A Beginner’s Guide to は and が

Indiana has been studying Japanese since high school and has always felt inspired by the pursuit of language learning. She graduated with bachelor's degrees in Japanese Studies and Women's Studies from the University at Albany. Currently working as a freelance JP-EN translator, she also enjoys studying Korean, German, and Spanish when she can find the time and assists local refugee families in overcoming language barriers and navigating new and unfamiliar environments.
Indiana Brown

Particles may be some of the smallest pieces of Japanese grammar, but they’re essential for  Japanese sentences to make sense. Much like English prepositions, the difference between particles can change the entire meaning of your sentence. You wouldn’t want to mix up “to” and “from,” would you? However, there are some particles used in ways that don’t quite match up with English prepositions. Take, for example, the infamous topic marker は* and the subject marker が.

*pronounced “wa” when used as a particle, not “ha”

 

What is a topic marker?

While the idea of a topic marker doesn’t exist in English, you can think of this particle as signifying what is doing an action.

彼は医者です。- He is a doctor.

は introduces the topic of the sentence and what this topic is doing or having done to it.

Sometimes は is translated as “as for” to more accurately convey the way it works in a sentence.

ケーキもう食べた。- As for the cake, (I) already ate it.

ケーキもう食べた。-  (I) already ate the cake.

Here, you can see the difference in nuance when choosing between topic marker は and direct object marker を. In the first sentence, the topic is the cake. In the second sentence, the topic is the person eating the cake, which happens to be omitted.

 

What’s a subject marker?

Japanese also has a similar particle が, commonly referred to as the subject marker. The difference between は and が is that は focuses on introducing the topic and what action it’s doing in your sentence, while が is there to highlight the subject itself.

ケーキを食べた。 –  I ate the cake.

ケーキを食べた。 –  I (was the one who) ate the cake.

In the first sentence, the focus is on the speaker eating the cake. In the second sentence, the focus is on the speaker. I ate the cake. Not you, not those guys. I did.

 

Comparing to Others with

To build on what we just saw, let’s take a look at the following sentences:

大学生です。

大学生です。

The only difference here is the particle. In the first sentence, は creates a completely neutral statement. “I am a college student.” Great! Perhaps you’d say this when making a self-introduction or when someone asks you what your occupation is. However, let’s say you’re the only college student in a room full of people and someone heard there was a university student present. They might ask “Who is the college student here?” and you could say 私が学生です – “I am the college student.” が here is used to emphasize and highlight you as the subject.

 

Here’s another example.

彼女の車赤です。 – Her car is red.

彼女の車赤です。 – Her car is red.

Once again, the は statement is neutral and primarily focused on the state of the car being red. However, when we swap は for が, it becomes “Her car is red,” which would be quite natural in response to a question like “Was he the one with the red car?” No, it’s her car that’s red. Her car becomes the focus.

Much like in the above situations, if you were to compare yourself to your past or future self, you would opt for が over わ.  私が小学生の時、よくテニスをしました。When I was a kid, I often played tennis (but nowadays, I don’t play it very often).

In conclusion, が adds emphasis and highlights new or important information in the context of the conversation.

 

が as an Object Marker

You’re likely already familiar with を as the direct object marker (e.g. 魚を食べた – I ate fish). However, there are certain verbs and adjectives for which it is much more natural to use the particle が, even though we would consider these to be direct objects in English grammar.

好きです。  – I like cats.

野菜嫌いです。 – I hate vegetables.

日本語分かりません。 – I don’t understand Japanese.

クモ怖いです。 – I’m afraid of spiders.

9 times out of 10, you’ll want to use が with these verbs and adjectives. There is a situation when you might to convey a certain nuance and replace this が for は, though. Let’s move on and take a look!

 

Contrastive

は is often used to emphasize contrast. However, you can think of this as broader than the scope we saw with the comparative が. When used to demonstrate contrast, は can replace particles like を and が.

Let’s say someone asks you if you eat meat, and you do, but just not pork. You might say:

肉がすきですが、豚肉食べられません。I like meat, but I don’t eat pork.

Someone wants to know if you drink alcohol, and you say:

ワイン飲みません。 I don’t drink wine (but I might take a beer if you’re offering…)

Your date asks, “Do you like pets?”:

好きだ。 – I like cats (but dogs, not so much…]

In the above question about liking pets, it is a typical and natural use が to express likes and dislikes. However, when you want to emphasize what it is you like compared to something else you may not like, you can swap that が for は.

The contrastive は is incredibly useful to imply things that can or should be left unsaid. It can be very rude to make blunt statements about your likes, dislikes, and opinions in Japanese. Rather than answering your dates question by going into a tirade and saying “I hate dogs! They’re smelly and loud!” you can tactfully say 猫好きです and move on.

As you can see, there are many situations where you can swap は for が for a change in nuance or emphasis in your sentence. But there are also certain times where you simply cannot swap は for が. Let’s take a look.

 

Who, What, When, Where, Which?

  • 食べたいんですか? – What do you want to eat?
  • 来ましたか? – Who came?
  • どっち正しいですか? – Which one is correct?
  • 何時都合がいいですか? – What time is good for you?
  • どこ痛いですか? – Where does it hurt?

All of the above question words must take the particle が. Now that’s a hard and fast rule you can rely on!

Now that you’ve got a better understanding of the different functions of は and が under your belt, are you ready to tackle some practice questions? Download DeerPlus and try out our Particle Workshop to test your newfound knowledge! Happy learning!

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