Particles: the difference between WA and GA
UPDATE AUGUST 5, 2012: It’s been two and a half years since I originally wrote this post, and thanks to the many helpful comments I was able to go back and polish things a bit. The content of the article has not really changed, but I think the wording is a little clearer now. Please keep the feedback coming
Japanese particles are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand they make Japanese grammar simple and direct, almost like a computer language. They always follow the rules because they are the rules. Particles tell us “this word does this” and “this other word does that.” However, these little suffixes can cause tremendous headaches for us English-speaking learners because they group meanings together quite differently than our English equivalents (prepositions), or in some cases have no equivalent at all.
Of the lot, wa (は) and ga (が) are almost certainly the most annoying pair of particles to keep straight, no doubt because neither of them has a true English equivalent. They’re probably the most frequently used particles in the language, so you need to learn them early (note: you won’t master them early), but it’s very difficult to find a decent explanation for them even in big bulky text books. And if you ever want to make your Japanese teacher sweat, just ask them to explain the difference.
I’ve devoted a lot of introspective soul-searching time to thinking about these two little guys, and in this article, I’m going to do my best to shed some new, meaningful light on the difference between は and が.
Traditional wa and ga “explanations”
First, lets do a quick wrap up of the 3 big bread-and-butter responses you’re most likely to get when asking someone about the difference between は and が.
Stock response #1: は is the topic marker and が is the subject marker.
Learner reaction: Well gee, thanks, that clears up everything for me (sarcasm). Aren’t “subject” and “topic” synonyms??
Stock response #2: You just have to get used to it. You’ll figure it out eventually. Don’t worry about it.
Learner reaction: I don’t want to figure it out “eventually,” dammit, I want to know right now!!
Stock response #3: Look at this example and see how は and が changes the meaning!
Learner reaction: Well okay, I get the example, at least, but what happens in this different sentence? You’ve given me a fish without teaching me how to do it myself.
While none of these explanations is inherently wrong or useless (except maybe #2), each fails in its own unique way to really get at the root of our problem: there has to be a better way to explain it. So… you ask, what is the real difference between は and が…?
The real difference
は is the topic marker and が is the subject marker. Wait! Cursors off the back button, please. Hear me out.
There’s a reason you’ve heard this explanation so many times. The problem is just that no one bothers to explain what they mean by topic and what they mean by subject. To learn our Japanese, we first have to have our English on right. Here’s a diagram to illustrate:
- Topic: a non-grammatical context for the whole sentence.
- Subject: a grammatical relationship only to the verb.
See, that’s not so hard, right? By the way, I’ve worded these two definitions very carefully so if you just glanced over them, go back and read them closely, please, because this is very important. Okay? done? Let’s move on, then…
The number one difference is that while a subject has a explicit grammatical role (the thing which does the verb), a topic is just like a big cloud, with no set relationship to what’s actually going on in the sentence; it’s just there, floating around the sentence.
Okay, so that’s all well and good: subject versus topic.
Piece of cake.
Right? Not quite…
Subject and topic are very distinct roles and it’s not difficult to understand their theoretical difference. But what is a poor gaijin to do in real-life situations? Since we only ever have subjects in English (never topics) it still takes some getting used to before you can accurately distinguish where we should use one or the other. This is where the 2nd stock response (don’t worry, you’ll get it eventually) holds some truth.
To help start you down the (long) path to mastery of these two terrible particles, here is a deeper look.
The feeling of wa and ga
Consider the sentence: A は B. If we were to turn this sentence to an image, here is what it would look like:
Because は marks a topic–something non-grammatically related to the sentence–you can think of it like a picture frame. The thing は marks surrounds and labels the sentence, but is largely independent of what goes on inside. は is a good describer and observer.
Then we have the sentence: A が B.
が–in contrast to は–is much more involved in the sentence. It’s almost like a conqueror. Words marked with が stake their claim on the sentence (and the verb in particular), making a definite claim of ownership.
This difference is why when looking at a picture of several cute girls, a young man might point his finger at one and say:
watashi wa kanojo da ne.
…and mean, “I like her.” But he could not say watashi ga kanojo da, which would have to mean “I am her“, because が would specifically link him to the being verb だ.
Different situations, different particles
You may have heard the explanation that は gives emphasis to what comes after it, and が to what comes before it. This explanation isn’t correct in and of itself, but it does bring attention to the fact that when we do want to bring attention to the subject (ie. who or what did something), が is the usually the most logical choice.
Another example I’ve come across that for some reason stuck with me is one that likened は to the and が to a/an, apparently because we would use が to introduce new information to a discussion and は when it is repeated. Again, this misses the point (and is unreliable as a guideline, by the way), but it highlights a tendency that arises from the difference between subject and topic: topics are better suited for description, extrapolation and scene setting, subjects are better for declarations and statements.
One clever example sentence for は and が that I’ve come across is: watashi wa [my name] desu. vs. watashi ga [my name] desu. While these sentences in English both come out as “I am Lloyd.” In Japanese, they answer different questions:
Q: Who are you?
A: watashi wa Lloyd desu.
Q: Who is Lloyd?
A: watashi ga Lloyd desu.
