A primer on Japanese emotive sentence-ending particles: ne, na, naa, yo (ね、な、なあ、よ)

By | October 5, 2017

One of the tricky things about running a language-learning blog is deciding what to write about. When I first started this blog back in December 2013, I mostly intended to act as support for those learning Japanese without necessarily getting too involved into detailed explanations about fundamental grammar structures that might already be covered elsewhere in places like textbooks.

But the more articles I write, the more I realize that grammar is truly one of the most difficult aspects of learning Japanese, especially if you don’t have a teacher or an opportunity to speak (and listen) to the language on a daily basis. While kanji is another stumbling block to many people, I feel that stubborn persistence and (much) time is generally enough to learn the most common characters, although some tricks like learning radicals and proper stroke order are also important. Grammar, on the other hand, is especially difficult since it requires students to memorize a series of rules that can often be conflicting, confusing, or have exceptions. Frequently, words can have an abstract nuance that is difficult to express in English and hence a challenge to pick up, in particular for self-learners.

Particles, small Japanese words such as が  (ga) that have great grammatical and semantic significance, are one of these challenging areas, and in this article I’d like to address a set of related particles (ね、な、なあ、よ)  (ne, na, naa, yo) which can be grouped according to two facts: they are commonly used at the end of a sentence, and they often contain some difficult-to-describe emotion or emphasis. This contrasts to particles like に (ni) and を (wo) which have a dry, logical usage and are relatively easy to understand (but do take time to master). I’ve written several articles about certain particle combinations (like this and this) and posted about finer details of some particles (here), but I think it’s about time to focus on the basics. While some of the nuances of these particles can be partially reflected with English words, there are no single words that capture all their meaning, and looking up any of their definitions in a Japanese-English dictionary will leave you lacking.

One other thing I’d like to mention before getting into details is that the particles introduced here are used much more commonly in conversation (which includes written conversation like textual chat). To a certain extent, all of these particles make the assumption there is a person on the other end listening (or reading), and potentially interacting. The other day a friend of mine remarked that omitting particles like these in colloquial language can make one sound robotic, and I absolutely agree–just read a technical reference (like this one of Japanese Wikipedia) and see how few, if any, of these 4 particles are utilized. If you are just trying to objectively impart information without any reference to yourself or another person, these particles are generally not needed.

ね (ne): the friendly particle

I don’t remember how I first learned this particle back in my early days of studying Japanese, but I know the explanation didn’t leave much an impression. It took months or longer for me to pick its nuance from reading and listening to various things in Japanese.

I generally like to refer to Japanese dictionaries to get a more accurate take on certain words, but unfortunately, in this case the description is quite vague:

親しみをこめて呼びかけたり、念を押したりするときに言う語

A word that is used at times such as calling out to another, or reminding someone about something in a friendly way.

(While my translation sounds a little awkward, I aimed to make it as literal as possible)

I’m not going to declare this definition is wrong, but I feel it is a little insufficient for all that ね has to offer. But the one thing I do like about this explanation is that it explicitly calls out the “friendliness” (親しみ) that I feel is at the core of the ね particle.

Besides a sentence of friendliness, the other key aspect of ね is that the speaker is interacting with the listener and generally has a sense of acknowledgement/agreement (同意) or confirmation(確認) about some topic. That topic may be something the listener just said, or it may be related to a shared observation.

Alright, let’s get down to some real example sentences since wordy explanations can only get us so far.

Let’s say you are listening to a Japanese person say something in English and they sound quite fluent. In that case, you could say:

  • 英語お上手です。 (eigo ojouzu desu ne)
  • Your English is really good.

Here, ね has the nuance that you are acknowledging their ability with a touch of friendliness. The お added to 上手 gives an extra sense of politeness on top of the already polite です. As you can see, the word “ne” is not directly reflected in the English sentence, although in some cases it can manifest in some form.

