Don’t underestimate Japanese particles!

By | February 3, 2020

Although I joined Twitter around four years ago, I only really started getting active in the last year and making posts that can be appreciated in and of themselves, instead of simply linking to one of my articles. At the same time, I’ve been paying more attention to other tweets about learning Japanese, as there seem to be many Japanese teachers/tutors on Twitter.

In the last month or so I noticed a certain person sending out a tweet repeatedly that says something along the lines of like “Don’t obsess with particles,” along with an explanation that actually using Japanese is more important than perfect grammar. 

While I agree that mastery of any language requires the courage to actually use that language, even when there is uncertainty about mistakes, I feel a certain annoyance to the message here about particles. So I wanted to talk briefly about my stance on particles.

First of all, if you may have noticed many of the articles on Self Taught Japanese are about grammar, and I frequently talk about how grammar is one of the most important things in learning a language, since it connects very tightly with reading, writing, listening, and speaking. It seems that when our brains are young enough, we can figure out the implicit rules of grammar just from raw exposure to the language, but the older we are the more useful it is to learn explicit rules. 

Now, I would also make the claim that particles are the soul of Japanese grammar. While they can sometimes be compared to things like English articles and prepositions (being small words with big meaning), it’s quite clear that no particle in Japanese directly maps to a word in English, at least in a way that it applies in all situations. Furthermore, because the Japanese language tends to omit any word it deems unnecessary, particles become even more important. (I should mention that particles themselves can sometimes be omitted, especially in casual or informal language.)

Before we get into specific examples, I wanted to mention that particles in Japanese are called 助詞, which is written with the characters for “help” and “part of speech”. While the English word “particles” captures how these words are generally small (usually a character or two), it ignores the “help” part of them. So I’d like you to keep in mind the “help” part, and not focus solely on the “short” aspect.

Alright, now let’s go over some examples to see the power of particles, beginning with the phrase:

  • お大事 (odaiji ni)
  • Take care of yourself.

This short phrase is an abbreviated form of お体をお大事にしてください (“Please take good care of your body”). Grammatically, the に particle takes the word 大事 (a word with nuances like “precious”, “important”, or “series”) and turns it into an adverb: “carefully”. Omitting the に particle changes this phrase from meaning “carefully!” to meaning “careful!”, a big grammatical difference. While a native speaker will still understand your meaning (at least as long as you keep the お), it’s best to keep the particle.

The choice of particles can also have a significant impact on a sentence. Here is a blatant example:

  • 買ってもらったもの (boku ga katte moratta mono)
  • 買ってもらったもの (boku wa katte moratta mono)

Using the が particle is natural here to express “The thing that someone bought for me” (and can actually be replaced with の with no change in meaning), but using は changes the nuance significantly. You end up with something like “As for me, the thing that was bought…” instead of a simple noun phrase. Furthermore, the は particle has a nuance of comparing against something else, so if there is no context involving that using は is unnatural.

Let’s look at a more subtle example.

  • おもちゃ一緒に遊んだ (omocha to issho ni asonda)

At first glance, this looks like it means “(I) played together with the toy”. Indeed, both the “to” and “de” particles can mean “with”, but they have a different connotation. “De” is used when the thing is used as a tool or a means to do something, and “to” is used when you do something together with a person, like in a group.

From that explanation you can probably see we have used “to” above when it should have “de”, unless the toy was a humanoid robot that I was playing some game with. As before, people will get what you are saying, but it’s clearly unnatural.

Particles can often provide a certain feeling without directly affecting the meaning itself. For example,

  • 帽子を買ったのよ (boushi wo katta no yo)

While it’s true that this sentence means “(I) bought a hat”, you may not know that the “no yo” particle combination has a feminine nuance to it. This doesn’t mean men can’t use it, but if you were a guy and used this unintentionally it would be a bit embarrassing. 

Finally, the difference between the が and は particles can be quite a challenge to master, at least for beginning, or even intermediate students. I’ve written a few posts on this, and you can see one here. But I wanted to show an example where mixing these up can give an unintended nuance to the listener/reader. Let’s pretend someone asks you, “誰が好きなの? (“Who do you like?”)

  • 好きだよ  (kimi wa suki da yo)
  • 好きだよ  (kimi ga suki da yo)

The particle “ga” emphasizes the word before it as a subject, which I sometimes like to think of as being in italics. “Wa” on the other hand, refers to a (often previously referenced) topic, which you can think of as “As for…”

The “ga” sentence here would be the natural choice, meaning “I like you.” But if you used “wa” instead, you end up with “As for you, I like” or, more dramatically, “You? I like you”. How would you feel if you were told this?

I’ve just given just a few examples of the importance of particles, but I hope it’s motivated you to spend some serious time getting to know all their ins and outs, including exceptions and the various nuances they convey. You can find a few more posts of mine on particles here (although since I haven’t been too diligent about tagging, there are probably more out there). This is a pretty good book on particles, and any good textbook (like the popular Genki) will gradually introduce the most common particles.

Sure, if you are in the middle of a conversation, don’t refuse to open your mouth because you aren’t sure of the right particle to use. Do your best, and if it’s wrong the listener may even correct you (if they manage to figure out what you are trying to say). But that doesn’t mean you can’t spend a significant amount of time getting comfortable with particles. Putting too little of an emphasis on particles can cause bad habits (or misunderstandings) that are hard to fix later. Fortunately, not all the particles are as cryptic as “wa” and “ga”; for example “ni” (direction of an action or location of existence) and “wo” (object of an action) are relatively straightforward.

(Note, the image I used shows wooden blocks with single letters of the alphabet. This doesn’t directly match up with Japanese particles, but I thought visually it still hinted at particles so I decided to use it.)

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