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So, here you are, thrilled to have learned your very first Japanese words and ready to put them to use into a sentence. But how does Japanese sentence structure work…? How should you put different types of words together to make a grammatical sentence?
After reading this quick guide, you will know the basics of Japanese sentence structure and particles. You’ll be set to speak and write Japanese in no time!
Japanese Sentence Structure: How is It Different from English
At the beginning, Japanese sentence structure will confuse you, especially if you try to translate the sentence literally. The word order will kind of look the opposite of what it should be in an English sentence.
Japanese Sentence Structure: Word Order
Well, that’s because English (and romance languages in general) is an SVO, Subject-Verb-Object, language. Japanese, in comparison, is an SOV, Subject-Object-Verb, language. Speaking very simply, the word order is different in Japanese, with the object coming in between the subject and the verb.
Here’s a short sentence to help you visualize how a simple Japanese sentence looks like:
ジョンは パンを 食べる
John bread eat
Subject Object Verb
While the order is off in English, you can easily infer the meaning: “John eats bread”.
Here’s another example, with a more complex sentence:
ジョンは 私に パンを くれました
John To me bread gave
Subject Indirect Object Direct Object Verb
Between “John” and the final verb “gave”, you’ll have two groups of words which translate “to me” and “bread”. You can still guess the meaning, but as you keep on learning Japanese and build more complex sentences, literal translations in English are like puzzles you need to reassemble.
So having a fundamental understanding of how Japanese sentence structure works is important to help you get the pieces in a flash.
What’s in A Japanese Sentence?
The very first rule you learn is that a Japanese sentence only needs a verb to be grammatically complete. One verb equals one sentence!
Of course, like in English, a sentence can also contain nouns, adjectives and additional verbs. So as your vocabulary expands, you build more complex sentences, adding bits of information between the subject and the verb.
Now, in English and most romance languages, the word order is rigid because it serves a purpose. The order is here to tell us the grammatical function of each word or group of words. A sentence starts with a subject – a noun or pronoun for example, followed by a verb and one or more objects.
But in Japanese, the word order is more flexible and words can be arranged in various ways. So how does it make sense?
With the help of grammatical particles.
Japanese Sentence Structure: Particles You Must Know
Looking back at one of our examples, you can see the adjunction of little words to nouns and verbs.
ジョン は 私 に パン を くれました
Jon me bread gave
Subject ? Indirect Object ? Direct Object ? Verb
These little words are what we call grammatical particles. Take a Japanese sentence and imagine it’s like a wall made of bricks. The words are the bricks and the particles act like the cement that sticks them all together.
How Do Particles Work in Japanese Sentence Structure
Particles are grammatical markers, or suffixes, that you attach to nouns, adjectives, verbs and even sentences, to assign them a grammatical function.
Plainly saying, they assign a role to words and groups of words, telling us:
- what’s the senten ce is about,
- who is doing what,
- where the action is done, or where it’s from or going to,
- when the action is done,
- how the action is done,
- with whom
- and so on.
As you can see in the example below, は and を show the relationship between pieces of information (John, bread) and the verb (eat).
ジョン は パン を 食べる
John bread eat
Subject (noun) Particle Object (noun) Particle Verb
Let’s follow up with more details. We see that the particle は marks the subject, を the direct object and に the indirect object.
ジョン は 私 に パン を くれました
John me to bread gave
Subject Particle Indirect Object Particle Direct Object Particle Verb
What’s tricky for beginners at first, is that Japanese particles can rarely be translated because they have no counterpart in English. Depending on the context, however, some of them can be close to English prepositions such as “to, from, in, at, on, etc.”
Particles are the very foundations in Japanese sentence structure after the verbs, and each one has multiple grammatical functions that you need to memorize. Keep things easy at first and focus your attention on their main functions. As you progress, you’ll develop a more complex understanding of their usage.
You’re now set to learn the main particles in Japanese, starting with the は and が pair.
The particle は (“wa”) is called the topic marker for a good reason, as は introduces the topic or theme of a sentence, basically what you’re talking about.
