Lesson 6 – Grammatical Topic and the Wildcard は

For anyone following along with these series of articles, you have probably noticed one big, glaring omission so far, especially if you have studied Japanese elsewhere on the web, or with any of the mainstream textbooks. What has been conspicuously absent up until now, of course, is the topic particle, は.

Most explanations of Japanese grammar start right off the bat with the topic particle. They’ll first teach students sentences patterns like XはYです and then slowly introduce the other particles. But we’ve done it in the completely opposite order here. So far we’ve explained all of the following particles: が、を、の、に、へ、で, and have only now just begun to talk about は.

The reason for this is because the particle は is special. The particles が、を、の、に、へ、で are all case-marking particles(格助詞・かくじょし). That is, they describe the role or function that a noun or noun-phrase plays in relationship to a verb or another noun. In this way, they map directly onto grammatical case categories that are often found in many Indo-European languages. Speakers of English, German, French, etc are all familiar with terms such as grammatical subject, direct object, predicates, indirect objects, etc. In these languages, as in Japanese, these terms describe a verbal relationship. The subject does the verb, the direct object is directly affected by the verb, etc.

However, は is not a case marking particle. Its job is to mark “grammatical topic“, which is not a role in the same way as the roles that the above particles indicate. The point of the grammatical topic is to give context to a sentence, and to establish a piece of information as the thing that is being discussed. This is a grammatical marker that most languages do not have, and learners often fall into the trap of confusing it with the grammatical subject. In fact, confusion over what は is really used for is probably the #1 problem that plagues learners of Japanese, even after they’ve been studying for years.

So it’s worth doing a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of how this particle works in order to hopefully avoid any of the confusion that typically surrounds it.

Important Note: は here is pronounced as “wa”, the same as the hiragana わ. It is not pronounced as “ha”. This is a relic of historical kana orthography that’s persisted into the modern language. In all other situations when は is not being used as a particle, it is pronounced normally as “ha”. It is also an orthographic mistake to write the particle は with the hiragana わ, which should only be used in words where the sound “wa” appears as something other than the topic particle.

Useful Vocabulary

  • 誰(だれ)・Who
  • 何(なに)・What
  • どこ・Where
  • 好き(すき)・Likeable
  • 嫌い(きらい)・Detestable
  • 高い(たかい)・High/Expensive
  • 背が高い(せがたかい)・To be tall
  • 象(ぞう)・Elephant
  • 鼻(はな)・Nose
  • 長い(ながい)・Long
  • です・Polite Copula form of だ
  • 今日(きょう)・Today
  • デパート・Department Store
  • 買い物(かいもの)・Shopping
  • する・To do
  • 夫(おっと)・Husband
  • フランス人(フランスじん)・French person
  • そうですか・Is that so? (Set phrase)

Starting With an Example

Let’s take a look at the following sentence:

ボールなげる・I throw the ball.

In this sentence, as we’ve learned, が is marking the grammatical subject of the verb while を is marking the direct object of the verb. This is a grammatically proper, well-formed sentence. However, a sentence like this is unlikely to be spoken as such in a conversation. This is because nothing has been established as the overall topic of discourse. As is, the sentence appears to be introducing both 私 and ボール as new information to the listener.

The point of the case-marking particles is to convey new information to the listener. Who did something? What was done? What was it done to? With what did you do it? But what if you’ve already established something as being old information? What if you and the person you are speaking with are on the same page; that the conversation you are having right now revolves around some already specified topic, X?

This is where は comes in. With は, we can establish one of the constituent elements of the sentence to be the overall theme of the sentence, and everything else becomes new information that relates back to that theme. This pattern of taking a theme, and then saying something new about it is called Topic-Comment Sentence Structure”. We establish a “topic” and then “comment” on that topic with new information.

So taking our original example sentence, we can create two different possible topic-comment style sentences from it:

  • ボールをなげる (As for me, I throw the ball)
  • ボール私がなげる (As for the ball, I throw it)

In the first sentence, the topic particle は has overridden the subject particle が to turn 私 into the overall theme of the sentence. This establishes 「私」as the old information that we are relating all of the new information back to. So a sentence like this conveys the idea of “Well speaking about myself, I throw the ball). “Throwing the ball” is the comment on what the topic is doing.

In the second sentence, the topic particle は has overridden the direct object particle を. Note that the generally tendency is to move the topic of the sentence to the very front, so when a particle gets overridden by は you can generally expect it to be moved to the very front of the sentence, in order to preserve the “Topic-Comment” structure. This sentence conveys the idea that we’ve been talking about the ball, and it is the overall theme that we are conveying new information about. So a literal translation would be “As for this ball we’re talking about, I will throw it”.

Syntactical Overview

So because は is used to create a link between an established topic of conversation and new information about the topic, it is NOT a case-marking particle, as mentioned earlier, but instead a linking particle (係助詞 ・かかりじょし).

The way は interacts syntactically with the case-marking particles depends on the particle in question. When a subject or direct object (marked with が and を respectively) becomes the topic, the particles が・を get replaced by は. The other particles combine with は to create doubled-up particles. If there was a word that was previously unmarked by any particles (e.g. adverbs), it can still become the topic by simply adding は.

