Lesson 10: Adjective Basics

So far we’ve gone over the case marking particles, the linking particles は・も and how to use nouns and verbs and form their negatives. Now we are going to be taking our first look into adjectives and how they work in Japanese. Broadly speaking, Japanese has two classes of words that semantically function as the equivalent of English adjectives, but function syntactically and morphologically in Japanese in two very different ways.

Useful Vocab

  • 親切(しんせつ)・ Kind
  • 大きい(おおきい)・ Big
  • 綺麗(きれい)・Clean, pretty
  • 幸い(さいわい)・ Fortunate
  • 同じ(おなじ)・ Same
  • いい・ Good
  • 格好いい(かっこういい)・Cool, handsome
  • やさしい・Nice, kind
  • 新しい(あたらしい)・ New
  • パソコン・ PC
  • 部屋(へや)・ Room
  • 弟(おとうと)・ Little brother

Adjectival Nouns / “Na Adjectives”

The first type of adjective in Japanese is the “adjectival noun”, also known as “na-adjectives” and 形容動詞(けいようどうし)in Japanese. We’ve seen a couple of these so far in our vocabular examples with 好き and 嫌い. These adjectives function syntactically almost identically to nouns. When predicating a sentence, they conjugate via use of the copula だ in the same way that nouns do.

For example:

  • ひろしさんは学生・ひろしさんは学生じゃない
  • ひろしさんは親切・ひろしさんは親切じゃない

The only difference between standard nouns and adjectival nouns is that when adjectival nouns are used to directly modify another noun, they connect to the noun with な instead of the particle の, hence the often used name, “na-adjective”. This な is simply an attributive form of the copula だ.

Examples of connecting two nouns:

  • おもちゃ (Cat toy)
  • 自由女神(Statue of liberty).

Examples of connecting an adjectival noun to a noun:

  • 親切人 (A kind person)
  • きれい部屋 (A clean room)

To negate an adjectival noun, we simply negate the copula, as we learned in the previous lesson, the exact same way we learned to do with nouns:

  • ももこさんは親切じゃない (Momoko is not kind)
  • 弟の部屋はきれいじゃない (My little brother’s room is not clean)

True Adjectives / “I Adjectives”

The next group of adjectives are what are variously called true adjectives, “i adjectives” or 形容詞(けいようし)in Japanese. “I-adjectives”, unlike na-adjectives, behave very much like verbs in that they can predicate sentences on their own without the use of the copula, and have their own built in system of inflection. While all Japanese verbs end in the vowel “-u”, all i-adjectives end in the hiragana い as okurigana, hence the name. Some examples of i-adjectives include 大きい、楽しい、and 新しい. Be careful though as there are some adjectives that have a hiragana い as okurigana but are actually adjectival nouns. Examples of these include 幸い and 嫌い. Some other adjectival nouns like きれい also end in a hiragana い, but when written fully in kanji (e.g. 綺麗), the い is actually part of the kanji and not an okurigana, so we can instantly tell from that that it cannot be an i-adjective.

Predicate Examples:

  • わたしのともだちはやさしい。 (My friend is nice)
  • ひろしのぱそこんはあたらしい。(Hiroshi’s laptop is new)

As you can see, the i-adjectives can end a sentence all on their own, with the copular “to be” baked into the adjective itself. It is therefore grammatically incorrect to say やさしいor あたらしい. The copula だ can only ever be used with nouns and adjectival nouns. *Never* i-adjectives.

Because of this, using i-adjectives to modify nouns directly becomes straightforward. You simply stick the adjective in front of the noun it is modifying without having to add any binding particle in the middle, like you have to do with nouns and adjectival nouns:

  • たけしはやさしい人だ (Takeshi is a nice friend)
  • 大きい猫がいる (There is a big cat)

To negate an i-adjective, we simply change the final い to く and add ない:

  • たけしさんはやさしくない
  • 私のコンピューターは新しくない

The reason for this is that historically, the い developed as a contraction of く+あり, where あり was the old form of the verb ある. Most of the conjugations for i-adjectives are based on ある, in the same way that those of the copula だ are based on its uncontracted form である. So since the negative of ある is ない, the negative of i-adjectives is くない

Exception 1 – いい

The i-adjective いい meaning “good” has two forms, いい and よい, with よい being more formal. However all of its conjugations are always based on よい and not いい. So to negate, we say よくない and never いくない. This is important to keep in mind as we learn more conjugations going forward.

