Japanese: Difference Between が (ga) And は (wa)

May 29, 2018 · 8 min read

Difficulty Level: Intermediate-ish

If there’s one particle that’s always stumped me, it’s が. The way I’ve always used it is by memorizing set phrases like:

「 TOPIC 」が + あります。

「 TOPIC 」が + います。

There are just certain times you always use が right?

You’ll only get so far with that way of thinking. Principles over memorization!

It wasn’t until I read A Students’ Guide to Japanese Grammar, by Naomi Hanaoko McGloin, that it really clicked for me. It’s one of those books that sat on my shelf for a few years, and blew me away when I finally built up the courage to read it. If you’re established in the basics of Japanese grammar and want to dive into some of the deeper nuances then I highly recommend it.

A Student's Guide to Japanese Grammar

Topics covered in this lesson:

  1. Usage of Particle は

  2. Usage of Particle が

  3. Comparing は and が

Note: For this lesson I'll be using modified Hebonshiki romaniji.


Particle は

The main function of は is to mark the topic of a sentence. That’s topic, not subject. The difference is super subtle, but McGloin defines a “topic [as] a word or a group of words which indicates what the sentence is about.”

A topic that takes は should be either:

  1. Established explicitly beforehand

    • 今日、 男の人学校に来ました。彼ピザを持って来ました。
    • kyou, otoko no hito ga gakkou ni kimashita. kare wa piza o mottekimashita.
    • Today a man came to the school. He brought pizza.

    Here we’ve established the topic with が, then referring to it later with は.

  2. Established by inference; an assumed context

    • 美味しかったけれども、デザート少し高かったです。
    • oishikattakeredomo, dezāto wa sukoshi takakattadesu.
    • It was tasty, but dessert was a bit expensive.

    We can infer that the conversation was about a tasty meal, but the topic was dessert.

  3. Nouns that are uniquely identifiable (again, inference)

    • カナダ意外に大きい国です。
    • kanada wa igai ni ookii kuni desu.
    • Canada is a surprisingly big country.

    Canada is an easily recognizable noun.

  4. Pronouns that are identifiable through context (again, inference)

    • それ彼の自転車です。
    • sore wa kare no jitennsha desu
    • That is his bike.

    “This” can be conveyed by physically pointing or indicating something. We can infer it contextually.

  5. Generic nouns; nouns that aren’t surprising (again, kind of inference)

    • みかん美味しいよ。
    • mikan wa oishi yo
    • Oranges are tasty!

    Oranges, well – they’re oranges.

These are the general uses of は, although there are many more like emphasis and/or contrast.


Particle が

The particle が has a few uses, but they’re all related to the subject. Here’s a quick list before going into more detail:

  1. Introduces the subject, which continues into other sentences when contextually appropriate.

  2. Creates emphasis of the subject. For example, answers a question where the subject was the answer (will explain).

  3. Is used as the subject in subordinate clauses (dependent clauses)

  4. Is used for the direct object in conditional phrases (が instead of を)

A subject that takes が should either:

  1. Introduce the subject

    • 今日、 男の人学校に来ました。彼ピザを持って来ました。
    • kyou, otoko no jin ga gakkou ni kimashita. kare wa piza o mottekimashita.
    • Today a man came to the school. He brought pizza.

    Here we’ve established the topic with が, then referring to it later with は. Note, this example is the same as #1 in は.

  2. Emphasize a subject; the answer to a question

    • 降っています。
    • Ame ga futteimasu.
    • It is raining.

    Here we are bringing specific emphasis to rain. Or answering the question “what is falling?”

    • 田中さん着きました。
    • Tanakasan ga tsukimashita.
    • Tanaka has arrived.

    The attention is on Tanaka. Or answer the question: “who has arrived?”

  3. Clarify the subject in a subordinate clause (dependent clause)

    • お兄さん財布を忘れたので、行けません。
    • Oniisan ga saifu o wasuretanode, ikemasen.
    • Because my brother forgot his wallet, we/I can’t go.

    The subordinate clause here is “Because my brother forgot his wallet” which has it’s own subject (my brother). Note: “I” or “we” in the main clause could have been established in a previous question.

  4. Indicate the direct object in conditional phrases (が instead of を)

    Simply worth mentioning as it’s related to が, but has nothing to do with subject.

    When using the conditional form of a verb, the particle for the direct object often becomes が.

    Some examples:

    • テニスします。 becomes テニスできます。

    • ビール飲みます。becomes ビール飲めます。

Like in the case of は, though there are more uses of が, but this is a good start.


Comparing が and は

This is where it gets interesting.

  1. Answering a question

    Probably the most interesting difference between the two particles is “は directs the hearer’s attention to what follows [afterwards],” whereas が directs the “hearer’s attention to what precedes.”

    To explain, McGloin uses the following basic sentence structures:

    • X は Y (1)
    • X が Y (2)

    In sentence (1), using は, the answer to the question is what proceeds – the answer would be Y. We’ve established the topic already.

    In sentence (2), using が, the answer to the question is what precedes – the answer would be X. We’re estabishing a subject.


    Example #1:

    • ミカン美味しいです。
    • mikan wa oishii desu.
    • Mandarin oranges are tasty.

    In the case of は, the question being answered might be “What do you think of oranges?”

    • ミカン美味しいと思います。
    • mikan ga oishii to omoimasu.
    • I think mandarin oranges are tasty.

    In the case of が, the question being answered might be “What fruit do you think is tasty?”

    The difference is subtle at first, but it’s really about where the speaker is trying to assign attention. Let’s look at another example:


    Example #2:

    • 田中さん新しい車を買いました。
    • Tanakasan wa atarashii kuruma o kaimashita.
    • Tanaka bought a new car.

    In the case of は, the question being answered might be “What did Tanaka buy?” Here we can assume that Tanaka had already been established and we wanted to know more about them.

    • 田中さん新しい車を買いました。
    • Tanakasan ga atarashii kuruma o kaimashita.
    • “Tanaka bought a new car.” or “It was Tanaka who bought a new car.”

    In the case of が, the question being answered might be “Who bought a new car?” Here we’re establishing Tanaka as the subject moving forward.

  2. Subordinate (dependent) clauses

    • マイケルケーキを作ったので、お皿とフォークを持って来た。
    • maikeru wa kēki o tsukuttanode, osara to fōku o motte kita.
    • Michael, since he made a cake, brought plates and forks.

    There are a few possible interpretations when using が:

    • マイケルケーキを作ったので、お皿とフォークを持って来た。
    • maikeru ga kēki o tsukuttanode, osara to fōku o mottekita.

    The likely interpretation is the speaker is the subject. So the sentence translates as:

    • Since Michael made a cake, I brought dishes and forks.

    However, it could be that someone else is the assumed subject – unless it’s already firmly been established. It could even be Michael. To avoid this ambiguity, simply specify the subject. Here’s what that’d look like:

    • マイケルがケーキを作ったので、お皿とフォークを持って来た。

    The addition of 私は (watshi wa) clarifies that it was you who brought the cake.


Conclusion

The difference between が and は is subtle. They’re both related to the topic/subject, but differ with regard to emphasis.

Things to remember:

I hope this post been helpful. If it has, please share it around or leave a comment.

Many thanks to Naomi Hanaoko McGloin for her book and those who proofread this post.


References

[1] “Wa and Ga,” A Student’s Guide to Japanese Grammar

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