What Is The Japanese Particle To (と)?

It may sound weird to have a favorite particle in Japanese, but for whatever reason the “to” particle, spelled as と in Japanese, has always seemed pretty cool to me. You may be wondering, what is the Japanese particle “to”?

Well, that’s what today’s post is all about. Truth be told, this one particle has a crap-load of uses (that’s the technical term) and it’s really beyond the scope of this blog to provide 100% of the possible ways that you can use it.

Fortunately, there are just a few meanings you need to understand in order to comprehend most material. Here are what I consider to be the most important meanings of this word.

It Can Be Used For “And” Or “With”

The most basic way to understand と is as the English word “and” or “with” which can sometimes be understood as the same thing, but sometimes not.

Let’s say that you’re talking about an exhaustive list of items. In that case, this is the correct particle to use in order to connect them together.

  • バナナと卵のレシピ
  • banana to tamago no reshipi
  • banana and egg recipes

The thing to keep in mind when you’re using と in this way is that the things you list are the only things involved. If for some reason you said “I’ve got a cat and a dog and such” but you didn’t specifically mention that you also own a gerbil, that would require a different particle.

  • 犬と猫を飼っている。
  • inu to neko o katte iru.
  • I have a dog and a cat (and no other animals).

The other way that we can use と is as the English word “with” when you’re talking about being with a person. This is often seen in the expression と一緒に (to issho ni) which means “together with” another person, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be combined with this new word.

The key part in the above tweet is the 「家内と一緒に」 which means “with my wife” in Japanese. Although, “together with my wife” might be a better translation since it contains more than just the particle.

If we wanted to just use the particle on its own, it might look like the following:

  • 社長と食事をしました。
  • shachou to shokuji o shimashita.
  • I ate lunch with the company president.

At any rate, when you see と connecting one or more nouns like the above examples, then think of it along the two meanings that we talked about here and see if that makes the most sense.

It Sometimes Means “If” Or “When”

There are several words in Japanese for “when” and と is one of them. The nuance of this particular one is that と is used when the “if” if hypothetical.

Let’s say for example that some kids are waiting in class and the teacher hasn’t arrived yet. One of them might ask “what are we going to do”? since they are not sure. Another kid might respond with the following:

  • 先生が来ないと授業が始められない。
  • sensei ga konai to jugyou ga hajime rarenai.
  • If the teacher doesn’t come, class can’t get started.

In this situation, we don’t really know if the teacher will come or not, so the situation is kind of up in the air until such time has passed that we have our final answer.

This is a bit different from our other meaning of と in this section.

When the Japanese particle “to” is used for “when” it is used to show the inevitability of the second thing that must also occur.

  • ボールを落とすと落ちる。
  • bōru o otosu to ochiru.
  • If you drop a ball, it will fall.

In this last example we see that one action was committed, the dropping of the ball, this then leads to the next action of the ball falling which absolutely must happen due to the laws of gravity.

Keep that connection in mind since there are different strategies for saying that you did one thing and then another. The second action that happens with this と is one that is out of the control of the individual.

It Is Used For Talking And Thinking

Aren’t Japanese particles interesting? They are like spoken words that function in the same way that the English language uses certain symbols.

For example, the particle の is like an apostrophe (‘). The particle か is like a question mark (?). And the particle と sometimes functions like quotation marks (” “).

That’s because this particle is sometimes used when people are quoting something that another person has said.

  • 「帰る」といった。
  • kaeru to itta.
  • (He) said “I’m coming home.”

Something that I should mention is that the と particle often appears alongside certain words. For this particular case, it often appears in combination with the word 言う (iu) which means “to say” in Japanese.

Of course, keep in mind that this word can be conjugated into many different forms, such as 言います (iimasu) for the polite form, or different honorific versions such as 申す (mousu).

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking” before.

Well as it turns out, the Japanese agree!

We are also required to use this same particle when we are “thinking” something, instead of saying it.

In this case, the words that will normally appear are 考える (kangaeru) which means “to ponder” and 思う (omou) which means “to think.”

I’m not going to go into the details of when to use one of these verbs over the other so that we can stay focused on our topic.

  • 彼は学者だと思われている。
  • kare wa gakusha da to omoware teiru.
  • He is thought of as a scholar.

For situations like the ones that we’ve gone over in this section, think of と as marker that tells you the earlier words are encapsulated in quotation marks and that a person is either thinking it, or saying it.

It Is Used With Onomatopoeia

Another fascinating aspect of Japanese is the prevalence of onomatopoeia, which are words that represent sounds. These can be sounds that animals make such as “bark”, or it can be sound effects like “boom!”

Anyway, there are many times in Japanese where these words are immediately followed by the と particle which is one way that you can identify them when reading or listening.

  • キラキラと輝いている。
  • kira kira to kagayai teiru.
  • (it) is shining brightly.

In this case, the と is functioning like a connector between the キラキラ which means “glittering; sparkling” and the verb which means “to shine.”

Although it’s not always required to use this particle with these words, you will often see them when reading so I wanted to mention them.

A Resource For Learning More

We went over a ton of information in this lesson. To be honest, I feel like I only gave you a few examples and a brief explanation on each of these uses. For that, I do apologize as you might need more before the information really sinks in.

To make matters worse, these weren’t even all of the ways to use と!

So in order to make it up to you, I wanted to mention a book that I’ve found invaluable in my own quest to understanding this aspect of Japanese grammar.

It’s a book that is All About Japanese Particles and it not only covers today’s word, but a lot more to boot.

So if you feel like you want to learn more, then give that book a look and see if it’s what you’re needing.

Other than that, if you’ve got any questions about one of the ways to use と that I mentioned in this post, please let me know with a comment down below and I will do what I can to help you.

And as always, thanks for reading!

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