This also applies to adjectives that are compounds that contain いい such as かっこういい which can mean “cool” or “handsome”. The negative becomes かっこうよくない and not かっこういくない

  • わたしはいい考えがある (I have a good idea)
  • トムさんはかっこうよくない (Tom isn’t cool)

Exception 2 – 同じ

The word 同じ (“same”) is a little weird in that it works as a sort of hybrid between i-adjectives and na-adjectives. On the one hand, it predicates sentences with the copula だ. However, it can directly modify nouns without the help of the linker な, in the same way that い adjectives can. This often doesn’t get explicitly pointed out to learners in the same way that いい is:

  • わたしも同じシャツがある (I also have the same shirt)
  • 意味が同じだ (The meaning is the same)

And that is it! In future lessons we’ll go over more conjugations of adjectives (e.g. past tense) alongside the lessons for verbs and nouns.

Lesson 9: Conjugating the Copula

So up until now I’ve completely left out how to conjugate the copula だ, instead opting to go over various particles, the different types of verbs, and how to turn those verbs into their negative forms. Many other explanations of Japanese grammar dive straight into conjugating the copula as one the very first lessons. However, in order to do this so early, the conjugations of the copula need to be essentially memorized as one-off grammar points without understanding why it conjugates the way it does. By waiting until now, hopefully, the copula conjugations will make sense in a much more systematic way as it builds upon earlier learned grammar.

Useful Vocabulary

  • 好き(すき)・ Likeable / To like
  • 大好き(だいすき)・ Lovable / To love
  • 嫌い(きらい)・ Dislikeable / To dislike
  • 大嫌い(だいきらい)・ Hateable / To hate
  • 教師(きょうし)・ Teacher
  • 小説家(しょうせつか)・Novelist

だ as a contraction of である

The copula だ we learned way back in lesson 1 is really a contraction of the particle で and the verb ある “to exist”. Together, である therefore literally means “to exist as”, and it is easy to see how this combination was chosen to represent state of being. This etymology is important, because all of the conjugations for だ are based on the uncontracted form. The long form である is also still in use, largely in formal literary texts, such as newspapers (much, much more on this in a later lesson).

Negation ー ではない ・じゃない

As we learned in the previous section, the negative form of the verb ある is ない. Since the copula is comprised of the particle で and ある, the negative is formed by changing ある to ない. This gives us でない. However, people typically do not say でない, instead they say でない, with the particle は combining with the particle で before the negated ある. This is because as we’ve seen, one of the jobs of the particle は is to show contrast and by inserting a into the negative copula, we’re contrasting what something is not with what it is. For example, if we were to say:

  • たけしさんはアメリカ人ではない

This means “Takeshi is not an American”. The は in the negative gives the implication that even though Takeshi may not exist as an American, he does exist as something else (in this case, it is likely to be “Japanese”) and serves to emphasis the negation. This usage of は in the negative copula has become so idiomatic that it’s virtually obligatory and native speakers don’t give it a second thought.

To up the contrast even more, a は can also be inserted into the positive copula to create ではある as a kind of setup for an upcoming negation:

  • 私はすしが好きではあるが、大好きではない

This sentence means “I do like sushi, but I do not love it”. You’re making an explicit point here to say that although you do enjoy sushi, you’re contrasting it with the fact that you do not love it, per se.

An important thing to note is that the particles では are often contracted to じゃ in colloquial speech, so in addition to ではない which often comes across as rather stiff, you will much more often hear じゃない in day-to-day conversation.

Example:

  • たけしさんはアメリカ人じゃない – Takeshi is not an American
  • これはペンじゃない – This is not a pen.

Inclusion – でもある・でもない

The copula can also be made inclusive by combining the particle で with the inclusion particle も in both the positive and negative forms, to create both でもある and でもない

Positive Example:

  • 私は小説家である。教師でもある (I am a novelist. I am also a teacher).