For example, if we take the following sentence, 「今日、私がデパートで買い物をする 」which means “Today I’ll do shopping at the department store”, each constituent element can become the topic of the sentence via the following substitutions:

  • が → は  (私今日デパートで買い物をする)
  • を → は  (買い物私がデパートでする)
  • で → では (デパートでは私が買い物をする)
  • unmarked → は (今日私がデパートで買い物をする)

The pattern XはYです

So now that we looked at numerous examples of how to use the particle は, let’s take a look at the sentence pattern that is often the very first thing that Japanese language textbooks teach students, which is XはYです. 「です」here is the polite form of the copula「だ」that we learned earlier (this will be explained in more detail later on). This is usually translated as “X is Y”, similar to 「XがYだ 」or「XがYです」that we learned earlier. However, based on what we learned so far about how は is not a case-marking particle and does NOT mark the subject, we can see that while translating it to “X is Y” is sometimes accurate, it is insufficient.

For example, take the following sentence 「私は下痢です」. Based on the above “X is Y” translation, this would have to mean “I am diarrhea”, which is wrong (and would kind of be a miserable existence). However, the meaning becomes much more clear if we view は as the topic, not as the subject. In this case, the meaning literally becomes “As for myself, diarrhea”. “Diarrhea” is simply a comment made about the topic. It is not necessarily the predicate of the grammatical subject. We just know that there is some relationship between the words “I” and “diarrhea”. So we would have to deduce from context that the intended meaning is really supposed to be “I have diarrhea”.

The pattern XはYが

One very prominent pattern used in Japanese is 「XはYが」where Xは marks the topic, and Yが marks the subject, where the subject is something that relates back to to topic X.

For example, in Japanese, the words “to like” and to “hate” – 好き・嫌い are adjectives that literally translate to “is likeable” and “is detestable”. A typical sentence describing something you like or hate is rendered as follows:

・私は寿司が好きです (I like sushi)

・私は納豆が嫌いです (I hate natto)

While the idiomatic translations of these sentences are “I like sushi” and “I hate natto” respectively, the literal translations of the original Japanese are closer to: “As for me, sushi is likeable” and “As for me, natto is detestable”.

In each sentence “sushi” and “natto” are the grammatical subjects of the adjectives “likeable” and “detestable”. The particle は is merely there to provide context as to the circumstances under which “sushi” and “natto” are likeable and detestable. We can say sushi is likeable, and we can say that natto is detestable, if we are talking about myself. But in some other context (which would also be marked by は), this might not necessarily be the case.

This same pattern is often used to describe the body parts of people and animals:

象は鼻が長い – Elephants have long noses

お母さんは背が高い – (My) mother is tall

These sentences literally translate to “As for elephants, the noses are long” and “As for (my) mother, the back is tall”. In each sentence, the grammatical subject is “nose” and “back” respectively, whereas the words “elephant” and “mother” are the topics, i.e. the context under which the statements made about the subjects hold true. Noses aren’t always long for all animals, but they are in the context of elephants. Backs aren’t always tall for all people, but they are in the context of my mother.

Lastly, let’s take a look at the following conversation, which really underscores just how crucial separating out the topic from subject can really be.

Person A: 私は夫がアメリカ人です

Person B:そうですか、私はフランス人です

Here, person A is saying “As for me, (my) husband is American” or more idiomatically “My husband is American”. Once again you can see the clear distinction between topic and subject. Where things get very interesting is in person B’s reply. If we were to falsely assume that the topic is the same as the subject, then person B’s statement sounds like they are saying “I am French” which doesn’t make sense in the context of what person A says. But if we keep in mind the fact that the topic and the subject are two different things AND that either one of them can be left unsaid if obvious from context, it is clear then that what Person B is really saying here is:

私は(夫が)フランス人です。

The topic of the utterance had changed from Person A to Person B, but the subject “husband” had remained the same, and thus was left unsaid as it was already implied by context. So what person B is really saying is “As for me, (my husband) is French” or in idiomatic English, “My husband is French” NOT “I am French”.

This is why lazy explanations that fail to separate out topic from subject, and teach 「XはYです」 as simply “X is Y” are insufficient and can lead to huge misunderstandings.

Leaving Out Information that is Obvious from Context

It is important to remember in all of this that the job of the case-marking particles is to convey new information. As a result, anything that is explicitly mentioned with a case marking particle is assumed to be important enough to warrant being explicitly stated. If that’s not the case, then the thing in question should simply be left out altogether, and implied by context.

For example, let’s go back to one of our example sentences from earlier:

今日私がデパートで買い物をする – I will go shopping at the department store today

Here, 「今日」is the topic, and everything else is the comment, conveying new information in relationship to that topic. This sentence is correct, but overly verbose. It sounds like the speaker is going out of his or her way to explicitly make a point of stating each and every detail. In English, it might sound something like “As for today, I’M going SHOPPING at the DEPARTMENT STORE“, overemphasizing each detail. Instead, many of these items would likely be left unsaid if understood from context. For example, it’s usually understood that the subject of a sentence is “I” unless otherwise stated, so the phrase 私が can be eliminated completely:

今日はデパートで買い物をする

You can even eliminate “at the department store”:

今日は買い物する

As long as a piece of information is already understood from context, it does not need to be said. Explicitly stating it implies that you believe it is something that requires mentioning. This is very different from English, where details like that are usually added in just as a matter of course.