So you might say, “Why can’t I just remove the ね? The sentence would still convey the same information, right?” While the literal meaning of “(Your) English is really good” would be retained, saying “英語お上手です” does sound like a robot to me–it lacks the friendliness and the sense of “acknowledgment” which is important here.

As a side note, in Japanese words are often omitted, including subjects, objects, and even some particles. (I’ve written about this here). It is my theory that particles like ね are especially needed since the subject (the person who is good at English in this case) is frequently omitted. Without the ね, I feel like it is unclear who is being referred to. Also, while the は (wa) particle can often be omitted (especially in speech), you cannot omit the ね particle and just hope the listener will guess it is there. After all, particles like は and が support the words they follow, but ね in this context refers to an entire statement.

Let’s look at another example:

  • そろそろ寝る (soro soro neru ne)
  • I’m going to sleep soon, alright?

Here, the ね gives a sense that you are addressing someone and (potentially) asking for a mild confirmation. They may say うん (OK) or nod their head, but it isn’t a direct question so they may not respond at all. The ね get’s translated as “alright?” though in both the Japanese and English versions, the tone is just as important as what is being said (this applies to all the particles addressed here, by the way). Another way to think of this phrase is “Hey, I’m going to sleep now,” which just gets their attention without actually asking for a direct reply.

Now you could say そろそろ寝る without the ね, and the meaning wouldn’t change too much in this case, though it would be more just a dry declaration of what you are doing.

ね can also be added after the 〜よう volitional form when used a casual request or suggestion:

  • もう一回, やってみよう (mou ikkai yatte miyou ne)
  • Let’s try one more time, OK?

As before, here ね imparts a sense of friendliness and softens the request.

It can also be used with similar effect after the “te”  (gerund) form when used as a light command (ex: かさを忘れないで).

Here is another example where ね can have a surprising effect. Let’s imagine you just won the lottery and have just told you friend about it. He then says:

  • よかった! (yokatta!)
  • That’s great!

This is completely natural and expresses the speaker is happy about the listener’s fortune. But what if we add the ね particle:

  • よかった! (yokatta ne!)
  • That’s great, right?

Here, the ね adds a friendly sense of confirmation and acknowledgment. However, depending on the tone of voice, よかったね can actually be sarcasm (嫌味, iyami) where the other person is actually not too happy about you (the listener) winning the lottery. On the other hand, regardless of tone of voice, I don’t think sarcasm can be expressed with simply よかった. The key point here is that by adding ね, it is expanding who thinks “it’s great” to more than just the speaker, in the sense of “Well, I think it’s great but I’m sure you do also.”

This just shows the subtle social interactions that can be invoked by the ね particle. This example came from something that was actually said to me, though I hadn’t won the lottery (:

On to one more example: if you are working with a child and he does a good job at something, which would be more natural?

  • よくやった。 (yoku yatta)
  • よくやった。 (yoku natta ne)

The second, the one with ね, is much more natural since you are implicitly acknowledging something. When speaking to my son I use the ね particle very often and have seen other parents do the same.

This article is titled “sentence-ending particles” (終助詞 in Japanese), but I want to mention that ね can also be used in the beginning, or even middle of a sentence. When used in the beginning, it is a friendly way to call someone’s attention (remember the definition from the dictionary I excerpted above?).  There are a few variations of this:

  • あのねー。。。 (ano nee…)
  • ねー。。。 (nee…)
  • ねーねー。。。 (nee nee…)

All of these can be thought of meaning something like the English expression “hey,” as when used at the beginning of a sentence.

ねー can be used by itself to simply mean “right?” in response to someone’s comment or even (with a delay) after your own comment. This use is a good one especially to use with your significant other when talking together to a third person.

You may have noticed I used ねー (nee) here instead of ね. Essentially this is just a lengthening of the word and there is no major change in meaning. However, when unsure I think it’s best to keep the ね short as over-lengthening it (or lengthening it too often) may be perceived as annoying. Later in this article I refer to talk about な (na) and なあ (naa) as separate words because there are two usages that only apply to the former.

When used in the middle of a sentence, it can be used to add friendliness as well as to help pacing (or give the speaker time to formulate the rest of the sentence). For example:

  • 彼が。。。 (kare ga ne..)
  • He…

Regardless what comes later in the sentence, the key here is that there’s a pause initiated by the ね. Depending on the context, you could express this in English with a phrase like “…you see…”. I feel this usage is similar to how the さ (s) particle can be used as a mid-sentence pause (see this article), though that particle sounds rougher. Also, I feel a strong resemblance between this usage of ね and the (mostly-meaningless) English colloquial expression “like”, for example, “And then he was like…”

As a final note about ね, because it oozes with “friendliness”, if you use it too often or in the wrong way, you might sound a little girly. Whether you are OK with that is totally up to you (:

な (na) and なあ (naa): tougher, introspective variants of ね (ne)

Fortunately, things get a little easier for な and なあ (the latter sometimes written as なぁ、なー, or な〜). Both of these are basically variations of ね, but there are a few major differences. The first is that they have less of a “friendly” feeling, and possibly a bit of a “tough” feeling. You can see the lack of friendly feeling in the dictionary definition for these words, which is similar to that of ね except is missing the “親しみ” part.

Another thing about these–and this is something I have felt myself rather than been told–is that they have a more introspective feeling as compared to ね. By introspective, I mean な can also be used when talking to oneself, in contrast to ね that is often used when talking to someone else.

When people talk about how they were feeling or thinking something, the pattern 〜なあと思う  is frequently used. For example:

  • 安いなあと思った。 (yasui naa to omotta)
  • I thought it was really cheap.

This fits with the introspective nuance I just mentioned, as if the person is thinking to themselves. Note that this doesn’t indicate any sort of acknowledgment or confirmation with another person (whereas ね does), and ね would not commonly be used in this pattern.

な and なあ can also be used as an initial attention-getter (like “hey…”) in the same sense as ね, as in:

  • あの。。。 (ano na…)
  • 。。。 (naa…)

Finally, な has two other special uses. The first one is when it represents a negative command, and follows the dictionary form of a verb:

  • それを食べる (sore wo taberu na)
  • Don’t eat that.

The other is when it can (confusingly) mean the opposite: a positive command. In this case, it is used after the pre-masu form as in:

  • やめ! (yame na)
  • Stop it!

Note that なあ cannot be used for these special cases.

よ(yo): the emphasis particle

When I first learned about the よ particle in some old textbook, I remember reading it was used when providing “new information” to the listener. While this does cover some of the cases, it’s a pretty lacking explanation in my opinion.

Technically, the Japanese dictionary contains a whopping 11 definitions for this particle. Fortunately, there are some meanings that overlap or are not used commonly in modern Japanese.

The simplest way to describeよ is to say it adds emphasis to the statement that comes before it (when used as a sentence-ending ending particle). It can be used when informing the listener(s) about something, but it can also be used when admonishing or persuading them to do something.

As a side note, I used to think of よ as an exclamation point (“!”), but after some consideration I feel “!” is actually far stronger and used much less often then よ. Having said that, in some cases an explanation point may be added to help carry the feeling of emphasis.

Let’s look at a few examples for a better understanding.

  • Person A: このケーキ、まずい (kono keeki, mazui)
  • Person A: This cake tastes horrible.
  • Person B: ううん、おいしい (uun, oishii yo)
  • Person B: No, it tastes great.

Here, person B’s statement directly contradicts person A’s statement, so person B uses “よ” to emphasize “I am right, listen to me”.

Omitting よ here sounds like Person B is sort of talking to themselves without directly contradicting person A, almost as if they didn’t hear them (omitting ううん would make this even more so). On the other hand, using ね would be very strange because B is not (positively) acknowledging anything A said.

Let’s look at another example:

  • 実は、僕は日本に生まれました。 (jitsu ha, boku ha nihon ni umaremashita yo).
  • Actually, I was born in Japan.