Negative Example:

  • 私は小説家ではない。教師でもない (I am not a novelist. I am not a teacher either).

The particles can also be split from the verb ある and listed multiple times in succession to group together multiple qualities in the same statement. For example, the above two example sentences could be reworked as follows:

  • 私は小説家でも教師でもある (I am both a novelist and a teacher).
  • 私は小説家でも教師でもない (I am neither a novelist nor a teacher).

Here we see でもない split into its constituent parts でも+ない with successive uses of でも after both 小説家 and 教師 followed by a singular ある・ない at the very end.

This is also a useful pattern to know if you want to say something is “neither A nor B” or “both A and B”:

  • 私は納豆が好きでも嫌いでもない (I neither like nor dislike natto).

This sentence literally translates to “As for me, natto is neither likeable nor dislikeable)”.

Lesson 8: Verb Classes and Negative Conjugations

Up until now, we’ve seen many example sentences that make use of a variety of different verbs. However, all of those verbs up until now have been in their present-tense affirmative form, otherwise known as the dictionary form or 辞書系(じしょけい)in Japanese, without any conjugations applied to them. In this article, we’ll be describing the 3 different type of verb categories that exist in Japanese, and learning how to conjugate each type of verb into its present-tense negative form. This will allow us to be able to say things like “I don’t watch TV” or “I don’t go to school”. Keep in mind that in Japanese, the present tense and future tense are identical, so the negative form taught here will also apply to the future tense as well (e.g. “I will not eat”, “I will not go to bed”, etc).

Useful Vocabulary

  • 見る(みる)・To see / To watch
  • 寝る(ねる)・ To go to bed
  • 変える(かえる)・To change
  • 生きる(いきる)・ To live
  • 話す(はなす)・To speak
  • 喋る(しゃべる)・ To speak / To chat
  • 待つ(まつ)・ To wait
  • 泳ぐ(およぐ)・To swim
  • 遊ぶ(あそぶ)・To play
  • 帰る(かえる)・ To return home
  • 寝る(ねる)・To twist
  • 着る(きる)・To wear
  • 切る(きる)・To cut
  • 練る(ねる)・To knead
  • 勉強する(べんきょうする)・ To study
  • 経験する(けいけんする)・ To experience
  • 支持する(しじする)・ To support

Vowel Stem / Ichidan Verbs

The first verb group is known by several different names, including “Group 1”, “vowel stem” and “ichidan” (one step) verbs. Verbs in this class are categorized by the fact that they always end in either “~eru” or “~iru” in their dictionary form. Examples of verbs in this group include たべる、みる、ねる、かえる、and 生きる.

To conjugate an Ichidan verb into its negative form, all one has to do is replace the final with ない:

  • たべ→たべない
  • →みない
  • →ねない
  • かえ→かえない
  • いき→いきない

Example sentences:

  • トムさんはりんごを食べない (Tom does not eat apples)
  • 私はテレビを見ない (I do not watch TV)
  • 田中さんは寝ない (Tanaka does not go to bed)

Consonant Stem / Godan Verbs

The second, and by far the largest group of verbs in Japanese is variously known as “Group 2”, “consonant stem” and “Godan” (5-step) verbs. These verbs encompass almost all of the verbs that do not belong to Group 1, and can end in any of the following kana in their base dictionary form: う、く、ぐ、す、つ、む、ぬ、ぶ、る. Examples of type 2 verbs include あ、い、およ、はな、ま、よ、し、あそ、かえ.

To form the negative of Group 2 verbs, you replace the final “-u” sound with “a” and then append “nai”. Using a Hiragana chart, this can be described as replacing the final kana with the kana in the same column that ends in the vowel /a/. So く changes to か, つ changes to た、ぶ changes to ば, etc, and then ない is appended. The one exception here is verbs that end in う, which change to before adding ない instead of あ.