The same idea of leaving this unsaid can also apply to the topic of the sentence. Once the topic has been established, it does not need to be repeated again. For example, if the topic of conversation is 私 (marked as 「私は」), then it only needs to be stated once, and then from that point on, the topic is assumed to remain 私 until a new topic is brought up.

For example, the following series of sentences sounds extremely unnatural:

  • 私はトムです。私はアメリカ人です。私は寿司が好きです」

This continuously brings up 私 as the topic over and over again, despite the fact that the topic hasn’t changed. Therefore, continuously saying 私は is redundant and unnatural, bordering on being grammatically incorrect as it makes no sense to bring up a grammatical construct meant for changing the topic, only to return back to the same topic again. So instead, this series of sentences should simply become:

  • 私はトムです。アメリカ人です。寿司が好きです。

After the first 私は, all of the other sentences are implicitly understood to be comments about the already established topic. Therefore, further uses of「私は」are unneeded.

When NOT to use は

As は is used to mark something as old information and establish it as the topic of conversation, it cannot be used to mark new information that was previously unknown to both the speaker and the listener.

There are a few situations where this becomes important. The first situation is when asking questions. Question words like だれ、何、どこ, etc cannot be marked by は and instead must be marked instead with a case-marking particle. This makes senses, as question words are placeholders for unknown information. Since the case-marking particles convey new information, and は expresses old information, unknown information cannot therefore be old and thus it can’t be the topic.

誰がボールをなげる? (Who will throw the ball?)

トムは何をなげる? (What will Tom throw?)

In these cases, the particles and cannot be replaced with . More importantly, the answers to these questions must also use the same particles, and not は, since the answer is also new information meant to clarify the unknown information posed by the question.

  • トムなげる(Tom will throw – answering the question だれが?)
  • ボール投げる (Will throw a ball – answering the question 何を?)

also can’t be used when you’re pointing out something you see or notice. This is because the thing you are noticing is “new” information that you didn’t have access to before.

For example, if you see a bird take off, you can say

「鳥飛ぶ!」

Here, saying 「鳥は飛ぶ」wouldn’t make sense, since this particular bird is something “new”. The sentence 「鳥は飛ぶ」does make sense however if you are talking in the general sense, and are saying that “Birds fly”. In that case, 鳥 can be marked by は because the concept of “birds” is something everyone is assumed to be familiar with.

You can even see the transition from “new” to “old” occur within the same conversation. Once a bit of new information has been established with a case-marking particle (usually が, but not always) it can thereafter become the topic with は

あそこに猫いる!あの猫かわいいね。”There’s a cat over there! That cat is cute, isn’t it?”

In this sentence, the cat was pointed out as new information with the case-marking particle が, and then it was turned into the topic directly after.

Using は to Show Contrast

Because は is used to change the topic of conversation, and to alter the context under which a statement is made, it has very naturally grown to also carry a connotation of contrast. As a result, is often deliberately used when a speaker wants to show contrast between two separate things.

For example, let’s say you wanted to say “I like sushi but I hate natto”. One could say:

寿司が好きですが、納豆が嫌いです.

These are of course, independently, grammatically well-formed sentences. However, they lack the intensity of contrast that the speaker likely wants to convey: “I like sushi BUT I hate natto”. To create this nuance, we can replace the two が particles with は:

寿司好きですが、納豆嫌いです.

Literally, this sentence is now “As for sushi, (it) is likeable, but as for natto, (it) is detestable”.

This nuance of contrast can sometimes result in learners making statements that don’t mean quite what they think it means. For example:

今日は綺麗です

If you said this to someone, literally it means “As for today, (you) look pretty” or idiomatically “You look pretty today”. However, since the word for “today” was marked as the topic, and the topic has a nuance of contrast, the implication here is that the person in question DOES NOT look pretty on all the other days, and that today is an exception.

Conclusion

The particle は can be very difficult to wrap your head around as there is no easy 1-1 mapping with any aspect in English grammar. However, as long as you continue to always keep in mind that “The topic and the subject are two completely different things” then you are already off to a great start.

Lesson 5 – Instrumentation and Locations of Actions with で

In this article, we’ll be going over a relatively simple particle that has a couple of straightforward uses, with a minor exception.

Useful Vocabulary

  • ナイフ・ Knife
  • パン・Bread
  • 切る(きる)・To cut
  • バス・Bus
  • タクシー・Taxi/Cab
  • カメラ・ Camera
  • 写真・Picture/Photo
  • 取る・To take
  • 空港(くうこう)・ Airport
  • 飛行機(ひこうき)・ Airplane
  • コーヒー・ Coffee
  • 買う(かう)・To buy
  • コンサート・Concert

Meaning 1: Showing Instrumentation.

で can be used to show how, or by what means, a verb is carried out. This is analogous to the instrumental case that appears in certain Indo-European languages like Russian. For native speakers of English, it is similar to saying “with” or “by”. For example:

  • ナイフパンを切る (Cut the bread with a knife)
  • バス学校に行く (Go to school by bus)
  • ペン作文を書く(Write an essay with a pen)
  • カメラ写真を撮る (Take a picture with a camera)
  • タクシー空港に行く(Go to the airport by cab)

While the English translation changes slightly for some of the sentences (i.e. using “by” vs “with”), the takeaway in Japanese is that で indicates the means by which an action is carried out. It points out what is used to carry out an action.

