If you can understand these two particles properly, they will work for you and make Japanese grammar relatively easy. If you understand them improperly they will work against you and make the grammar seem like a vague guessing game or a list of meaningless “exceptions” that you have to learn.
Unfortunately, the way the particles are taught in schools and in the standard textbooks tend to leave them working against you.
What the textbooks either say or imply is essentially this:
The ga particle usually marks the grammatical subject and the wo particle usually marks the object. But sometimes, for no very discernible reason, they reverse their meanings, so you just have to learn them on a case-by-case basis – or guess.
There also seems to be a post-modernist school that says there is no subject at all in Japanese, so the ga particle cannot mark it. I suspect this is a reaction against the absurdity thrown up by the standard textbook view. But it is a reaction in exactly the wrong direction.
The third view is what I would call the Japanese view, because it is what Japanese elementary school textbooks broadly teach. Stated simply:
The ga particle always marks the doer of an action (like eating a cake) or the manifester of a quality (like being red).
No exceptions. Ever.
(Apart from passive sentences, which are clearly distinguished because the verb must be in passive form)
The wo particle always marks the receiver of an action (like the cake that is being eaten).
So what about all the apparent exceptions, like
keeki ga suki desu
Nihongo ga dekimasu – ?
Cure Dolly has explained exactly why these sentences are not exceptions, and how the ga particle is working in them in exactly the same way that it always works.
I won’t reiterate her arguments. If you haven’t read this:
then read it now. It will take maybe a quarter of an hour and maybe a bit longer to really digest the information. It will be the most effective time spent in your whole Japanese-learning career.
I am inclined to say that Cure Dolly’s model (which is essentially that of the native textbooks) is the correct one. After all if one model is full of strange exceptions and another works all the time, with any sentence you apply it to, it would seem to stretch credulity to say that it works by mere coincidence. It would seem reasonable to assume that it works because it is right.
However, we don’t even need to get into the thorny area of “right and wrong” in grammar. The more important point is that in comparison to a model that is full of inexplicable exceptions that you “just have to learn”, a model that works in the same way all the time is of far more value to the learner.
So where’s the catch?
What is the drawback of the simple model? Why doesn’t everyone use it? Essentially, because have to adjust your thinking a little and realize that English’s ways of putting things aren’t the only way of putting them, and that Japanese works a little differently at times.
Kind of what you might expect really. But it is the failure to recognize this and the insistence on assuming that Japanese works the same way as English that creates all the false “exceptions” and leads to the notion that the ga and wo particles can ever mean anything other than what they always mean.
So, if you haven’t read
yet, go read it now, then come back here, because I’ve got something else to tell you.
It’s the Particles, Stupid
Cure Dolly said “In a conjuring act you watch the magician’s hands. In a Japanese sentence, you watch the particles”.
Best advice ever. Once you understand what the particles really mean, it will never let you down.
As Cure Dolly also pointed out, the “problem” English speakers have with Japanese, they also have to a lesser extent with Spanish.
When I attended Spanish class people had terrible trouble with sentences like
Me gusta el tequila (usually translated as “I like tequila”)
I politely suggested that “gusta” should be translated as “pleasing” rather than “like”. Because that is what it means. “Tequila is pleasing to me”. The doer, the agent, the subject – call it what you will – is “Tequila”. What it is doing is pleasing the speaker (who is therefore the object of its action).
This is exactly what is going on in Japanese when the ga and wo particles seem to be reversed in meaning. They aren’t. They never are.
My Spanish class was so locked into seeing Spanish through English eyes that they never took my advice and continued to believe that “gusta” meant “like”, and continued to find that piece of grammar unfathomable.
In Japanese, however, problems like that are more common than in Spanish, and the solution is not quite the same.
Because in Japanese, the particle, not necessarily the verb, is what makes the difference.
In most of the cases where the particles seem to the English mind to have “changed places” – potential verbs, the -tai form, verbs like wakaru etc – where the supposed object takes the ga particle – just to make things even more confusing, very often it can also take wo, even though ga is more usual.
This leaves many people who have learned standard textbook grammar feeling that the situation is hopeless and you might as well just pick a particle out of a hat and hope for the best.
But there is nothing random or confusing about this, once one understands that the ga and wo particles are always consistent. They are like the speed of light in astro-physics. By realizing that they have a constant value, you can measure everything else by them.
Cure Dolly points out that:
tori ga kikoeru
= the bird is audible / a bird can be heard
tori wo kikoeru
= (I) can hear a bird
In the case of -tai form, she also points out that both anpan ga tabetai and anpan wo tabetai are grammatically correct and commonly used (though the ga-form is much more usual). I would add that they don’t mean precisely the same thing, although the meaning is close
Anpan wo tabetai
“(I) want to eat anpan”
This is what an English speaker would expect. The anpan is the wo-marked object (the wanted), and the implied “me*” is therefore the ga-marked subject, (the wanter).
However, this is not the usual way of saying it. Much more common is
Anpan ga tabetai
This is the one that confounds English speakers. It’s literal meaning is something like
“Anpan is making (me) want to eat it”
Anpan is the ga-marked subject so the implied “I” must be the wo-marked object.
To the English speaking mind this is a very unnatural way of putting it (though not actually impossible even in English). A Spanish-speaker would probably find it somewhat more comfortable.
Is there a difference in meaning? Yes, a subtle difference. The second and more natural form puts the emphasis on the anpan. Anpan is so delicious that it makes me want to eat it. Anpan, as opposed to something else, is what I want to eat.
Anpan wo tabetai puts more emphasis on one’s own feeling. I really want to eat anpan. And since it is the more unusual construction, it is really stressing that desire to eat it.
I suspect that “ga tabetai” also feels somewhat more civil since one is not putting oneself so much at the center, which may be partly why that form is so much preferred.
The difference is subtle and it is certainly not necessary to master it at an early stage. I may not have mastered it fully yet.
What is necessary is to understand that the particles, rather than being odd adjuncts that behave erratically, are central.
They are not just being slapped in at random or changing their function without notice. They always do the same thing.
Usually the particles radically affect the sentence. The difference between “I ate the cake” and “the cake ate me” is significant, and it is the particles that tell us which of the two things happened.
Sometimes the difference is only subtle. The difference between “anpan is making me want to eat it” and “I want to eat anpan” is very subtle.
But it is the same difference. Wherever they are, the ga and wo particles are always doing the same job. Day in, day out.
Like the speed of light they are absolutely constant, and you can gauge everything else by them.
- Upside-Down Japanese: how the textbooks are teaching you wrong
- Japanese Grammar: The Golden Key – Mighty Morphin’ Modularity
- I Am Not an Eel! The Mysteries of Invisible Japanese Pronouns and the Real Meaing of the Wa-Particle
*It is worth mentioning, and may make things clearer, to note that “I” means watashi ga, and “me” can mean either watashi wo or watashi ni.
Similarly, “she” = kanojo ga, “her” = kanojo wo/ni
“He” = kare ga, “him” = kare wo/ni
I probably shouldn’t add (but will anyway) that “who” means dare ga and “whom” means dare wo/ni, since most English speakers don’t seem to know the difference between who and whom. Though if one is clear on the distinction between the ga and wo particles, Japanese can help to clarify the matter!
Please also remember that wa is usually “concealing” either ga or wo (though it can also “conceal” ni and other particles).
Sakura wa utsukushii (Sakura is beautiful) in subject/object terms = sakura ga utsukushii
This is explained more fully in I Am Not an Eel! The Mysteries of Invisible Japanese Pronouns and the Real Meaing of the Wa-Particle