Examples:

  • →あわない
  • →いかない
  • およ→およがない
  • はな→はなさない
  • →またない
  • →よまない
  • →しなない
  • あそ→あそばない
  • かえ→かえらない

Example Sentences:

  • 海では泳がない (I don’t swim in the ocean)
  • 今日は学校に行かない (I won’t go to school today)
  • 漫画を読まない (I don’t read manga)
  • 今日は外で遊ばない(I won’t play outside today)
  • 公園で友達を待たない (I won’t wait for my friend at the park)

ある as an Exception:

The verb ある has an irregular negative form. Instead of becoming the expected あらない, it simply becomes ない

  • 私はカメラがない (I don’t have a camera)
  • テーブルの上に皿がない (There are no plates on the table)

Discerning Vowel Stem and Consonant Stem Verbs.

As you may have noticed, there are some group 2 verbs that also end in “~eru” and “~iru”. Examples include 帰る、きる、走る、and 喋る. This means that although all Group 1 verbs must end in “~eru” and “~iru”, seeing that a verb ends in “~eru” and “~eru” does not conversely imply that a verb must therefore be in group 1 (think of it as how while all squares are rectangles, not all rectangles are necessarily square).

There also are several Group 1 verbs that are homophonous with Group 2 verbs in their dictionary form. For example, かえる (to change) is Group 1 and its negative form is かえない, however かえる (to return home) is Group 2, and its negative form is かえらない. Some other homophonous pairs include the following, with the Group 1 verbs on the left and the Group 2 verbs on the right.

  • 着る・切る → 着ない・切らない
  • いる・いる → いない・いらない
  • 寝る・練る → 寝ない・練らない

Determining whether or not a verb that ends in “~eru” or “~iru” is Group1 or Group 2 is something that simply has to be memorized on a case-by-case basis. However, there are a few heuristics that can help you guess more accurately. First, the majority of “~eru/~iru” verbs are Group 1, so when in doubt, guess Group 1. Secondly ,”~eru/~iru” verbs that are Group 2 tend to be written with only a single okurigana after the main kanji. For example, 変える has two okurigana and is Group 1, while 帰る has just 1 okurigana. Other examples of this include 走る、喋る、and 入る, which are all Group 2. This heuristic is less reliable for verbs that are only 2 morae long, which have a more equal chance of being either Group 1 or Group 2. For example, 居る・着る・見る are Group 1 while 切る・練る・知る are group 2.

Type 3 / Irregular / Outlier Verbs 

This is by far the smallest category of verb in Japanese, with only 2 members, the verbs for “to do” (する)and “to come” (くる), which are significantly irregular, to the point where their conjugation patterns cannot be described neatly by the rules of groups 1 and 2. This does not mean however, that する・くる are the only irregular verbs in Japanese, as is often erroneously claimed, as several group 1 and 2 verbs exhibit very minor irregularities in at least 1 conjugation (as we just saw above with the verb ある).

In Japanese there are also many verbs that are combinations of a noun + する such as 勉強する、経験する、and 支持する. These compound verbs all follow the same irregular conjugation pattern as する does by itself.

The negative conjugations for する and くる therefore must be memorized individually:

  • する→しない
  • くる→こない

Example Sentences:

  • トムさんはパーティーにこない (Tom won’t come to the party)
  • 田中さんは英語を勉強しない (Tanaka-san doesn’t study English)
  • 私はその法案を支持しない (I do not support that bill)

Lesson 7 – Using も for Inclusive Topics.

In the previous section, we talked about the particle は and went in depth about the concept of “grammatical topic”. However, は is not the only particle that can be used to indicate the topic of a sentence. Whereas は is used to indicate contrastive topics, the particle も can instead be used to indicate inclusive topics. In this article, we’ll be going over in depth the difference between inclusion and contrast in the context of Japanese grammar and how it relates to the proper usage of the particles は and も.

Useful Vocabulary

  • 缶詰(かんづめ)・Canned food
  • 足がはやい(あしがはやい)・ Expression meaning “Fast runner” (Lit: Legs are fast).
  • 猫(ねこ)・ Cat
  • スプーン・ Spoon
  • あげる・To give

Pattern 1 – XもYです

Earlier we went over the pattern「XはYです」, which literally means “As for X, (is) Y”, using the contrastive topic particle は to indicate X as the topic, which stands in contrast to everything else that exists. When you mark a topic with 「 Xは」 you are saying, “We are talking about X specifically, as opposed to everything else”. But what if instead you wanted to say “As for X, too” to indicate that X along with some other topic Y both share some property? In that case, all you have to do is replace は with も. So the sentence 「XもYです」means “As for X too, Y” or more idiomiatically “X is also Y”.