Meaning 2: Showing an action’s location

Earlier we learned that the location of a person or thing can be indicated using the particle に. For example:

空港飛行機がある – There are planes at the airport.

However, に can only be used to show location when we are simply talking about something existing in a certain location. If we instead are talking about the location where an action takes place, we have to instead use で.

For example:

  • 空港コーヒーを買う(To buy coffee at the airport)
  • 本を読む(To read a book at home)

Since verbs like “to read” or “to buy” describe actions, the location in which they take must be marked with and NOT に.

So compare the difference:

  • 公園に猫がいる (“To exist” is not an action. It is a state of being. The location should use に)
  • 学校で作文を書く(書く is an action, and so the location should use で)

Exception ー Using で With ある

Marking the location of the verb ある can sometimes take で instead of に when it’s being used to describe an event that is taking place, such as a concert or a convention. This is because these events are large-scale “actions”

For example, compare the two different usages of ある below:

  • 机の上ペンある (There’s a pen on the desk )
  • 東京コンサートある (There’s a concert in Tokyo)

The first example uses に because we are simply describing the existence of the pen on the desk, and no action is taking place. The second example uses で because a concert is an “event” and an event is a type of “action”.

Lesson 4 – The particles に and へ

By now you should be familiar with some of the very basic concepts of Japanese, namely the fact that the relationships between words are marked with grammatical particles, and that verbs and copulas come at the end of the sentence. So far, the particles we’ve gone over, が、を、and の, have had relatively clear cut meanings. It’s easy to see where you should use が vs を vs の as their usages (at least at this stage of learning) do not overlap*. However, these next two particles, に and へ have usages that appear to overlap when translated into English, thus making them the source of confusion for Japanese learners whose native language is English.

So in this article we will be going over these two particles, examining their most common uses and seeing how they resemble each other and how they differ.

Useful Vocabulary

  • ボール・Ball
  • 友達(ともだち)・Friend
  • ける ・To Kick
  • なげる・To throw
  • 行く(いく)・To go
  • 会う(あう)・To meet
  • 乗る(のる)・To ride
  • 待つ(まつ)・To wait
  • 入る(はいる)・ To enter
  • 送る(おくる)・To send
  • かける・To hang
  • 帰る(かえる)・ To go home
  • うち・ home
  • 自転車(じてんしゃ)・Bicycle
  • 車(くるま)・ Car
  • 学校(がっこう)・ School
  • 東京・(とうきょう)・Tokyo
  • 道(みち)・ Road
  • 公園(こうえん)・Park
  • テーブル・Table
  • 机(つくえ)・ Desk
  • テレビ・ TV
  • 靴(くつ)・ Shoes
  • ドア・Door
  • 窓(まど)・Window
  • 壁(かべ)・ Wall
  • 絵画(かいが)・ Painting
  • 手紙・(てがみ)・Letter
  • お母さん(おかあさん)・ Mother

Showing Indirect Objects of Verbs With に

So earlier we learned that the direct object of a verb is marked with を. However, in addition to the direct object, verbs can also have an indirect object, which is something that is affected by the verb, but isn’t directly acted upon by the verb itself.

For example, in English if you were to say “I throw the ball to Tom”, “I” would be the subject, “the ball” would be the direct object, and “to Tom” would be the indirect object. This is because the act of throwing is directly done to the ball, but “Tom” is still indirectly affected by the ball being thrown, which is what makes him the indirect object.

In Japanese, the indirect object is marked by the particle に. So for example, our sentence “I throw the ball to Tom” becomes:

トムボールなげる.

If we instead wanted to say “Tom throws the ball to me”, all we have to do is change which words are marked by which particles:

トムボールなげる (“Tom throws the ball to me”).

Notice that the nouns themselves do not change form, nor does the verb change depending on the person. So while in English we have the distinction between “I” and “me” and the verb “to throw” becomes “throws” in the third person, the Japanese versions stay the same. So 私 is both “I” and “me” and なげる is both “throw” and “throws”.

Here are some other example sentences:

  • 壁に絵画をかける – (I) hang a picture on the wall
  • お母さんに手紙を送る (I) send a letter to (my) mother.

Please note, that as mentioned in an earlier lesson, the subject of the sentence can be omitted if it is obvious from context. So we don’t always have to say「Xが」to start off with.

There are also plenty of verbs in Japanese which only have indirect objects and no direct objects. Some of the most common ones include 会う (to meet)、乗る (to ride) and 入る (to enter). Although the English versions of these verbs use direct objects, the Japanese version uses indirect objects. So for example:

I meet my friend → 私が友達会う

I ride my bike → 私が自転車乗る

I enter the building → 私がビル入る

(Note that the Japanese translations for the first two sentences don’t contain the word “my” ・私の, because it is implied from context and adding it in would make the sentence way too wordy).

You can think of the reason these verbs use indirect objects instead of direct objects as relating to the fact that these verbs do not do anything to change the objects in question. Meeting your friend, riding your bike, or entering a building doesn’t actually directly do anything to alter your friend, your bike or the building. They are only indirectly affected by your actions, and thus are marked as the indirect object.

Showing direction of motion with に and へ

The particles に and へ can both be used to indicate the direction a person is heading in when used together with a verb of motion. The particle へ is pronounced here as ‘e’ the same as the hiragana え, despite being written with へ. (へ is pronounced normally as ‘he’ in all other contexts).

