Japanese Particles Wa vs Ga – What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You

wa vs ga particles“Choosing between wa and ga” is often considered to be one of the most difficult things for foreign learners of Japanese to master.

One of the problems is that the very concept “choosing between wa and ga” is in itself something of a misunderstanding.

Wa and ga are not two similar particles.

They are not even just two very different particles.

They are two different species of particle.

If we understand this we can get a lot closer to knowing how they really work and why one rather than the other is used in any given case.

This is a fairly complex question so we are dealing with it over two lessons. This first lesson gives the foundation of how ga and wa really work.

Part 2: How to Choose Between wa and ga


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2 thoughts on “Japanese Particles Wa vs Ga – What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You

  1. キュアドリー先生,

    Firstly, some well-deserved praise for the animation production quality (as usual cannot fault the actual lesson content)

    Very nice work, the video animation quality is improving noticeably!
    The opening Ka-Wa-Ja-Pa Kyu-Wa-Do-Ri chime tune is better – (かわいい!)
    – only a minor audio squawk/glitch as the speech transitions to the main speaking mode – perhaps just needs a brief audio pause inserted?

    Your avatar’s eyebrow animation is much more realistic, not distracting at all –
    I can completely concentrate on the actual lesson content, and the pose transition resetting is barely noticeable.

    It may seem unimportant to comment on these aspects as mere trivialities,
    but with education, presentation determines the students’ likelihood to concentrate on the content, rather than nitpicking & learning nothing.

    As a doll of immaculate appearance and refinement depicted in your online work, you may certainly appreciate that sentiment,
    though our inability to separate dissemination of knowledge from the appearance of the disseminator reflects poorly on we mortal human students.

    With respect to this lesson’s content, I can happily say it is extremely easy to digest and comprehend (possibly with the benefit of having read the book).

    The ga/wa lion/eagle analogy didn’t get my attention as much as the ‘giver’ & ‘receiver’ in terms of cultural references to seme/uke,
    but concentrating on the logical/non-logical grammatical/non-grammatical distinction seems best.
    I briefly struggled to think of an alternate to ‘non-logical’ which conveys the meaning ‘does not change the logic’ without sounding ‘illogical’, (which it most definitely isn’t)
    but there’s nothing which doesn’t damage the intrinsic requirement of describing the kaku-joshi case-particle as logical/grammatical.

    I personally can appreciate the distinction between ga as a subject marker & wa as topic marker,
    but even many native English speakers don’t get the difference, specifically in a grammatical sense.

    Conceptually combining giver/receiver with subject/topic seems best as a way forward –
    or simply equating subject as ‘who/what is doing something’ and topic as ‘the something [being done]’.

    As always,

  2. Thank you so much for your appreciation. I am glad you like the new animation. Actually there was a bit of a trade-off involved and I hoped that on balance the effect would be better. I am glad it came across that way.

    I don’t think these matters are trivial. They are of course extraneous to the actual teaching but still important, I think. I like to think we can end up making something that is charming as well as educational.

    Actually I have a rather revolutionary change lined up on the aesthetic front and I don’t know if it will be greeted with delight or horror! We’ll have to see. Very soon!

    The lion and eagle thing was not very sophisticated and shouldn’t be taken any further than a momentary underscoring of the radical difference between wa and ga. Though the idea of flying vs proceeding on foot does to my mind have a connection with the two styles of connection. But pressing that may be more confusing than helpful and I never intended to do so.

    Truthfully it was no more than an attempt to liven things up moderately and really impress the radical nature of the difference between the two particles on people’s minds.

    Logical vs non-logical is of course not a perfect formulation, but without going into obscure-ish linguistic terminology I think it is the most easily understandable and assimilable. I resist linguistic terminology as far as possible because it is so often more confusing than helpful to students (someone I know, when she was fairly advanced was still making certain mistakes because she never really understood what “copula” meant).

    Insofar as people have to learn the terminology from scratch anyway, why not learn the Japanese terminology I feel, which is why I drop it in occasionally. Still my aim is to convey what is needed with a minimum of special terminology, and where it is unavoidable I try to make it as intuitive as possible.

    In writing the book I did toy with grammatical vs non-grammatical (as opposed to logical vs non-logical) particles. But it struck me that this is a) Eurocentric and b) confusing because the topic-comment structure IS grammar. It just isn’t European grammar.

    Fundamentally what it is not is case-grammar and I do actually explain that in the book, but it is more of an aside because it seems superfluous to induce people to learn about the Indo-European concept of case just in order to learn Japanese if they don’t know about it in the first place.

    You write:

    or simply equating subject as ‘who/what is doing something’ and topic as ‘the something [being done]’.

    I think there may be a slight misapprehension here

    Who/what is doing something is indeed the subject, but the something being done (or being been for want of a better expression!) is not the topic. It is the predicate in English or the jutsugo in Japanese.

    The jutsugo is the thing (action or state of being – verb, adjectival or copula-phrase) that is joined to the doer (shugo or subject) by ga.

    Shugo plus Jutsugo joined by ga is the basic Japanese sentence. Jutsugo is the only thing that needs to be visible in the briefest sentence-form (shugo and ga can both be zero-ed).

    Topic (shudai), if it exists, is a third element added to front of the sentence which states the thing on which the entire logical sentence (shugo plus jutsugo) then becomes a comment.

    I didn’t point this out in the video to avoid information overload, but we can note that in the Tokyo sentences (in their logical form – marking everything with a logical particle) the raw logic is “I will go” (∅ ga ikimasu). Toukyou ni and Douyoubi ni are both modifiers (shuushokugo) of the jutsugo “will go”. Unless one of them is chosen as the topic – in which case it becomes a true third element.


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