There is a very common particle in Japanese that you will see in nearly every sentence you read. It is spelled in Rōmaji as “wo” and in hiragana as 「を」. So what does wo mean in Japanese? And what is the correct way to use it?
That’s exactly what we’ll go over today in this lesson. There is a very simple answer that I want to go over and illustrate first, and then move on to a few more complicated uses.
The Simple Explanation on “wo”
First of all, を is the direct object marker for the Japanese language. What that simply means is that, it gets attached to the end of the word that received the action of the verb. Let’s see an example now:
- I eat a pear.
As you can see from that example, the を particle gets attached to the end of 梨 「なし」which means “pear” in Japense. So we know that some sort of action is happening to the pear in this sentence.
When we move over to the verb, which is 食べる「たべる」for “to eat” we can see the complete picture of what is happening in to the object we are talking about.
Let’s take a look at some other simple examples to really drive this point home. Be sure to pay close attention to what word を gets attached to and how it functions in the sentence.
- Tom hit the ball.
- Please read this book.
- To drink tea.
I would classify を within the category of basic Japanese grammar, since you will see it used it nearly every sentence you encounter. It helps that this primary usage of it is simple and easy to understand.
Having said that, let’s continue on as there are some other interesting things to note on it.
Is it actually pronounced as “wo”?
When you first learn about the particle を, you almost always see it listed as “wo” for its pronunciation. But if you listen to people speaking, nine times out of ten they will pronounce it as just the vowel “o” and they will completely omit the “w” from it.
So which is correct?
The short answer is that, you should pronounce it as just “o” when you speak these days. In older generations it was more common to say is as 「ぅお」which is similar to, though still different from the English “wo” that a lot of people are taught, but nowadays it is much more common in the standard Tokyo Dialect to use “o” for the particle を.
Side Note: for those who want to know, 「ぅお」is a small “u” sound, followed immeiately by a full “o” sound.
The thing about all languages is that, they are alive, and will change slowly through time. If you have to pick a side to be on, it is generally best to pick the side that is used by the current generation (10-40 year old’s) as it will dominate in the near future.
In my own observations, I have noticed that most people pronounce を as “o” for the majority of the time, but there are occasions where 「ぅお」pops up with regularity. I have found that when を follows the 「ん」sound, it tends to come out more as the 「ぅお」 sound instead of the straight 「お」in Japanese.
The most common example would be the Japanese word for the “book” which we saw earlier as 本「ほん」and ends with that 「ん」sound that I mentioned earlier. Here’s a different for it example:
- I will read the whole book today!
So to summarize this section: try to pronounce を as just “o” even though there will be a tendency to hear folks from earlier generations pronounce it as 「ぅお」, especially when を appears after an 「ん」sound in Japanese.
What About the Katakana Version?
So something that I found to be rather interesting is that, when people learn how to read and write katakana, they are introduced to the katakana version of を, which is ヲ. But how many times have you actually seen ヲ used before?
Why is this? Well, the first thing you have to think about is that, most of katakana is used for loan words, or the names of certain plants and animals. This means that katakana is never used specifically for grammar purposes like particles.
However, there is one very specific situation where everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, has to use katakana regardless of what words they are.
It is in this particular situation where ヲ will be used as the direct object marker instead of を. Do you know what it is? I’ll give you a hint: you probably won’t ever need to use it.
Yep, that’s right. When people are using telegrams, everything gets written in katakana, including wo in Japanese, written as ヲ for these situations.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve literally never used a telegram in my entire life. So you probably don’t need to worry too much about ヲ. Best to just stick with を and call it good.
A Few Other Situations for を in Japanese
So I said earlier that を is the “direct object marker” in Japanese, and it identifies what object receives the action of the verb. This is true, but there are certain types of situations in Japanese where を also gets used in, that aren’t completely obvious for an English speaker’s point of view. I’d like to briefly go over a few of them now so that you can be familiar with them.
MOTION: First of all, を can be used in combination with a few motion verbs such as (but not limited to) the following:
- 歩く (to walk)
- 走る (to run)
- 飛ぶ (to fly)
In these situations, the を particle will mark the “thing” that the action is happening inside of. Here’s what I mean:
- Today, (I) walked through town.
- Birds are flying in the sky.
OCCUPATION: Sometimes を can be used when identifying a specific position or occupation that one has:
- Sarah’s mother is a dietitian.
INSTEAD OF が: When you want to say that you “want to do something” you use the 「たい」form of the verb and you use the particle が to mark the thing you want to do. However, it is also correct to use を in these situations instead of が.
The main difference is that, が brings a stronger, more emphatic nuance to the sentence than を does, but you can use either of them for the phrase.
- I want to drink some beer.
- I wanna’ drink some beer!
There are actually quite a few other situations where を can be used correctly, but it is beyond the scope of this article to accurately cover them all in detail. So instead of that, allow me to direct you towards a fantastic book on Japanese particles that you can check out if you are interested.
When a Sentence Ends in を
Alright, I am going to finish off this post on wo in Japanese by going over one final situation that you will occasionally see it used in. Here, it is when を is used to end a sentence in Japanese.
Now, you may have been told that a Japanese sentence always ends in a verb, and technically that is correct.
But really what they should have told you is that, “a complete sentence always ends in a verb.” Sometimes, the verb is left out and you have to infer it from the context.
It is very common is spoken Japanese to break the grammar rules you learned from a beginner book or course, and one of the ways they do this is like the following example:
Now this sentence literally says: “who, が particle, this kind of, terrible, letter, を particle, …”
A natural translation into English would be: “Who wrote such a terrible letter?”
As you can see though, the verb for “to write” was left entirely out of the sentence because within the context of the conversation that the two people were having, it wasn’t necessary to explicitly state it.
So just be aware that there will be times when listening to Japanese people speak where the sentence will end in を and, like a detective, you will have to deduce the verb based on the information. Knowing how を is marking that final word will be a big help in this regards.
Still confused on how to understand wo in Japanese? Let me know your questions and comments down below and I’ll be sure to get back with you!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: