I’ve dedicated a great deal of my time to having a good understanding of Japanese grammar, and proper usage of the particles “wa” and “ga” is one of the tricker areas. I’ve written some posts on this topic, and you can find many others if you google around.
I am not going to go into a detailed explanation of these particles’ nuances too much this article, but let me give you a very simple way to view these that will get you partway there:
- Wa (は) is more often used when the thing that comes after it is more important
- Ga (が) is more often used when the thing that comes before it is more important
(Note: for beginner students, don’t forget that は is usually pronounced ‘ha’, but when used as a particle it is pronounced ‘wa’)
Often people will say ” ‘wa’ is the topic particle and ‘ga’ the subject”, and while this isn’t wrong, I think the terms ‘topic’ and ‘subject’ are a little vague to some people.
Generally when learning grammar for a foreign language we learn rules (like the above), and then we learn certain common expressions that may go with, or against those rules. A simple one is how to describe addition.
For example, “one plus one equals two” would be written as “1 + 1 = 2”, and this would be generally said in Japanese as:
- いち たす いち は に (ichi tasu ichi wa ni)
(Note: normally hiragana doesn’t have spaces like this, but I’ve added them for clarity. You also see this in some children’s books.)
Notice the は (wa) here is consistent with our above rule since the “2” is arguably more important. After all, it is the answer to this simple math problem.
However, I was totally caught off guard the other day when I heard my son reading out loud from a math book. He said something like:
- いち たす いち が に (ichi tasu ichi ga ni)
I was about to correct him when I looked down at exactly what he was reading. The book looked like this:
- １ + ? ＝ 2
After a moment of thought, I realized that his instinct (there was no furigana to guide how to pronounce it) to use “ga” instead of “wa” here was correct. In this case, the “answer” is actually before the equal sign, so (according to the rule I gave above) we should use “ga”.
You can see a similar pattern when answering a question in Japanese where the original question word is used followed by “ga”. For example:
- Q: 誰がいる？ (dare ga iru?)
- A: 先生がいる (sensei ga iru)
It would be very awkward to answer “sensei ha iru” here, and would sound something like “Oh, the teacher? he is here.” Again, in this case the thing before the particle is most important, so “ga” makes the most sense.
I mentioned above that this only applies when the question word is followed by “ga”, so in questions like “どこに。。。” or “何を。。。”, you wouldn’t use “ga” after the answer. You would instead use whatever particle was before the question word (in these cases, に or を).