So take for example the following sentences:

私が学校行く・私が学校行く ・I go to school

私がうち帰る・私がうち帰る ・I go home (Literally: “I go to home”)

The difference here between に and へ is that に puts more emphasis on the specific location that you are headed to, whereas へ puts more emphasis on the general direction that you are headed to. For example, take the following two sentences:

  • 東京に行く
  • 東京へ行く

The first sentence sounds more like you are specifically going to Tokyo with a particular purpose in mind. Maybe you’re going to a specific bar, or meeting up with a friend in Tokyo. Whatever the case may be, Tokyo is the specific destination you have in mind. The second sentence on the other hand sounds more like you’re traveling in the direction of Tokyo, but Tokyo is more of a point of reference for the direction you’re headed rather than your final destination. You might have other stops along the way and your final destination just happens to be somewhere within the Tokyo area.

The particle へ can also be combined with the particle の to indicate a noun that references a direction towards some other place. For example:

日本への旅行 – A trip to Japan

友達への手紙 – A letter to a friend.

Essentially what’s happening here is we have two nouns which need to be connected via の、where there is also a sense of “directionality” that exists between the two nouns. So to cover both of these nuances, the two particles へ and の are combined into one. In this case, へ always comes before の.

Showing Static Location with に

Lastly, the where something exists can be marked by に. Typically the pattern used is 「YにXがいる・ある」to express the idea of “There is X in/at Y”.

For example:

公園に猫がいる – There is a cat in the park

家にペンがある – There is a pen in the house.

This idea can be extended further to make use of location words like “in front”, “behind”, “near”, etc by using the following pattern: 「YのZにXがある」to mean “There is an X in [front/behind/below/etc] Y”.

For example:

  • テーブルいる – A cat is under the table
  • トムいる – Tom is in front of me.
  • ペンある – A pen is on top of the desk
  • テレビある – The shoes are next to the TV
  • ドアある – A window is to the left of the door.

Since words like 上・下・左・右・前・後ろ etc are considered to be nouns, they attach do other nouns via the particle の. So this is why phrases like “Next to the TV” and “In front of me” are 「テレビの隣」and「私の前」respectively. Once these two nouns have been combined via the particle の, they act together as a single noun phrase and the particle に attaches to the end of the entire noun phrase.

Lesson 3 – Possession: How to Use the Particle の

So far we’ve learned two very useful Japanese particles, が to mark the grammatical subject of predicates and verbs, and を to mark the grammatical direct object of verbs. We’ve also learned how to attach subjects to predicates via the copula だ and we’ve learned the difference between the two existential verbs ある and いる.

Now we will be learning how to use the particle の and its most common uses.

New Vocabulary

  • 自由の女神 (じゆうのめがみ)・ Statue of liberty (Literally: Goddess of liberty).
  • 大学(だいがく)・ College/University
  • ニューヨーク大学・NYU
  • 学生(がくせい)・Student
  • 専門(せんもん)・Major

Connecting Two Nouns With の

The first particle we will be looking at is the particle の, which has the job of connecting together two nouns, typically to indicate possession. The pattern here is XのY where X and Y are both nouns and Y is something that belongs to, or is a part of, X. For this reason, の can be related to the genitive case that is seen in European languages such as German.

For example, トムのペン would mean “Tom’s pen” with the particle の connecting “Tom” and “Pen” to indicate possession.

の can also be used with pronouns (which in Japanese are grammatically the same as regular nouns – more on that in a later lesson) to turn them into their possessive form. For example, adding の to わたし (I/me) turns it into わたしの which means “My”. So for example if you wanted to say “My cat” you would simply say 「わたしのねこ」.One thing to note is that while English has 2 ways to indicate possession, Japanese only has 1. In English you have the choice of one of the two following patterns:

  • X’s Y – (E.g Tom’s cat)
  • Y of X – (E.g. Statue of liberty).

However, both of these patterns collapse into the same XのY pattern in Japanese.

For example, the “statue of liberty” becomes “Liberty’s Goddess” 「自由の女神」with the word for “liberty” coming first, and then the word for “Goddess” coming second. Likewise, the phrase “Student of NYU” becomes「ニューヨーク大学の学生です」which is literally “NYU’s student”.

So combining this knowledge of how to use the particle の with the grammar we’ve learned thus far, we can now make even more complex sentences:

牛乳飲む (My cat drinks milk)

トムニューヨーク大学学生 (Tom is a student of/at NYU).

これペン – This is my pen.

いる – There is my cat

Leaving Off the Final Noun

It is also possible to leave off the final noun (Y) and simply say Xの to indicate “X’s”. For example, in English you can say “This is Tom’s” or “This is mine” without explicitly stating the thing that is being owned.

これが私のだ – This is mine.

The many ways to “wear” and “take off” something in Japanese

In English we can use the verb “to wear” for pretty much anything. We wear shirts, we wear paints, we wear glasses and hats and we wear gloves, neckties, and makeup. Likewise we can “take off” our shoes, “take off” our makeup” and “take off” our glasses. However, it isn’t quite so simple in Japanese. Depending on what you’re wearing or taking off, the verb you have to use will be quite different.