Here the よ emphasizes the fact that the speaker thinks the listener doesn’t know about the speaker being born in Japan (this fits with the idea of “new information” I mentioned above). The phrase “実は” (jitsu ha) goes together with that since it is generally used before making a surprising statement.

Of course, just because you *can* use the よ particle doesn’t mean you should. Let’s take the example of when you find someone using a pen you had dropped a moment earlier. You could say:

  • それは僕のものです (sore ha boku no mono desu yo).
  • That’s mine!

However, in my experience Japanese people are generally a bit more humble and polite, especially if your relationship demands using polite forms (like です). Using よ here is pretty strong, so let’s rephrase this to be softer and polite.

  • あの。。。それは僕のものなんですけど。。。 (ano… sore ha boku no mono nan desu kedo…)
  • Um… That is mine and…

The “けど” at the end here helps soften the statement, as opposed to sharpening it as よ does.

Similar to ね, the よ particle can also be used after the “te” form of a verb. But instead of adding a friendly tone it adds–you guessed it–emphasis.

  • 早く手伝って.  (hayaku tetsudatte yo)
  • Help me out already!

It can also be added after the volitional form to add extra emphasis to an offer:

  • 今度、一緒に行こう。 (kondo, issho ni ikou yo)
  • Let’s go together next time.

Note that this sentence is perfectly correct without the よ because 行こう on its own can indicate an offer.

よ (or よっ)can also be used at the beginning of a sentence, or by itself, to mean an informal greeting (like “hey!”), though technically I am not sure if this usage classifies as a particle. Besides this usage, よ is generally never said by itself after a sentence (unlike ね which can).

よ is much less commonly used in inside the sentence, at least in modern Japanese. Rarely I have seen it used after certain words, like in the patterns (。。。だけだ。。。)  or (俺が。。。), but generally those were lines from manga/anime characters trying extra hard to sound tough. So I don’t recommend trying to use よ in the middle of a sentence yourself, unless you hear it often being used that way by your peers.  Just for completeness, there is one other middle-sentence usage of よ such as 「友よ、さよなら」where よ is used after someone’s name when calling out to them, but I don’t think this is used much in modern Japanese (it is described as definition 2.1 here)

An interesting example of よ(yo) vs ね(ne):

The other day I saw the following phrase on someone’s Twitter feed who was teaching Japanese:

  • 寂しくなる  (sabishiku naru ne)
  • I’ll miss you.   (lit: … will become lonely)

At first I felt that よ would be more appropriate here because you are telling them something with emphasis. To learn more, I put a post on Japanese Language StackExchange that you can see here. I got some interesting responses you can check out, but the summary is that both よ and ね can be used, but they have different nuances. Having said that, it seems that ね is a good default to use in this case, and I confirmed this with another native speaker.

Thinking about it some more, the ね makes sense because the other party probably knows you will miss them, as does the touch of friendliness.

Actually, if you remember the literal meaning of this phrase is “(unspecific subject) will become lonely” and assume that subject is 僕たちが (we), then the choice of ね makes even more sense since you are acknowledging the fact “we will become lonely” with the listener. While at first I assumed the subject of this was “I”, you can probably see the interpretation “I’ll become lonely, right?” doesn’t quite fit.

Particles unite: よ(yo) + ね (ne)

Now for the icing on the top of this cake of particles, I’d like to talk about the particle compound よね (yo ne) which I feel is one of the more confusing (and yet common) combinations of particles.

At first, there would seem to be a contradiction here: ね is often used when acknowledging something the listener(s) may already know, and よ is used when you want to emphasize something they may very well not know.

One thing that may help you to understand this combination is to know it was originally separated, as in “だよ。ね”  (da yo. ne), and I have even seen it used in a novel in that form once. Because of this, switching the order to だねよ (da ne yo) would be very strange and unnatural.

Essentially, the speaker is saying something (with confidence), but then backtracking and asking for confirmation about what they said is true. It’s like “I’m pretty sure about X but will you confirm with me?” Having said that, I’ve read in several places (and this matches my own experience) that よね has a pretty similar meaning to ね.