Let’s look at a few example sentences:

  • 学生です – I am also a student.
  • これペンです – This is also a pen
  • 田中さん日本人です – Tanaka-san is also a Japanese person
  • 下痢です – I also have diarrhea

Multiple topics can be chained together with a sequence of も particles. Take a look at the following sentences:

  • トムさん学生です – Tom and I are both students
  • これそれペンです – This and that are both pens
  • 田中さん日本人です – Tanaka-san and I are both Japanese people

Combining も With Case Marking Particles

As we saw before with は, the inclusive marker も can either override or combine with the case marking particles (が、を、に、へ、の、etc) to topicalize them. The patterns of overriding and combining are the same:

  • が → も  (私今日スプーンで猫に缶詰をあげる) 
    • I also give my cat canned food with a spoon today.
  • を → も  (私は今日スプーンで猫に缶詰あげる)**
    • Today I give canned food too with a spoon to my cat.
  • で → でも (私は今日スプーンでも猫に缶詰をあげる)
    • Today I give canned food to my cat with a spoon, too
  • に → にも (私は今日スプーンで猫にも缶詰をあげる)
    • I give canned food today with a spoon to my cat, too.
  • Unmarked → も (今日も私はスプーンで猫に缶詰をあげる)
    • I give my cat canned food with a spoon today, too.

Please also don’t forget to keep in mind that these example sentences are rather contrived in the sense that they include way too much information. In general, as mentioned before, Japanese speakers will omit any bit of information that is obvious from context, so the above sentences would be heavily abbreviated in real reading/writing, and are only laid out in full here to illustrate the grammar.

As you can see, what is being included depends on what particle も is being used with. This is actually quite similar to English, in that the placement of the usage of words like “too” and “also” determine what is being included, although in English it can be a bit more ambiguous. For example, “I eat sushi, too” can either mean “I (in addition to an other person) eat sushi” or it can mean “I eat sushi (in addition to another food). In Japanese, each meaning is clearly deliniated:

  • 寿司を食べる
  • 私は寿司食べる

** In some very old-fashioned or extremely conservative or formal written Japanese, you may occasionally see 「をも」 with the particle を combining with も:

  • 私は今日スプーんで猫に缶詰をもあげる

There’s no need worry much about this though. It’s not something you’ll ever need to make use of yourself, but I’ve included it here for completeness because it does pop up occasionally.

The patterns 「XもYが」「XはYも」

As we saw in the previous section, the pattern「XはYが」can be used to describe situations where Xは marks the topic, and Yが marks the subject, where the subject is something that relates back to to topic X. This pattern can be extended to describe inclusive states by replacing either は or がwith も

For example:

  • 寿司好きです (As for me, sushi is likable / I like sushi)
    • 寿司が好きです (As for me also, sushi is likeable / I like sushi, too, in addition to other people )
    • 私は寿司好きです (As for me, sushi is also likeable / I like sushi, too, in addition to other food)
  • はやい (As for me, legs are fast / I’m a fast runner)
    • はやい (As for me also, legs are fast / I’m a fast runner, too, in addition to other people)
    • はやい (As for me, legs are also fast / I’m a fast runner, too, in addition to other skills)

Avoiding Awkward Misunderstandings

Last time we looked at the example sentence 「今日はきれいですね」and how it can be unintentionally insulting. By using the contrastive topic marker は with 今日, even though you’re saying “(You’re) pretty today” the implication is that the person is pretty today in particular, as opposed to every other day. Although we didn’t go over how to rectify this situation, now that we know how to use the particle も, the solution is obvious:

  • 今日きれいですね

With も, the topic 今日 becomes inclusive instead of contrastive, and so the meaning changes from “You’re pretty today (compared to other days)” to “You’re pretty today (as always)”. With one simple particle change, your compliment goes from backhanded to genuine.

