Basics of Japanese: Important Particles to Know
Particles are a unique aspect of Japanese grammar that tells the listener the relationship between all the words being used in your sentences. In English, it’s the order of your words that matters most (“the dog bites the man” vs “the man bites the dog”). In Japanese, it’s particles that tell you this information. Mixing them up can switch the meaning of your sentence just as much as mixing up the order of “man” and “dog” in the English example sentences!
There are dozens of different particles in Japanese, but in the early stages there are only a few you need to understand well. I’ve classified them into three categories: subjects, objects, and location markers. You’ll see some particles appear in multiple categories. As both a blessing and a curse, a few can be used for different things!
Subject Markers: wa (は) and ga (が)
The subject markers do exactly as they imply: they tell you who the subject of your sentence is.
wa (written with hiragana ha は but always pronounced as wa), is the first one. This one is often called a “topic marker” to differentiate it from ga. Think of a “topic” like the overall theme of an essay you’re writing. Often, this is about a person–especially yourself.
- Watashi wa Katoriina desu (わたし は カトリーナ です – I am Katrina).
“Watashi” is the topic of this sentence! In case you don’t yet know, “watashi” means “I” or “me”!
- Anata wa gakusei desu (あなた は がくせい です – You are a student).
Now “anata” or “you” is the topic of my sentence.
In English, we show the topic/subject of our sentences by putting it in the very front! Japanese often does the same, but just to be certain it’s still good to always mark your topics with wa (は).
So how about が (ga)? Well, ga is typically known as the “subject marker”. You can think of a subject as one of the main paragraphs of your essay. If my essay is about watashi (me), then the paragraphs I could write could be things I like and things I dislike.
- Aisu kuriimu ga suki desu (アイスクリーム が すき です – I like ice cream).
I don’t need to mention “watashi wa” here because I’ve already mentioned it earlier by introducing myself to you. Until I change topics, you always know I’m talking about me.
- Watashi wa tesuto ga kirai desu (わたし は テスト が きらい です – I dislike tests).
Of course, if you really want your listener to be sure of both your topic and your subject, you can use them both together!
Object Markers: wo (を) and ni (に)
I’ll try not to get too grammarian on you here! In both English and Japanese, we have parts of speech known as “direct objects” and “indirect objects”. Japanese uses wo (を) to mark direct objects and ni (に) to mark indirect objects.
NOTE: Wo (を) is pronounced the same as “o” (お). You don’t need to say the ‘W’ sound.
A direct object answers the question “what?” or “who?” like in these examples:
- Watashi wa eiga o mimashita (わたし は えいが を みました – I saw a movie).
The direct object is “eiga” (movie). Imagine if I just said, “I saw.” You’d wonder, “You saw what?” The direct object answers exactly that!
- Sushi o tabemashita (すし を たべました – I ate sushi).
What did I eat? Sushi!
As you might have noticed, a direct object is always connected with a verb. In English, the verb comes before the direct object. In Japanese, the verb comes after the direct object!
An “indirect object” is the person or thing that receives a direct object. Usually you use words like “give” (agemasu – あげます) for this. Since it involves the direct object, your sentence will have ni (に) and wo (を) together.
- Watashi wa anata ni sushi o agemashita (わたし は あなた に すし を あげました – I gave sushi to you).
It’s a long sentence, but imagine how confusing it could be without all the particles there to help you!
- Neko ni sakana o agemashita (ねこ に さかな を あげました – I gave fish to the cat).
Location Markers: de (で), ni (に), he (へ)
Deciding whether to use de (で) or ni (に) depends on the type of verb you’re using. De (で) uses what I call “active” verbs, like doing something at a place. You’re performing an action that often requires you to use some object.
- Sushiya de sushi o tabemasu (すしや で すし を たべます – I eat sushi at the sushi restaurant).
Tabemasu (eat) is my action. In order to perform this action, I need sushi. And sushiya (sushi restaurant) explains where this is all happening.
- Gakkou de nihongo o benkyou shimasu (がっこう で にほんご を べんきょうします – I study Japanese at school).
Of course, you don’t have to always mention the direct object in order to use de (で).
- Sushiya de tabemasu (すしや で たべます – I eat at the sushi restaurant)
- Gakkou de benkyoushimasu (がっこう で べんきょうします – I study at school).
The main thing to remember is just the verbs you use with de (で) can use a direct object.
Ni (に), on the other hand, is used for “inactive” verbs that show a state of existence, or when you’re coming/going to a place.
- Watashi wa gakkou ni imasu (わたし は がっこう に います – I’m in school).
- Ki wa soto ni arimasu (き は そと に あります – The tree is outside).
Imasu/arimasu are verbs that show that something exists. Imasu is for living things, arimasu for non-living. They always use ni (に). You also use ni (に) when you’re talking about making an action to a place.
- Gakkou ni ikimasu (がっこう に いきます – I go to school).
- Uchi ni kaerimasu (うち に かえります – I return home).
Then, finally, there’s he (へ), which is pronounced the same as ‘e’ (え). It’s used in the exact same way as the 2nd part of ni (に). You can use them interchangeably.
- Gakkou e ikimasu (がっこう へ いきます – I go to school).
- Uchi e kaerimasu (うち へ かえります – I return home).
Try to figure out which particles belong in each sentence. To help you out, it’s all multiple-choice and the answers are at the very end.
- I went to Japan: にほん ___ いきました – Nihon ___ ikimashita
a.) de b.) e c.) wo
- I read a book at the library: としょかん ____ ほん ____ よみました – Toshokan ____ hon ____ yomimashita
a.) ni b.) ga c.) de
a.) wa b.) de c.) wo
- I gave her a book: わたし ____ かのじょ ____ ほん ____ あげました – Watashi ___ kanojo ____ hon ____ agemashita
a.) wo b.) wa c.) ni
a.) de b.) e c.) ni
a.) ga b.) wa c.) wo
- I don’t like books: ほん ____ すき じゃないです – Hon ____ suki janai desu
a.) ga b.) wo c.) wa
- I am not Japanese: わたし ____ にほんじん じゃないです – Watashi ____ nihonjin janai desu
a.) e b.) wa c.) ga
Check your answers
2. c, c
3. b, c, c
4. a, c