Japanese Grammar: sentence-ending topics

By | October 3, 2022

In the Japanese language, while there are many variations, the basic word order looks like this:

  • [subject] [object] [verb]
  • 僕がりんごを食べた
  • boku ga ringo wo tabeta
  • I ate an apple.

You can expand this out to include more types of speech like this:

  • [topic] [subject] [direction or location of action] [object] [verb] [emotive particle(s)]
  • 今日は僕が学校でりんごを食べた
  • kyou wa boku ga gakkou de ringo wo tabeta yo
  • I ate an apple today at school!

For the most part, the things in the first part of the sentence can be shifted around (like putting object before subject), though the order I have listed above is arguably most natural for many situations. But the one thing that is fairly constant is the (main) verb is always near the end, with potentially one or more particles after it to change the feeling of the sentence.

However, in casual Japanese you can actually use topics at the very end of the sentence. To give a common example:

  • なんだ、これは ?
  • Nan da, kore wa?
  • What is this?

Notice the typical order would be “kore wa nan da?”, but in the above example the “nan da” (“what is”) is placed in the front.

By placing this at the beginning of the sentence it gets a feeling of emphasis, and in cases like this the first word is often emphasized verbally. On the other hand, the “kore wa” is less important, and by putting it at the end, it is de-emphasized.

Also note the comma, which represents a pause. While this is not required in writing, when speaking you would generally have a little pause there.

Here’s a similar example:

  • 誰だ、こいつ ?
  • dare da, koitsu?
  • Who is this guy?

Notice the “wa” was omitted here, which can be frequently done with that particle in casual Japanese.

While the above two examples have a strong feeling, you can use sentence-ending topics with a slightly different feeling:

  • 難しいな、日本語は
  • muzukashii na, nihongo wa
  • It sure is difficult, Japanese is   (Note: this is a rough translation and you could render this other ways)

In this case rather than making “muzukashii” have a great deal of emphasis, I feel that the “nihongo wa” is more of an afterthought (though it depends on the tone of voice). Maybe when the person started speaking they didn’t think specifying the topic was necessary because it was obvious, but midway through they changed their mind and decided it would be good to add. Also notice that the sentence-ending emotive particle (“na”) is before the topic, not after it. 

This case is a bit less common than the first two, but nevertheless you can hear it once in a while.

Like many casual expressions, while it’s good to understand them, you should be careful with overusing them in your own speech unless you are very comfortable with them. If you frequently end sentences with a topic like this, while people would understand you, there would be a definite “uniqueness” that would make your speech sound different than the average person. 

I’ve seen cases where manga or anime characters will end their sentences with something like “…ore wa” to help give them personality. I think there was someone from Nartuo who spoke that way, but offhand I can’t remember who.

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