Here’s a similar example I came up with, showing how the question changes when we use an adjective.
Q: What do you think of Japan?
A: nihon wa omoshiroi desu.
Q: Which country is interesting?
A: nihon ga omoshiroi desu.
This example leads me to a very important point, one which is somewhat difficult to deduce from our concept of subject vs. topic: in Japanese, topics (は) are often used to illustrate contrast.
Consider the sentence “watashi wa chikoku shita” (I was late). There are two situations where we could use this sentence:
- Topic (Normal): watashi wa chikoku shita : I was late. (used in a discussion centered around the speaker)
- Topic (Contrast): watashi wa chikoku shita : I was late. (used when some other relevant person was not late, or it is not known if they were late)
I know you’re probably scratching your head and yes, this gets confusing even for native speakers. In fact it’s one of the reasons that normal topics are so commonly omitted in Japanese. If the contrast is intentional, however, は cannot be omitted (the sentence would become quite confusing if you did).
The big thing for learners to take away from all this is that は has the potential to imply a contrast. So the next time you talk to a pretty Japanese girl, be careful not to say “me wa kirei desu ne” (your eyes are beautiful), which could easily imply “but your other features are mediocre”. “Me ga kirei desu ne” is a matter-of-fact statement with no strings attached, much better in this situation.
…which brings me to the next important point…
“Contrasting” versus “Comparing”
Here we have yet another situation in which confusion in Japanese stems from overlooking some of the fine points of English.
I stated above that は is used for contrasting things, that’s something which is commonly said of は. I did not state that it compares things. It’s very important to make this distinction.
“Contrast (は)” juxtaposes the nature of things. Think of it like this: if A は B, then C は D and E は F. Everything has a certain property which is either true or false. When we make a “contrast” statement about something with は, the implication is that other things either lack that quality, or have a completely different quality.
“Comparison” juxtaposes the degree of things. If A is B, then C might be B too, but not as much so as A. As the subject marker, it’s が’s job to call out one specific thing from a group of similar things and showing it off: it distinguishes one particular thing.
Note that が is used in the common (comparison) grammatical form: ～ yori ～ no hou ga … (“～ is more … than ～”)
Now might be a good time to scroll back up to the example sentences and have another look. See if you can really pin down the difference in nuance between contrast and comparison, and see how that is related to topic versus subject. If you can, then you’re well on your way to knowing how to use these particles.
The removal test and the comma test
Okay, now for my final trick, I’m going to tell you how to actually test whether you should use はor が.
This is tricky; in Japanese, there is rarely ever a sentence that becomes grammatically incorrect if you chose は when you should have said が or vice versa. The error that arises from misusing these particles is that you convey the wrong meaning.
So how can we possibly make a test that will hold true across different situations? Well, since は marks a topic, information that while important does not have a definite grammatical role, it is much less central to the message of a sentence than a が marked subject. So try this: take it out altogether.
watashi wa?/ga? kuruma o unten shimashita. (I drove the car.)
What happens to the sentence? Does it:
a) become vague, but still have the core information that we need to convey. (ie. in answer to the question “What did you do?“)
b) completely lose its ability to communicate the information we want. (ie. in answer to the question “Who drove the car?“)
If you answered a, は is probably the particle you’re looking for. On the other hand, if your sentence just became a steaming pile of useless words without it (as in situation b), が is probably your best bet. I won’t guarantee that this works in all situations, but give it a try next time you are scratching your head over which particle you should use.
A similar test that works on the same principle is to try replacing the particle with a comma or imagining a pause in the sentence.
watashi, kuruma o unten shimashita. (I, drove the car.)
What happens to the sentence?
a) It doesn’t really seem strange at all.
b) The added pause seems really awkward.
If you answered a, chances are high that you need a は. But if you feel there’s something just not right about the sentence and chose b, I would advise が.
In fact, in written Japanese, the particle は is often followed by a comma, but が almost never is (note: I’m only talking about が as a subject marker here, not as a conjunction).
I won’t go into too much detail on these, and you should think of them as tendencies rather than fixed rules. Everything depends on the context of the situation and what information you are trying to communicate to your listener, but subjects are better at some things and topics are better at others, and its good for learners to have a general idea which goes with which.
- Good for contrasting one thing from another, talking about difference in nature or substance.
- Good for relaying factual information, as though you were reading from a text book, encyclopedia or dictionary.
- Good for talking about people’s (including your own) personalities and preferences.
- Good for discussing abstract concepts and philosophical debates.
- Good for neutral, matter-of-fact statements that are meant to relay a specific piece of information.
- Good for physical descriptions, describing things that you can feel and touch.
- Good for “pointing” to one object, pulling it out from a group, or distinguishing it from others.
- Good for jumping from one thing to another making a series of not-closely-related statements.
To wind up the post, here is an image that I’ve prepared that wraps up the major usage points for は and が as cleanly and snugly as I could manage. These summary boxes can also be found on the Basic Japanese cheat sheet sheet (part of Nihonshock’s Japanese Cheat Sheet Pack! The Basic Japanese cheat sheet can be downloaded for free in PDF format from the cheat sheet site, so check it out if you haven’t already!
As always, comments are welcome.