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Learning Japanese: Everyday Particles

By Tommy Carlton

Particles are an important part of Japanese grammar. They are used to mark word use and are found in every sentence. Learn some of the most common ones and how to use them including the two most common Japanese particles: wa and wo.

What Is a Particle?

In English, we mark word function by the order of the words in a sentence. The two sentences "I'm throwing Mike the ball" and "Mike's throwing me the ball" have the same words, but the word order is different, and so we understand the difference between the two sentences. In Japanese, word order is not as strict as English, and because of this, there is a grammatical object called a particle that is used instead.

Particles are short, typically one or two-mora (syllable) words that always come after the word they apply to. Here is an example sentence:

  • Watashi wa tomodachi to nihongo wo benkyoushimasu. (I study Japanese with my friends)

The particles in that sentence are wa, to, and wo, each of them indicating something different. While there are several different particles in Japanese, there are some that you will see much more often than the others, and those are the most important to learn.

The Particle Wa

The particle wa is the most common particle in Japanese. One note about its pronunciation—it is pronounced wa, but it is written with the hiragana character for —, so be sure to keep that in mind. This particle indicates the topic of the sentence. We don't have a topic in most of our English sentences, but when we do, it is typically at the beginning. Here are examples of topics being used in English:

  • Canada? No, I've never been there. (Canada is the topic of the sentence)
  • Well, as far as motorcycles are concerned, I prefer Harleys. (motorcycles are the topic)

The topic is used much more often in Japanese, and for one main reason: quite often (although not always), the topic is the same as the subject of the sentence. The example from our previous sentence, where we said "watashi wa", shows an example of this. You can translate "watashi wa" as "I", such as "watashi wa ringo wo tabemasu" to "I'm eating an apple." More literally, however, this sentence would translate as "As for me, [I am] eating an apple." It is the topic as well as the subject because the sentence is about "me," making me the topic. And, because I am the one doing the eating, I am also the subject.

You often hear that the subject of the sentence is left out in Japanese. This is true, without a doubt, but there is a deeper explanation at hand. The subject, when it is also the topic, is often left out. In reality, the fact is that the topic of the sentence is often left out, and that is due to the contextual nature of Japanese. If there is a separate subject and topic, the subject is almost never left out.

The Particle Wo

Another common particle, wo has an odd pronunciation as well. Although it is written "wo" and uses the hiragana character for "wo," it is pronounced just as "o." In fact, the hiragana "wo" is never used for anything else in Japanese, so if you see it, know that it is marking the particle wo and is pronounced "o." This particular particle marks the direct object of a sentence. In our previous example, "I'm throwing Mike the ball," the word "ball" is the direct object. Here are some examples in Japanese:

  • Doitsugo wo zenzen benkyoushimasu. (I never study German)
  • Takahashisan wa koohii wo takusan nomimasu. (Takahashi drinks a lot of coffee).

The direct objects of these sentences, "doitsugo" in the first and "koohii" in the second, are marked with "wo," indicating that they are the direct object of the sentence. The direct object of a sentence is a noun that is involved directly in an action. If you eat something, drink something, make something, throw something, buy something—the something is the direct object. The action cannot take place without the direct object existing (although it is not always specified). For example, if you say "I'm reading," there is something you are reading, and that something is the direct object, maybe a book or a magazine.

Other Common Particles

While the particles "wa" and "wo" are two of the most common in Japanese, there are several more as well. Some examples

  • to (with), ni (to, indicates direction)
  • Tomodachi to tokyo ni ikimasu. (I'm going to Tokyo with my friends)
  • mo (also) -- mo replaces another particle, such as wa, indicating that this is an action already applied to something else
  • Kono eiga mo mitai desu. (I want to see this movie, too; mo has replaced wo in this sentence)
  • ga (subject marker) -- when you have a separate subject and topic, you see ga marking the subject
  • Watashi wa sushi ga daisuki desu. (I really like sushi; literally, as for me, sushi is very likable)

Make sure you learn the less common particles as well as the two most frequently used.