- 明日の天気はどうでしょう = What will be tomorrow’s weather like?
The theme in the above example is the weather. In English, it can be confusing to understand the concept of sentence thematic, as it often overlaps with what we consider to be the subject.
- 今日は何をしましたか。= What did you do today (introducing for the theme “today”)
You’ll quickly notice that は is very often at the beginning or near the beginning of a sentence. While to be grammatically correct the word order doesn’t matter much in Japanese, native speakers naturally place topic phrases at first.
In a subtle contrast with は, the particle が is called the subject or identifier marker, meaning it marks the subject of the action or the verb.
- 頭が痛い = my heart hurts
- 私がやる！= I’ll do it!
が can also be used instead of the particle を with some verbs and conjugation, as well with adjectives, that express like or dislike, desire, knowledge, and other feelings.
- 本が好き = I like book
- 意味がわからない = I don’t understand the meaning
Wa vs Ga は vs が
The nuance between the topic marker (は) and the subject marker (が) is a blurry one for more.
The bad news is that it’s probably one of the Japanese language’s most difficult concepts to grasp, one that Japanese linguists themselves can’t seem to agree on. With time and practice, you’ll develop an intuition and know which one is appropriate to use. Thankfully, until then, know that native speakers will have no problem understanding you if you mix up the two!
So, what’s going on between は and が? A good way to keep things simple for now, is to understand that the particle は refers to information that everyone taking part in the conversation is familiar with. And by information, we mean that the parties taking part in the conversation are aware of what we’re talking about. は has therefore a rather broad usage and can even replace other particles for emphasis.
On the other hand, the particle が is down to earth the marker of the verb’s subject, meaning the who or the what doing the action.
- リーさんは中国から来た。= Lee came from China
- リーさんが中国から来た。= Lee (in a group of people: is the one who) came from China.
Another way to look at this pair is to consider that (broad) は provides context, while (limited)が provides action or identification.
While you take time to digest this big chunk of grammar complexity, let’s move on to an easier particle.
The particle を, whose written wo but read “o”, is your go-to particle to indicate the direct object in a sentence. So basically を marks to what or whom the action is done. In English, it doesn’t necessarily have an equivalent.
- パンを食べる = I eat bread
- ピアノを弾く = I play piano
Playing around with を shows you how a Japanese sentence structure can be changed with no influence on its meaning as long as you properly use particles.
- 太郎はのりこを見る = Tarou sees Noriko
- のりこを太郎は見る = Tarou sees Noriko
Of course, grammatically correct doesn’t necessarily mean that it sounds natural. Japanese people tend to place the direct object at first or after the topic of a sentence, following the SOV order.
|Sentence Topic||Direct Object||Verb|
The particle へ (written “he” but read “e”) marks a motion movement towards a direction and is used with directional verbs such as “go” (行く) and “send” (送る).
- スーパーへ行く = I go to the supermarket.
- 海外へ送る = to send abroad
The emphasis is on the movement of heading toward something more than the intended destination.
Despite being short, the particle に is busier than it seems! This particle’s main functions are to indicate the time something takes place on (at, in, on) and to focus on the location in which something is (in, at).
- 午後3時に来る = I will come at 3PM
- 学校にいる = I’m at school
Finally, に can mark an indirect object and work hand in hand with verbs in a lot of set expressions such as になる (“to become”).
- ジョンは私にプレゼントした = John offered me a gift.
Ni vs E に vs へ
Both に and へ can be attached to a direction and are grammatically interchangeable. Both sentences below are correct:
- Direction: 学校に行く = I go to school
- Direction: 学校へ行く = I go to school
Surprisingly, native speakers themselves, when asked to think about one or the other, don’t always know how to explain why they’ll choose naturally one or the other. So how do you distinguish the two?
If you open a grammar book, you’ll be taught that between に and へ, it’s just a matter of focus. So a very clever way to sort them out is to memorize that に focuses on your destination as a “goal”: you intend to reach a place.
