Japanese particles… you gotta’ learn them! Most of the time it’s not really a problem as they make a lot of logical sense in the way that you use them. But there are two in particular that tend to give English speakers some trouble. They are the particles は and が.
The difference between wa and ga in Japanese is sometimes vague, but it’s important since it will change the emphasis (and sometimes even the meaning) of a sentence if you mix the two up.
Sometimes using one over the other is just flat out wrong too.
Mastering the correct usage of は and が will not only help you to understand Japanse on a deeper level, but it will also make you sound more like a native when speaking.
Let’s take a look at each of their definitions, and then some useful ways of remembering how to use them.
What are the Particles は and が?
Okay, let’s start with は which uses the same hiragana for the sound ha in Japanese, but it is actually pronounced wa when it is used as a particle.
What kind of particle is it used as? It’s called the topic particle, which means that it is used to mark or highlight whatever the topic of the sentence is. Or to put it another way, は will follow whatever it is that you’re talking about.
Here’s some examples that show this:
リカは学生だ = Rika is a student (this sentence is about ‘Rika’)
学生はリカだ = The student is Rika (this sentence is about ‘the student’)
What’s interesting is that in Japanese, once the topic has been established, it is often dropped for the remainder of the conversation.
So you’re not going to see it used in every sentence that you read. Instead, you’ll have to remember it from earlier until a new topic is established.
Then we get to が which is known as the subject particle. This name can be a little confusing since both the topic and subject of a sentence can be the same thing, and we don’t really have a clear way to distinguish them in English.
So a better name for it might be the identifier particle since it is quite often used when a person wants to identify something. You could also alternatively call it the action particle because が marks who performs an action (and を marks who receives it, but we’ll save that for another time).
誰が来たの？ = Who came? (here, が is trying to identify)
リカがジョンを誘った = Rika invited John (Rika is marked with が since she performed the action)
The Japanese language is able to be very precise in ways that English isn’t through the use of these two particles. For example, let’s see the exact same sentence, but one with は and the other with が and see how the meaning changes.
僕は学生だ = (as for me) I am a student
僕が学生だ = I am (the one who is) a student.
The same sentence brings a different meaning depending on which particle you use.
It’s nice to know these two particles academically (so you can explain it to others), but that’s not always helpful for your comprehension. So let’s see some tricks for remembering the correct one to use, some rules that will help you keep them straight, and some examples so you can see them in action.
Tricks for Remembering the Correct One
What I’m going to do is give you some short English phrases that you can substitute in for either は or が so that the translation in English will feel natural to you and you’ll use the correct particle in Japanese.
English phrases for は
- “Talking about は”
- “As for は”
- “What I will say from now on is about は”
- “Speaking of は”
So in the Japanese phrase 昨日は日本語を勉強しなかった which has a simple translation of “I didn’t study yesterday” but using the above English phrases you can see how the sentence is really talking about “yesterday”
- Talking about yesterday, I didn’t study Japanese.
- As for yesterday, I didn’t study Japanese.
- Speaking of yesterday, I didn’t study Japanese.
These phrases might seem a little long-winded and unnecessary right now, but once you read the next section for が, you will see how both of them can be used in a compare and contrast sort of way to help determine which particle should be used.
English phrases for が
- “が is the one…”
- “が is the thing…”
So referring back to the earlier phrase リカがジョンを誘った, you could understand it as “Rika is the one who invited John.
This last example shows how calling が the “identifier/action particle” makes it easier to understand since Rika, who is marked with が, identifies who performed the action in the sentence.
Truth be told though, whatever helps you the best is what you should go with.
So, to sum this section up: if you’ve got a sentence in mind that you want to say, but you’re not sure if you should use は or が, try inserting the above English phrases into it and see which one feels natural.
Of course nothing is ever simple, and there is still another way to understand the は and が particles. It has to do with new information vs. information that is already known.
New vs. Known Information
Another way to understand how to use the two particles is that は is used to talk about information that the other person already knows, whereas が is used to introduce new information.
A simple way to remember this is to think of は being the same as the English word the and が being the same as the English word a.
So the first time you see a dog, you might say:
There is a dog over there (new information to the other person)
But in the next sentence, you would most likely switch to は since it is now known information, and you will probably want to mark it as the topic.
The dog is so cute
Seeing as how は is used to talk about information the other person already knows, not everything has to first be introduced with が like in the dog examples above.
So if you’re talking about a friend you both know, or if you’re talking about the sky, or dogs in general (and not a specific dog), then you can use は right away.
On the other hand, questions (or interrogatives) are pretty much always about new information and will use が for 何 (what?), 誰 (who?), and どこ (where?).
What is interesting?
As a final note in this section, は is also used for compare and contrast sentences (I like this, but not that) and to emphasize certain words.
Used for compare and contrast:
I can drink wine, but not beer.
Used for emphasis:
Yesterday, I didn’t study Japanese (but I studied it on a different day)
I didn’t study Japanese yesterday (but I studied something else)
Usually in English we emphasis words like this through the use of tonality when we’re speaking.
Verbs that Generally Use ga
There are a few verbs that generally use が as a marker for the thing that they act upon.
This isn’t an unbreakable rule, but rather a guideline. Or to put it a different way, this is usually what people do.
Use が when you want, need, like, understand, or can do something.
I want a cat
I want to eat an apple
I need money.
I like coffee.
I understand English.
I can read English.
I’ve aldo read that you can use が in place of を when you want to use emphasis for the direct object. But I don’t see it used that way too often.
Sometimes there will be situations where the topic and the subject are the same word. When that happens, just use は as the particle. You will never use は and が for the same word.
But of course they will both appear in the same sentence when the topic and subject are different words.
Other than that, I hope that this article helped you to understand how to use wa and ga in Japanese!
Thanks for reading!
Let me know in the comments section if you’ve got any questions or you think anything is missing in the explanations above!