Verbs For “To Wear”

1)着る

Our first verb is 着る(きる), a る・一段動 verb which is used for wearing things that go on your torso. Shirts (long or short sleeved), undershirts, jackets, dresses, etc all use 着る. 着る is also the verb from which we get the word 着物(きもの・kimono) , the famous traditional Japanese garment, whose name literally just means “thing to wear”. 

あの赤いTシャツを来ている女の子は誰ですか。(Who is that girl wearing a red T-shirt?)

出かけると上着を着るのを心がけてね。(Make sure to put on a jacket when you go out).

2)羽織る

羽織る(はおる)is similar to 着る in that it is used for articles of clothing that go on your upper body, but is used for things that you drape over your shoulders, for example, a shawl. Any kind of loose flowing garment that you can wrap around your upper body can use the word 羽織る.

Some items of clothing can use both 着る and 羽織る, but your choice of verb will change the nuance of how you’re wearing if. For example if you’re wearing a sweater normally, you would just say 着る , but if you drape the sweater over your shoulders (picture a WASPy person at a country club), you’d be better of using 羽織る instead.

 あの男性はカーディガンを羽織るのが好きです。(That guy likes to wear cardigans)

3)履く

Our next verb is 履く(はく)which is pretty straightforward; you use 履く for anything that you put on below your waste. This includes pants, shorts, skirts, underwear, socks, shoes, slippers, etc.  Since the kanji is a bit complicated, you’ll often see はく written just in hiragana.

At this point some of you may be thinking, “well what would happen if I just used 着る to refer to wearing pants, etc?” That’s a good question, and the answer is that it would give the listener the impression that you are trying to pull your pants over your head like a shirt. There certainly can be a time and place to say that, for instance if you’re trying to describe some wacky shenanigans that your friend was getting up to, but if that’s not the message you’re trying to convey, then stick to はく.

左右で違った靴を履いてしまいました。(I accidentally put on mismatching shoes.)

4)被る

Next we have, 被る(かぶる)which is used for things you wear on your head. This includes hats, caps, helmets, crowns, etc.

帽子をかぶるのが好きじゃない。(I don’t like wearing hats).

学校で帽子を被ってはいけません。(You’re not allowed to wear hats in school).

There also exists a useful saying 「猫を被る」which literally means “to wear a cat on your head” and figuratively refers to a person who pretends to be kind but isn’t.

5)かける

This is a verb that has many, many different usages, but when it comes to clothing, it can be used specifically for wearing glasses and contact lenses. For example:

私は子供の時メガネをかけていました。(When I was a child, I wore glasses).

メガネをかけるより、コンタクトをかけた方が好きです。(I prefer wearing contacts to glasses).

6)つける

This verb is useful for accessories, including gloves, seatbelts, rings, necklaces, collars (e.g. for dogs) .

車に乗るときは必ずシートベルトをつけてください。(Make sure to fasten your seatbelt when riding in a car).

7)締める

しめる, means “to fasten”, and can be used for things that need “fastening” like neckties and seatbelts. Notice that there is some overlap between this verb and つける above, for example with “wearing seatbelts”. When it comes to the smaller accessory items, some items can be “worn” with multiple different verbs, the choice of which can come down to the speaker’s preference.

現代はネクタイの締め方が分からない人がだんだん増えてきている。 (Nowadays the number of people who don’t know how to fasten a tie have been growing).

8)巻く

This verb, which literally means “to coil” or “to wrap” is useful for talking about wearing scarves, since they wrap around your neck!

マフラーを巻くだけで、風邪を引くリスクが下がるそうです。(I heard that you can reduce your risk of catching a cold just by wearing a scarf).

9)塗る

This verb, meaning “to paint” or “to plaster” can be used for wearing makeup. Makes sense, right? It can also be used for other things that you “wear” by rubbing them into or applying them to your skin, like creams, sunscreen, etc. 

日焼け止めを塗るのを忘れて日焼けしちゃった。(I forgot to put on sunscreen and got burned).

マスカラの塗り方が分からない。(I don’t know how to put on mascara).

10)する

する、the verb for “to do”, can also be used as a general verb for “to wear” for many of the small miscellaneous items that we previously covered with the verbs つける、まく、締める and 塗る. It is a general “catchall” for accessories that can come in handy if you forget any of the more specific words. So you can say  ピアスをつける or ピアスをする for “to wear earrings” and likewise you can say 化粧を塗る or 化粧をする for “to wear makeup”. However, するcan’t replace the verbs for “to wear” that refer to big items, hats or glasses. So you can’t replace 着る、羽織る、履く、かける、or 被る with する。

私はピアスしている。 (I’m wearing earrings.)

 仕事のために無理矢理に化粧させられている女性が多い (There are many women are forced to wear makeup for work).

Verbs For “To Take Off”

Now that we’ve covered numerous ways to say to wear something, you might be wondering how you’d talk about taking things off. Luckily, there are only 3 verbs here you need to memorize.

1) 脱ぐ

The first and most common verb for “to take off” is 脱ぐ(ぬぐ)which can be used for most clothing including shirts, pants, hats, shoes, jackets, etc. Basically 脱ぐ can be used with any article of clothing that you put on with the following verbs: 着る、履く、被る、and 羽織る。

日本では家に入る前に靴を脱ぐのはマナーですね (It’s good manners in Japan to take off your shoes before entering a home).

