The Adventures of “wa” + “ga”: Question Sentences

By | February 8, 2021

I’ve written a fair amount of articles on this blog about Japanese particles, and several of those have touched upon “wa” and “ga”, two of the trickier particles to master. In this article I want to focus on using “wa” and “ga” in a simple question sentence, focusing on a specific example. But first let’s look at a quick review of the role of these particles in Japanese.

The “wa” particle––typically written as は––signifies a topic, but can also be used to give a nuance of contrast, and (perhaps therefore) is used often with negative statements. You can get a rough feeling for “X wa…” by thinking in terms of “as for X…”

On the other hand the “ga” particle––typically written as が––is used to specify a subject. It is used when the subject is emphasized or particularly important, although “ga” can also be used in adjectival phrases (ex: 僕が買ったもの). The closest way I know to get a feeling for “ga” is by imaging the word before the “ga” is in italics (though that doesn’t apply to the adjectival phrase usage).

As you can see, even in a short summary the differences between these particles become a little tricky, and knowing when something is a “topic” or “subject” in practice can be difficult. In this article I want to focus on simple question sentences and the nuance of using “wa” vs. “ga”. Specifically, I want to focus on two different ways to say “Do you have any hobbies?”

Here are the two options:

  • (何か)趣味ありますか?  [ (nanika) shumi wa arimasu ka?]
  • (何か)趣味ありますか?  [ (nanika) shumi ga arimasu ka?]

The other day when I was listening to a Japanese learner say the “ga” version (the 2nd one above) it felt somehow unnatural, which inspired me to do some research and eventually write this article. Like with many “ga”/”wa” questions, it isn’t that either is unconditionally unnatural; rather, each has a nuance and that nuance can be leveraged naturally in certain situations.

As part of this research, I came across this great page in Japanese which talks about this very same topic (warning, it’s pretty ad heavy). Some of the ideas on that page helped me understand things a little better, and I also got some help from Kaimai Mizuhiro, a colleague of mine who has done a lot of thinking about particles (in fact you can see an article he wrote about particles here, including some of his cool technical diagrams).

Now I’d like to go over the nuances of these two sentences.

For the “wa” sentence, there is a sense of neutrality, and the speaker does not have any expectations about the result. Here is one way to translate this nuance:

  • 趣味ありますか?  [ shumi wa arimasu ka?]
  • By the way, do you have any hobbies?

On the other hand, for the “ga” sentence there is the implication that the person does have a hobby. I’ll quote an example sentence here I got from Kaimai san:

A:休日はだいたい海に行ってるんですよ。 (kyuujitsu wa daitai umi ni itte ru n desu yo.)

B:何か趣味があるんですか?   (nanika shumi ga aru n desu ka?)

A:はい、釣りが好きなんです。  (hai tsuri ga suki nan desu.)

In this case, person B is not talking about hobbies in general, but making the assumption that the reason person A is going to the ocean/beach on holidays is for the purpose of some hobby (surfing, etc.). Using “ga” is natural in this context, and “wa” would sound unnatural. Here’s a one way to translate the nuance of “ga”:

A: On holidays, I generally travel to the ocean.

B: Oh, is that for some hobby?

A: Yes, I like to go fishing.

If you imagine B instead saying, “Oh, by the way, do you have a hobby?” you can feel how “wa” would be a bit unnatural.

Also I wanted to point out in the second sentence, the “ん” (“n”, which is an abbreviation of “no”) being used by B is important since it hints at some explanation or some reason, connecting it to the previous line said by A. The explanatory “n”/”no” is another thing that is hard to translate to English, but you can get a rough idea by thinking in terms of “The fact is ~” or “Is it the fact that ~ ?” (See this post for more details on the usage of “n” / “no”)

To give another example (this one was inspired by the Japanese page I linked above):

  • この辺にレストランありますか? (kono hen ni resutoran wa arimasu ka?)
  • この辺にレストランありますか? (kono hen ni resutoran ga arimasu ka?)

The first sentence (the “wa” version) has the nuance of asking neutrally if there happens to be any restaurants around this area, whereas the “ga” version assumes that there is likely a restaurant around this area, perhaps a specific restaurant. Here’s my attempt to capture these nuances in English:

  • Are there any restaurants around this area?
  • Do you know of a restaurant around here?

For the examples above I was using the “aru” verb of non-living existence. We can use other verbs, for example:

  • 食べたの? (kimi wa tabeta no?)
  • 食べたの? (kimi ga tabeta no?)

The “wa” focuses on the action itself, whereas the “ga” sentence above focuses on the subject.

  • So you ate it?
  • You ate it?

I should probably mention that the first sentence above (君食べたの?) feels a little odd to me because generally the “君は” part would be omitted (being understood from context). Therefore, “食べたの?” would generally be more natural when asking “(so) you ate it?”

If you enjoyed this post, please consider checking out my book of Japanese particles (edited by Kaimai san), that contains similar detailed discussions about particle nuances. It’s $0.99 on Amazon or free for Kindle Unlimited users.

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4 thoughts on “The Adventures of “wa” + “ga”: Question Sentences

  1. Anthony

    Hi there!
    I follow you on twitter and find your blog to be quite helpful. I live in Vancouver and am learning Japanese through the historic Vancouver Japanese Language School (https://vjls-jh.com/) . This post was really well done. I didn’t check out the links because what you presented was very clear.

    I’m almost finished reading Jay Rubin’s book “Making Sense of Japanese – what the textbooks don’t tell you”. It is really helpful on this topic – and the book, as a whole is very entertaining as well as amazingly informative. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not, but I would recommend it to anyone who, like me, is either mystified by some of the grammar points or intrigued by how the quirks of language (any language) work.

    Thanks so much for continuing this blog!

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment, it’s nice to meet you!

      I think I had read “Making Sense of Japanese”, although it was probably over 20 years ago but I don’t remember the details too well. Jay Rubin is a pretty famous translator so I am sure any insights he could offer would be worth reading. Maybe I should re-read it someday and review it here.

      Reply
  2. Carlasan

    this is a neat and better explanation i have found on the internet! I am now following you on twitter too! Thanks for the nice and clean blog site you created. I am based in Manila and challenging myself to learn a new language at 50 years old. Targetting to take JLPT when it becomes available again here in our country.

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the nice comment! Best of luck with your Japanese learning, if you ever have any questions, please let me know.

      Reply

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