really experiencing the language.

      Not that that diminishes the value of a guide like this one, of course. A lone blogger helping people learn Japanese doesn’t need to provide hours of real-world Japanese. We have Japan for that! ^_^

  2. chikorita157 says:

    Also, が can be used in place of は for the subject for more emphasis… but in some cases like だれ or どの, you must use が。Using は would be incorrect. For instance
    どのポケットモンスターが好きですか。 (Which Pokemon do you like?)

    Also, の can be used as a pronoun if the noun is already mentioned…
    日本の食べ物のほうがアメリカのよりおいしいです。(Japanese Food is more delicious than American food.)
    白いスカーフを買いました。赤いのもかいました。(I bought a white scarf. I brought a red one too.) の:スカーフ

    Also, や functions the same way as と, but used for making a list, especially for examples.

    • Yumeka says:

      I think what you’re trying to say with が is that it needs to be used with interrogatives (question words like “Who?” “What?”) and as the subject marker like in your “Which pokemon do you like?” sentence, which are both correct.

      And you’re right about の; it’s still being used in the same way (modifying the noun) but the noun doesn’t have to be repeated, like in your second sentence.

      And や was one of the particles I didn’t talk about, but yes, you’re correct about what it does. It can also be translated as “such things as…”

  3. BeldenOtaku says:

    が gives me so much trouble in class, it’s not even funny. Your examples definitely help, but I still get thrown off by when to use it and when to just stick to は.
    Usually because I overthink it, probably.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, a lot of times, sentences aren’t very clear about what’s the topic and what’s the subject, especially in long, complex sentences. Cytrus’ comment about wa and ga below sheds some more light, so you might want to take a look =)

  4. Frootytooty says:

    は and が still confuse me to this day. In your ‘want to eat cake’ example, why do you use が? Wouldn’t it be を since it’s the object that the verb applies to?

    • Cytrus says:

      Both “wo” and “ga” are grammatically correct here.

      The “+tai” verb form (~want to) traditionally links with ga. (Which is also the case for i-adjectives, and +tai could be considered an i-adjective within this context.)

      But since the cake is the object of “eating” here, wo is also acceptable.

    • Yumeka says:

      Like Cytrus said, in many cases を or が can be used when the verb is conjugated to express desire “+tai form.” But it wasn’t good of me to use が in that sentence since it wouldn’t follow what I just talked about in the post concerning the two particles. So I actually just went and changed the sentence to を to make sure I don’t confuse anyone else ^^,,,

  5. Cytrus says:

    I think the biggest issue with ga and wa is that the subject and topic of a sentence are one and the same more than half the time, so there are few good opportunities to grasp the differences. A tip for people struggling with this is that a topic can be dropped as long as it is understood, which means that for every sentence in which wa is the correct choice, there exists a context in which wa and the word preceding it could be dropped.

    Amerika wa atatakai desu. (It’s warm in America.)
    Atatakai desu. (It’s warm (here). – When the speaker is in America.)

    This is not the case with ga, because it points to the rheme, or simply new information in a sentence. If it were possible to drop the word before ga, the sentence would stop making sense (to the listener, at least).

    “Kare ha mada ikite iru” and “Kare ga mada ikite iru” are both grammatically correct and about equally likely sentences. The second one introduces or defines a new subject (kare), the first one refers to something the listener already knows and expects (still the same kare, though).

    This theme-rheme mechanic overlaps somewhat with defined and undefined articles in English, so you native English speakers can feel privileged here :P.

  6. Kal says:

    O.o Quite a number of rules and exceptions, and I guess this is just a small part. I’ll eventually need to take classes to be able to learn all that. I had the “des” and “desu”, and I can add the “deshita” to the things I can listen for :)

    • Yumeka says:

      Actually, there really aren’t that many grammar rule exceptions in Japanese, at least compared to English. So there’s one thing that makes it a not too scary language to learn =)

      And did you mean “desu” and “da?” (because I’m not sure what “des” is…)

      • Salion says:

        “des” is how folks usually pronounce “desu” – with a silent ‘u’. It seems to vary somewhat by dialect, but I usually only hear the ‘u’ pronounced if the “desu” is added to the end of a sentence for emphasis (rather than its more common usage as “to be”). It’s use is kind of like “ka” in those situations – but rather than a question mark, the “desu” takes on the role of an exclamation mark or authoritative/imposing period.

        • Yumeka says:

          Yeah, the “u” in “desu” is usually very softened or not pronounced at all, but in romaji I’ve always seen it written as “desu” regardless. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it written as “des” so I wasn’t sure if it was the same thing.

          • Salion says:

            Yeah, I’ve never seen it written that way either, but folks who only know a couple of words from anime probably think of it as “des”.

  7. Kumoshi says:

    I’ve always gotten confused about when to use は and when to use が, but your explanation helped clear up the difference between them for me. Thank you (:

    You mentioned that へ is interchangeable with に “in these cases”… So, are there situations where the two cannot be used interchangeably? o:

    • Yumeka says:

      Glad I could help you with は and が ^_^

      As for へ, what I meant by “in these cases” is when it’s used to indicate the direction of motion. So it could be interchangeable with に in the first sample sentence (山本はアメリカに行きました) but not in the second because the second isn’t indicating direction, but rather, placement/location.

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