2) 外す

The second verb for “to take off” is 外す(はずす)which covers all of the little accessories like glasses, earrings, scarves, gloves, etc. 外す is therefore the counterpart for the verbs かける、つける、しめる、巻く、and する

そのメガネを外して、目を見せて (Take off those glasses and show me your eyes).

3) 落とす

落とす(おとす)which literally means “to drop” can be used as the verb for “removing” makeup and other creams. So you’d use it to say you’re removing sunscreen, or mascara, or lotions and is the counterpart to the verb 塗る in this context.

顔や体に残った日焼け止めをキレイに落とす方法は何ですか (What’s a good method of fully removing sunscreen that’s still left on your face and body?)

Wrapping Up

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! This is a lot of information to take in, and even then there are many more real world examples that I just couldn’t fit all into a single article. To really get a feel for all these verbs and how they’re used in a wide variety of contexts you’ll have to continue exposing yourself to as much native Japanese as possible. 頑張って!

Style Tip: 〜いただければと思います

Learners of Japanese are often taught that you can drop the topic or subject of a sentence if it is obvious from context. This is of course true. What is not often explicitly mentioned is that many other parts of sentences can also be dropped if they are obvious from context. This can include objects, adjectives, and verbs alike.

In this article, I’ll be going over how Japanese speakers omit the second half of a 〜ば conditional when expressing their desires.

For example, let’s take a look at the following sentence:

これを見ていただければいいと思います

This (overly literally) translates to “I think it would be good if I could humbly receive the favor of you looking at this”. It is essentially a very indirect and respectful way to ask your interlocutor to take a look at something for you.

The sentence as it stands is grammatically correct, but to the Japanese ear it’s a bit redundant. Particularly, since this is a request, the fact that “it would be good” if you could receive the favor is obvious from context. You wouldn’t be asking in the first place if you didn’t perceive the desired outcome as being good. And so, that part of the sentence, いい, is dropped altogether:

これを見ていただければと思います。

This construct, いただければと思います, literally means “I think […] if I could receive the favor” where […] could be anything from “it would be good” to “I’d be glad” to “I’d be honored”. Whatever it may be, it doesn’t need to be stated outright, since the speakers intentions are obvious, and so we’re left with what appears to a native English speaker as a rather awkwardly incomplete sentence fragment but to Japanese speakers sounds much more natural.

This pattern of omitting the second half of a 〜ば conditional is not limited to the verb いただく. You can see it also with the standard receiving verb もらう:

それに対して意見を言ってもらえばと思う (I think […] if I could receive the favor of (you) stating (your) opinion regarding that).

and with pretty much any other verb where the desires of the speaker, should the conditional come true, are obvious. For example, take the following sentence:

だれかいい人と出会えればと思って、パーティ一に行った.

Literally this translates to “I went to the party thinking that [….] if I could meet someone nice. What goes into that […]? It’s obvious that the speaker would consider such an encounter with “somebody nice” to be a favorable thing, something they are looking forward to doing. Explicitly stating that […] with an いいな or うれしいな might not fully convey the exact feelings the speaker has, and so, it is left out and left to the listener to intuit how the speaker feels.

With this really simple stylistic change to your speech, you can really impress your Japanese friends, acquaintances and colleagues by speaking in a much more authentically Japanese way.

頑張りましょう!

How to say “to miss” in Japanese

Ever wondered how to say “to miss” someone or something in Japanese? In English, the verb “to miss” can be used in lots of different contexts. For example, you can say “I miss you” to a wide variety of people. You can “miss” your parents, your friends or your spouse. You can also “miss” objects or locations. A person can “miss” home or “miss school”. They can even “miss” a particular time in their life, such as their childhood.

Unfortunately in Japanese, there is no one singular way to say “to miss” that corresponds to all of the above. Your choice of words depends on whether or not you’re talking about an object or place, or people, and in the latter case also depends on your relationship to the person you’re missing in question.

This article assumes some basic familiarity with Japanese adjectives, verbs and particles, including the “て form”, verb conjugations such as 〜たい、〜ちゃう and suffixes like 〜がる, amongst others, so please brush up before reading further!

Missing things or places

The first thing we’ll learn how to say is how to miss a place or a thing. To do this we can use the adjective 恋しい(こいしい). This is a very common expression that is used all the time in conversation.

Since this word is an adjective and not a verb, it behaves exactly like other adjectives in Japanese, like 好き(な)and 嫌い(な).  For instance, when you want to say “I like Japan” you can say:

(私は)日本が好きだ・です。

Following this same pattern, to say “I miss Japan” you would replace 好き with 恋しい and get :

(私は)日本が恋しい(です)。

Another useful sentence using this pattern is「うちが恋しい」to mean “I am homesick” or “I miss home”.  For example, if you’re off at school and calling your parents to tell them you miss them you could say 「うちが恋しい」. This actually sounds a bit more natural then telling your parents you “miss them” directly, since, as we shall see in the following sections, the various ways to say “I miss you” directly to a person come with certain connotations that may be inappropriate to say to your family members.

Keep in mind that since 恋しい is an い adjective, that in informal speech you do not attach だ to the end like you do with 好き.

Speaking about other people missing places or things.

In the event that you want to speak about another person missing a place, you can still use the adjective 恋しい but you have to qualify it by using a suffix such as がる(seems like) or by quoting them. This is because in Japanese, talking about an other person’s emotions or desires directly without a qualifier gives off the impression that you can read their minds or have some other method of knowing with 100% certainty what they are thinking. Since this connotation does not exist in English, learners of Japanese often make the mistake of talking about others emotions directly without a qualifier.

