Japanese Grammar – The Particles は and が

Hello Everyone,

The aim of this lesson is to introduce the tricky subject of the particles は [wa] and が [ga].

The functions of the particles は and が is intricate and can easily be confusing and complex (you will find many contradicting articles on the subject on the Internet, as well as entire books and PhD trying to explain the various uses these particles can have). I have chosen on my side to introduce these particles in what I hope to be a simple manner and to propose some examples (in this article and in some to come in the furure) to try to present their different facets and uses.

Function

The purpose of the particle が is to put the {focus} on the words it is attached to. This focus can be used for two main purposes: to introduce a new topic or to highlight an element among other similar elements.

{focus} Sets the focus on the element that precedes.

Pronunciation

First of all, note that は, when used as a particle, shall be pronounced [wa] and not [ha].

Function

Now, this being said, the main purpose of the particle は is to indicate the {topic} of the sentence (what we are speaking about). This topic can either be common knowledge or a topic already shared by the interlocutors, or otherwise it must be introduced beforehand by が as we will see it the next section.

{topic} Indicates that what precedes is the topic of the sentence.

Usage

Here comes the tricky part: the particles は and が can look somewhat very similar in their function (many simplify their function as subject marker – you can refer to the post scriptum at the end of this article to get my view on this point), yet they each carry a really special meaning.

Let’s have a look at two basic sentences:
わたし  ステファン です。

Romaji

[watashi wa SUTEFAN desu.]

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わたし  ステファン です。
Romaji

[watashi ga SUTEFAN desu.]

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Both sentences can basically be translated to: “I am Stéphane.”, but they both have a specific connotation:

わたし は / I{topic} / is to be taken as “As for me…”, “On the topic of me…” and is here to set the context to what follows and which will be the main information of the sentence: “Stéphane”: // I am Stéphane //.

Since the topic introduced by は is not the primary information, it is really common in casual discourses to drop the topic when it is obvious to the speakers or readers, and therefore only saying or writing “ステファン です。” // (I) am Stéphane. // is perfectly correct.

わたし が / I{focus} / on the opposite sheds light on “わたし” / I, me /.  We here want people to know that it is I whose name is Stéphane, not someone else: // I am Stéphane //. Therefore the primary information of the sentence is what precedes が. Such assertion can be used for instance when someones wants to know who is Stéphane among the different persons present.

By the way, did you notice how the “pha” (pronounced fa as in fan) in my first name is transcribed? We use katakana: ファ – a full size フ [fu] and a mid size ア [a] – to sound [fa] and not [fua]. This machanism is quite often used in Japanese to transcribe sounds that do not exist in katakana; for example:  アーティスト [A~RUTISUTO] / artist /,   ヴィンテージ [VINTE~JI] / vointage /…

Further reading

The main distinction bteween は and が now being set, these two particles now have many different uses that I will present in forthcoming articles:

Introducing and telling about a topic
Describing (coming soon)
Likes and Dislikes (coming soon)
Complimenting (coming soon)
Expressing constrast (coming soon)

This is the end of this lesson. Do not hesitate to share it if you liked it. Also do not hesitate to share your questions or point of view regarding this subject.

バイバイ

Transcription

[BAI BAI] / Bye bye /

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Stéphane

Post Scriptum

My own personal belief, that was reinforced while studying the subject in the frame of this article and which is shared by quite a few people, is that the notion of grammatical subject as we know it in our Western languages does not exist in Japanese and makes it possible to have valid constructs where we cannot find our grammatical subject equivalent such as “ほん です。” / book/to be / // (It) “is” a book. // or “たべます。” / to eat / // (I, you, he…) eat(s). //. This sentences are based on contextual information.

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