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Learning Japanese Particles - "Ga"
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Learning Japanese Particles - "Ga"

Welcome to the third article in this series on basic Japanese particles! Japanese jyoshi 助詞 (particles) are functional grammatical postpositions which help make the meaning clear in Japanese. At first, we got a primer on particles, then an introduction on は wa (actually “ha” but pronounced “wa” when used as a particle). The core points brought up were that Japanese works as a topic-comment language. Wa は marks the topic of conversation, and then something is said about it.

In this article, we’ll look at ga が, another key jyoshi 助詞. Ga が is the subject-marking particle. We previously saw that wa は sets up a topic. With は you know you’re talking about this or that, then or there; は signals a contrast from other things. However, は doesn’t actually specify the grammatical subject of a sentence. が does this job.

There’s a lot of confusion about when to use が and は, and how their usage changes meaning. Let’s look at some examples:

長いです。  =  The elephant has a long nose. zou wa hana ga nagai desu. Here, は marks zou 象 (elephant) as our topic, and が marks hana 鼻 (nose) as our subject, which precedes the predicate nagai desu 長いです ( [it] is long). Put it all together and you have… “As for elephants, which is what we’re talking about, [their] noses are long.”

Let’s look at another: 今日はクラスがよかったです。  =  Today’s class was great. kyo wa kurasu ga yokatta desu. When は marks 今日 (today) here, it does two things: first, it says we’re talking about today; and, two, by consequence of specifying today as the topic, は gives a sense of opposition to other things. As before, が marks our subject, クラス (class), and precedes the predicate よかったです ([it] was great).

You might think this is all simple and nice to say to a teacher, but I wouldn’t. The teacher will likely give you a glare and reply, “so I guess you didn’t like the other classes, then, right?” The reason for this is because of that は, which sets “today” up as a topic, but it also emphasizes today… “The class today (as opposed to other days) was great.” In terms of usage, you may often wonder which to use.

Say, for example, you wanted to say, “I drank the beer.” Is it は or が? Well, it depends. It could be either and it could be neither. は and が are used in different ways and are chosen accordingly. I think about it in terms of questions and answers, where the choice of は or が reflects the kind of thing I’m trying to say.

Let’s look at questions and answers.

飲みましたか・どうしましたか。          Did you drink it? / What did you do? nomimashita ka? / dou shimashita ka?

ビールを飲んだ。                                           I drank the beer. ベンソンさんは? どうしましたか。

And… Mr. Benson, what did you do? benson-san wa? dou shimashita ka? 私はビールを飲んだ。                                

Oh, me? I drank the beer. (emphasizes what comes after) 誰がビールを飲みましたか。                  

Who drank the beer? dare ga bi-ru wo nomimashita ka? 私がビールを飲んだ。                                

It was I who drank the beer. (emphasizes what comes before) Hopefully things are starting to click. は and が mark different things, and they emphasize things differently. は both sets up a general topic AND contrasts that topic from other related topics (today as opposed to yesterday; elephants as opposed to tigers; me as opposed to you, her, him, or them). は can also apply to the sentences that follow, where が cannot. が is, comparatively, a simpler and easier particle than は, but as the two are constantly specifying and emphasizing and contrasting, it’s easy to get them confused.

Thanks for reading and please leave a comment! Join in next time for more on another particle.  

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