- 学校に行きます = I go to school (and I have for intention to get there on time for classes)
On the contrary, へ emphasizes the movement toward a destination, regardless of whether you reach the said destination.
- スーパーへ行きます = I go to the supermarket (but might actually not go there, I can change my mind on the way!)
If the distinction is still blurry, a more down to earth tip is to memorize that に is naturally used with a verb such as “to arrive (to)” (着く), “乗る” (to get on), “to come back (to)” (帰る) because these verbs give somewhat a sense of reaching a final point.
The particle で has three main functions. The first is to give the location of an action, for example, a sporting event at the school, the means by which an action is done, such as writing with a pen, or a cause or reason for a negative event.
- ペンで書く = I write with a pen
- 学校で運動会をする = We do a sport event at school
- 風邪で学校休んだ = I missed school due to a cold
De vs Ni で vs に
Can で somewhat overlap with the particle に when it comes to giving a location? Lucky for you, not really. The particle で focuses on the action and the location is not a goal, but accessory information.
Here’s an example to help you sort them out.
- 都会で暮らす = I live in the city.
- 都会に暮らす= I live in the city.
While the translation in English is the same, the use of で or に brings in a nuance that native speakers easily understand. In the first sentence, what で emphasizes really, is the verb “to live”. The speaker is focused on the “act of living” and the city is just a detail. With the second sentence, however, the speaker simply gives information.
The first usage of the particle から is to indicate the origin or the beginning of something.
- 午後3時から始まる = It starts from 3 PM
- アメリカから来た = I came from America
It’s often paired with the particle まで which marks the end or limit of something.
- 午後3時から5時まで = from 3pm to 5pm
- いつまで日本にいますか = Until when will you be in Japan?
With a more complex twist to it, から can also be used to give a reason or cause for something. Note that the reason comes before the consequence.
- この本は面白いから、読んでください = This book is interesting, so please read it (literally, “because this book is interesting, please read it!”)
The particle と is one of the first particle beginners learn because it’s a very convenient connector expressing that something is done “with” someone or something. と also comes in to list multiple things as in “A and B”.
- ジョンと、海に行く = I go to the sea with John.
- パンはバターとジャムを食べる = I eat bread with butter and jam.
This particle is used in a lot of set verbal phrases in particular to express conditions and to make quotations. But for now, just keep in mind that と = and/with.
In a way, the particle も has been compared to the topic marker は in the sense that も, which translates “too, also”, makes a reference to the sentence theme. This particle helps make an analogy and add emphasis.
- ジョンはパンを食べる。私もパンを食べる = John eats bread. I eat bread too.
The particle の is one of the most important particles there is.
You use の to stick nouns or even partial sentences together in order to mark possession, belonging or to give details.
- ジョンのレストラン = the restaurant of John/ John’s restaurant
- 私のバッグ = my bag
- 大阪の人= a person from Osaka
- 夏目漱石の詩 = Natsume Soseki’s poem (= the poem Natsume Soseki composed)
Giving more details
- 日本語の本 = a Japanese book (you provide details on what is the book)
- 学校の前 = in front of the school (you provide details on the location)
- こちらは田中の同僚だ = Here’s Tanaka, my colleague
Another major grammatical function of の is to turn an adjective or verb phrase into the equivalent of a noun.
- 青いのはいい = the blue one is nice
- 友達と話すのが好き = I like talking with my friends
The newly formed “noun phrase” is used exactly like a noun and therefore can be connected to the rest of the sentence with other particles.
While it may be obvious, it’s worth telling that in a noun phrase, the particle の loses its freedom and cannot be moved around, or the phrase will break down and lose all meaning.
So far, we’ve seen particles that you can find in the middle of a sentence to connect words and phrases together. The Japanese language also has ending particles, the most important of all being the “question” particle か.
Build Japanese Questions with Ending Particle か
Once you know basic Japanese sentence structure, you basically know how to ask a question in Japanese. All you have to do is add the ending particle か after your sentence’s final verb.
This is how you can turn every sentence into yes-no questions.