To tell a funny story, when I was researching for this article and stumbled upon a very informative post from early 2014 on Oshiete Goo (a Japanese discussion forum) about the differences between よね and ね (see here). But the funny thing is that was it was me who started the discussion. As frequently happens with questions on that site, you will get very informative answers mixed in with some pretty cryptic stuff. The same goes for my post, especially answer #4.

Answer #3, on the other hand, is pretty interesting and talks about the seemingly wide gap between these two. Specifically, よね is declared an expression used for “avoiding responsibility” (責任回避). When saying ね, one is fairly sure of something themselves and may be asking for others to chime in. However, よね implies the speaker does not have a strong opinion either way and is sending out feelers to see what other people think. The person who posted this answer even went as far as to refer to fraudulent businesses (詐欺商法). Answer #2 is even more detailed and refers to things such as よね having a “pushy” or “persistent” feeling to it depending on who says it and in what situation, so it must be used with care.

Having said that, I personally use よね in a casual context when I am relatively sure about something but still want to double check. For example:

  • 今日は学校お休みだよね? (kyou ha gakkou oyasumi da yo ne)
  • There is no school today, right?

You could use だろう(darou) or でしょう (deshou) in place of だよね (da yo ne), but that represents a more aggressive assertion, so I would avoid it unless you are trying to extra aggressive. Also, you may remember I also translated “ね” as “right?” earlier in this article, however that feels softer and more indirect compared to any of these other phrases.

Another common way you see よね used is after そうだ or そうです:

  • そうですよね〜 (sou desu yo nee)
  • Of course!

The way I’ve heard this used in practice reminds me of the abovementioned “responsibility avoidance”. In other words, the speaker is just playing along with what someone else said without deeply believing in it. It could be because they were trying to fit in with others and be polite, or because they weren’t informed enough to know anything else.

If you pick apart this phrase, you’ll see the elements really do conflict, so I am not surprised it is seen negatively by some:

  • そう (sou): probably refers to what someone else just said
  • よ (yo): emphasizes your feeling on the matter (even though someone else said it)
  • ね (ne): hints at asking confirmation from the listener (and adds some friendliness in for good measure)

You can replace ね with な in this case (to get よな) and the meaning is mostly the same, except you have a little rougher nuance (less friendliness).

Another particle combo: な (na) + よ (yo)

While I said that よ is always used after ね (when used together), the な particle can actually be used before よ in two special cases, namely those I mentioned earlier for positive and negative commands. For example,

  • それを食べるなよ (sore wo taberu na yo)
  • Don’t eat that.
  • こっちを見なよ (kocchi wo mi na yo)
  • Look over here.

As before, よ here only adds emphasis and doesn’t change the meaning of the phrase significantly. I’ve been told that よ actually acts as a softener here, and I think that is because it covers up the harsh sound of な at the end of the sentence.

Final thoughts

I’ve written quite a lot about these particles, but this is just the tip of the particle iceberg. You can add the か (ka) particle to the mix and then combine it with all of the particles discussed here for interesting results. There are other sentence-ending particles like わ, which is pronounced as ‘wa’, not to be confused with は that is pronounced the same way when used as a particle.

If you have any particles or particle combinations you want me to write about, please let me know in the comments. (Here is another article about a big lump of particles)

Mini Quiz

Based on your understanding of particles ね、な、なあ、and よ, which translation you think is most appropriate for the “Like” button found on many popular social sites (Facebook, etc.)?

  • いい
  • いいね
  • いいよ
  • いいな
  • いいなあ
  • いいよね
  • いいよな

Answer: The second choice. The reason is that ね has the connotation of telling another person something in a friendly way. Even though there is no actual person you are speaking with, いい would sound too emotionless and いいよ would sound strange, almost as if you weren’t supposed to like it. By the way, いいね should not be confused with よかったね since only the latter expresses happiness about something that already happened (see this article for more details).

 

 

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