So, if, for example, I wanted to say “My children miss Japan”, there are a few options:

私の子供たちは日本を恋しがっています。

私の子供たちは日本が恋しいって言っていました。

In the first sentence, I attached the suffix がる to 恋しい to create 恋しがる (“seems to miss”) and then conjugated that into the polite present progressive 恋しがっています. Note that since  恋しがる is a verb and not an adjective, the particle we use with 日本 changes from が to を. This is a good expression to use, if, say, your kids haven’t told you directly that they miss Japan, but have given off signs that they do, such as always talking about their friends back home, or talking about how much they dislike their current home.

The second sentence literally translates to “My children have said they miss Japan” which unlike the first example, works well if your children have literally said to you point blank that they miss Japan.

Talking about missing people

恋しい can’t be used when talking about people. So you can’t say 友達が恋しい to mean “I miss my friends”. It would just sound rather weird.

Instead we have a few different options.

Option 1 – 会いたい

The first is to use the phrase 「会いたい」which literally means “want to see/meet” and comes from the verb 会う(to meet/to see someone) conjugated into the 〜たい form to indicate desire.

For example:

田中くんに会いたいね!- I miss you, Tanaka! (Literally: I want to see you, Tanaka!)

To make it sound even stronger, you can add 「今すぐ」, which literally means “right now” to the beginning:

今すぐ田中くんに会いたいね! – I really miss you! (Literally: I want to see you right now!)

会いたい can also be conjugated into the past tense, 「会いたかった」to mean “I missed you”. For example, if you just saw your friend for the first time in a really long time you could say 「会いたかった」since you did miss them before, but now you’re feeling better that you got to see them again.

Be careful with 会いたい though, as it can have the connotation that you are “missing” the person in question because you have romantic feelings for them. If you say this to someone, they might

Option 2 – 会いたくなっちゃった

会いたくなっちゃった comes from the same verb 会う, but has a few more conjugations attached. First we conjugate it into the たい form to get 会いたい, and then add the verb なる, meaning “to become” at the end to get 会いたくなる (remember that なる attaches to い adjectives by changing い to  く) . We then finally add 「ちゃう」conjugated into its past tense ちゃった to なる to give the added nuance of “I can’t help myself” or “I don’t mean to feel this way”. The final meaning of this phrase therefore becomes something like “I became wanting to see you and can’t help it” or “I just really want to see you so badly”.

This is basically the same as 会いたい above, but sounds a bit more coy and feminine, which definitely gives off a much stronger vibe of having romantic feelings for the person you are talking to.

Option 3 – 寂しい(さびしい・さみしい)

Your third option is to use the word 寂しい, an adjective which literally means “lonely” and which grammatically works like 恋しい up above, since they are both い adjectives. The official prescriptivist pronunciation of this word is さびしい but lots of people will also pronounce it さみしい. In informal speech, either is fine, but if you are trying to be 100% “grammatically correct” from a prescriptive point of view, such as when writing an essay or article, stick to さびしい.

さびしい can be a complete sentence on its own, so just saying さびしい will mean “I miss you!”. さびしい can be conjugated to the past tense 「さびしかった」to mean “I missed you” and can attach to the verb なる to become さびしくなる to mean “I’m going to miss you!” when talking about the future. If you want to make a longer sentence, you can combine さびしい with 会う to get something like:

「会えなくて、さびしい」 which literally means “I’m lonely because I can’t see you” with the verb 会う being conjugated into the “te form” of the negative potential form(会う -> 会える -> 会えない -> 会えなくて)to mean “cannot meet”.

Also, like 恋しい, さびしい can be turned into さびしがる when talking about other people besides yourself:

彼は寂しがっています – “He seems lonely”.

さびしい doesn’t carry the same potential for romantic connotations that 会いたい  does so it’s a safer bet to use with friends who you just want to remain platonic with.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are lots of way to say “to miss” in Japanese that depend heavily on what or whom you are talking about. Since these nuances are heavily tied to Japanese culture itself, it is difficult to fully capture all of the possible scenarios a person could encounter in a single article. So the best way to learn how to say “to miss” like a native is to listen to Japanese people speaking in real life, while paying close attention to what or whom they’re speaking about and their relationship to that person or thing. 頑張って!

 

 

Lesson 2 – Basic Verbs and Direct Objects: Using the Particle を

In the previous article on basic grammar, I covered how to make simple statements that follow the pattern of “X is Y.” In it, two concepts were covered, the subject marker が and the copula だ.

Here we will be covering the particle を that will allow you to describe an action that the subject of the sentence takes on a direct object with a verb.

Continue reading “Lesson 2 – Basic Verbs and Direct Objects: Using the Particle を”

Pronunciation – おう And Morphemic Boundaries

In another article on how to read HiraganaI discussed how to pronounce certain vowel combinations such as おう、えい、and いい. Most often, textbooks and other Japanese language learning resources will tell students that おう and おお are pronounced exactly the same, and the difference is merely due to historical orthography. In most cases, this is true. However, this simplification is not entirely accurate and ignores a crucial distinction that all native Japanese speakers intuitively make.

Continue reading “Pronunciation – おう And Morphemic Boundaries”