- パンをたべます = I/you eat bread.
- パンを食べますか = do you eat bread?
- できました = I/you did it.
- できましたか = did you do it?
Beyond yes and no questions, you can also ask wh-questions and the like by using question words at the beginning of your sentence. The sentence’s word order does not change. However depending on the context, the question word may need to be attached to the correct particle for the question to work.
Thinking about the answer and reversing back to the question will help you figure out what particle should be used.
- 何を食べますか = What do you eat?
- パンを食べます = I eat bread.
- 何ですか = What’s this?
- パンです = Bread.
- どこで食べますか = Where do you eat?
- うちで食べます = I eat at home.
- どこですか = Where is it?
- 学校です = At school.
- 誰ですか = Who is this?
- ジョンです = John.
- 誰と海に行きましたか = With whom did you go to the sea?
- ジョンと行きました = I went with John.
- いつ食べますか = When do you eat?
- 12時に食べます= I eat at noon.
You can express “how” with two question markers, どう that focus on the state of something and どうやって, which has a narrower meaning, focusing on the means for something to happen. Very often, the answer to a どうやって question will include the particle で we previously read about.
- どうですか = How is this?
- いいです = Good.
- どうやって日本語を勉強しますか = How do you study Japanese?
- LingoDeerで勉強します = I study with LingoDeer.
Good job on reading this far! Now, let’s quickly get over a few more characteristics of Japanese sentence structure.
Other Characteristics of Japanese Sentence Structure
Learning about how to make a Japanese sentence, you might have noticed a few things missing, while not figuring them out quite yet. Let’s have a brief overview of what a Japanese sentence structure doesn’t “have”.
Japanese Sentence Structure: No Articles
What a relief! While you have to deal with particles, Japanese language doesn’t have an equivalent for the English indefinite “a” and definite “the”.
Which leads us to an even brighter side.
Japanese Sentence Structure: Nouns Do Not Inflect
Yes! Japanese nouns are basically immutable. Nouns do not inflect based on gender, number or grammatical function.
Another good news. Japanese language doesn’t inflect based on gender, number or grammatical function. So, all you have to do, really, is master particles!
Japanese Sentence Structure: Ommissions
When you start practicing Japanese, you spend a lot of time building fully formed sentences, careful to state the subject, use all the particles and all the objects, indirect objects and bits of information you want to share.
In reality, Japanese language is highly context-sensitive and allows you to omit information whenever it can be inferred from the context by the listener. Native speakers drop pronouns (私, あなた, etc.) and sentence’s topic (は) in a heartbeat.
Grammatical Order vs Natural Order
Throughout this guide, we’ve seen that as long as words and phrases are used with the correct grammatical particle and attached to a final verb, a Japanese sentence will be grammatically correct. However, will your sentence sound natural?
Native speakers do follow a logical order when they make a sentence. So here’s the structure you should keep in mind whenever you are making complexes sentences:
Sentence Topic – Time – Location – Subject – Indirect Object – Direct Object – Verb
Memorize this “skeleton” of the Japanese sentence structure and your Japanese will flow like a native.
The Basic of Japanese Sentence Structure: A Quick Summary
To sum up, what you’ve learned so far, the word order doesn’t really affect a sentence’s meaning, as long as your sentence ends with a verb.
To build a Japanese sentence, you use grammatical particles, one or two hiragana words, that you attach to nouns, verbs, adjectives or sentences, to assign them a grammatical function. They help build a sentence regardless of how groups of words are arranged. The main difficulty for beginners is to understand the subtleties of Japanese particles, especially when they have no equivalent in English.
The word order and the particles can affect the emphasis, so understanding Japanese sentence structure early is key to learning intermediate and advanced grammatical concepts.
Finally, the most important obstacle you face in Japanese, is how native speakers very naturally omit some parts of a sentence, leaving you to guess what’s been left out. Only a good knowledge of Japanese syntax helps you fill in the gap instinctively.
If you’re looking for some more useful tips on learning Japanese, this guide from a fellow Japanese learner might help you along the way.