Conclusion

As you can see, も is a pretty versatile particle that can really expand the expressiveness of your Japanese. Although there are even more uses of the particles は and も that we haven’t yet covered, what we’ve covered here thus far should be enough to get you on your way communicating effectively with other Japanese speakers.

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、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. 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, the indirect object is the “target” of the action, etc.

However, は is not a case marking particle. It is instead what is known as a “binding particle” or “linking particle”, called 係助詞(かかりじょし)in Japanese. Its job is to mark the “grammatical topic“, which provides context to a sentence, establishes a piece of information as the thing that is being discussed, and then binds that context to subsequent statements. 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, when in fact the topic of a sentence can be just about anything, as we will see below. 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

  • 缶(かん)・ Can
  • 蹴る(ける)・ To kick
  • 誰(だれ)・Who
  • 何(なに)・What
  • 犬(いぬ)・Dog
  • 噛む(かむ)・To bite
  • 質問(しつもん)・Question
  • 聞く(きく)・ To ask / To listen / To hear
  • どこ・Where
  • 好き(すき)・Likable
  • 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:

ける・I kick the can

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 缶 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:

  • 缶をける (As for me, I kick the can)
  • 私がける (As for the can, I kick 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 kick the can). “Kicking the can” is the comment on what the topic is doing.

In the second sentence, the topic particle は has overridden the direct object particle を to turn 缶 into the topic of the sentence. 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 can, and it is the overall theme that we are conveying new information about. So a literal translation would be “As for this can we’re talking about, I (will) kick it”.

Null Pronouns

Do note that some some resources refer to this phenomenon of “overriding particles” as I’ve described it here using the concept of a null-pronoun or zero-pronoun. The idea is that if any of the case marking particles are being used to refer to an entity that is identical to the topic, they must become null to avoid redundancy.

So we can view the underlying grammar of our topicalized example sentences as follows:

  • 私は( ∅が)缶をける – As for me, (I) kick the can
  • 缶は私が( ∅を)ける – As for the can, I kick (it)

In the first sentence, the topic is semantically equivalent to the subject, and so the subject marker が must become null. In the second sentence, the topic is semantically equivalent to the direct object, and so the direct object marker を must become null. This is represented in the English glosses by placing the equivalents of the null Japanese pronouns in parentheses.

What this means is that it is ungrammatical to keep those particles active, because it would create redundancy between them and the topic. So the following sentences are incorrect:

  • 私は私が缶をける (Wrong!!)
  • 缶は私が缶をける (Wrong!!)

A consequence of topicalization is that it can be difficult to determine what particle has been “overridden”, or in other words, it can be difficult to determine which particles have become null, without context. This is because, as mentioned above, は is not a case-marker and thus does not provide any information about grammatical case.

Syntactical Overview

As mentioned earlier, は is used to create a link between an established topic of conversation and new information about the topic, and is NOT a case-marking particle, 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. As we saw, when a subject or direct object (marked with が and を respectively) becomes the topic, the particles が・を get replaced by は. In other words, が・を become null.

The other particles, however, combine with は to create double 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、私が電話でトムさんに質問を聞く」which means “Today I will ask Tom a question on the phone”, each constituent element can become the topic of the sentence via the following substitutions. Please do note that this sentence and its variants are very stilted and overly verbose, but that this is intentional for the purposes of this grammar demonstration.

  • が → は  (私は今日電話でトムさんに質問を聞く)
  • を → は  (質問は今日私が電話でトムさんに聞く)
  • で → では (電話では今日私がトムさんに質問を聞く)
  • に → には (トムさんには今日私が電話で質問を聞く)
  • unmarked → は (今日は私が電話でトムさんに質問を聞く)

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:

今日は私が電話でトムさんに質問を聞く – I will ask Tom a question on the phone 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 asking TOM a QUESTION on the PHONE“, 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:

  • 今日は電話でトムさんに質問を聞く

You can even eliminate “on the phone”:

  • 今日はトムさんに質問を聞く

Or even “A question”:

  • 今日はトムさんに聞く

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. Let’s look at the following questions:

  • 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?)
  • ボール投げる (Will throw a ball – answering the question 何?)

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.

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”