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How to use Japanese Particles

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One of the most common things I get emailed about every month is how to use Japanese particles.  They are a tricky bunch of grammar points that sometimes don’t correlate well with something in other languages.  Some particles match up fairly well, while others at first glance, appear to match up with something in English, but are actually a lot more complicated.

For instance, the epic battle between は and が.  One is called the topic marker, は. The other is called the subject marker, が.  But, in normal English, the difference between subject and topic is very slight, and if you aren’t a grammarian, you might not have any sense of a difference between the two.  There are questions about the usage of は and が at the N1 level.

At the N5 and N4 level, almost all of the grammar questions involve some kind of particles.  At the N5 level, they are basically going over the basic one mora particles – は, が, で, に, を, etc… Whereas at the N4 level they cover longer particles and some combination of particles as well.  These can be an annoying hurtle to passing the test, but important to get right early on.

When I first studied for and passed the N4, I didn’t spend that much time getting the details down about each of the particles.  I got the main idea of each and how to use them, and then moved on.  I really wish I had spent just a little more time reviewing so that I could use them a lot more confidently.

Recently, I’ve been creating videos and materials for the N5 and N4 levels, and have spent a good amount of focused study on each particle as I create each video.  I’ve been learning a lot about the little quirks and nuances of each particle.  And actually, I spent more time for each video at the N5 level than I do at the N4 level, just because each of the particles at the level are so fundamental.  If  you can get a good understanding of them at that level, you will be well-positioned for the higher levels.

There are a few key books that I have relied on heavily when doing research for videos and materials.  Each one offers something a little different.

All About Particles

All About Particles“(US) is a very well-organized reference book of particles.  The particles in the book are not organized by alphabetical order but there is an attempt to sort them by frequency of use.  Of course, this is a little troublesome because some of the most frequently used particles (e.g. は, が) actually have some fairly rare uses, but these are marked with an asterisk to show their rarity.  The author also tries to group particles that have similar (but not completely interchangeable) meanings.

This makes the book very handy for those that are just starting out in the language and want to jump start their understanding of the particles.  But it can also be useful for those that have an understanding of the different particles, but would like to shore up any holes they might have.

Each section outlines the more common uses of the particles as well as provide some example sentences.  The example sentences are written in common Japanese and include *gasp* romaji transliterations as well as an English translation.  Although I’m not a fan of romaji at all, and at this stage can hardly read or type it, it is important to remember that some people are simply interested in speaking Japanese and don’t want to wade through learning kana.

In general, this is a good book to use as a reference whenever you encounter a new particle, whether you think you completely understand it or not.  I find that it is extremely helpful to have the same grammar point explained by a few sources in order for you to get a good feel for what it means and how to use it.  It might be worth one read through as well just to get a feel for everything.

How to Tell the Difference between Japanese Particles

You might have guessed from the title that this book is all about sussing out the differences between particles with similar meanings, and you’d be right.  “How to Tell the Difference between Japanese Particles“(US) is another book by Naoko Chino and it shows by how well this little book is organized.  A lot of thought was put into how to present these tricky little devils and it shows.

The descriptions of each particle are not as exhaustive as “All about Particles”.  Instead, there is just a brief introduction of each particle and there is more emphasis on the differences between a particular particle and another one.  This workbook also covers when the particle is not necessary or can be replaced with another particle.  It also includes 2 example sentences for each point they present.  Again, this gives you a clear look at not only the meaning of the particle, but also it’s usage, which is just as important or more important than its meaning.

Studying some grammar points and drilling them can lull you into a false sense of security.  You study each particle and think that you have a good understanding of each.  But then, you take your first practice test and find out that it is much harder than you think.  That’s because understanding the differences between particles and grammar points is probably more important than knowing the actual meaning of the grammar point.

In language teaching, we call this appropriateness.  Appropriateness doesn’t necessarily refer to the difference in registers (like politeness levels or using honorable language vs. something more casual).  It more often than not refers to using the correct grammar point in the correct context.  For some grammar points, it’s critical that you use it appropriately.  If you don’t, you run the risk of being misunderstood or at the very least unclear.  On the test, this could cost you a few points.

Dictionaries of Japanese Grammar by Japan Times

The two books above will cover the majority of what you need to know about particles.  But, if you are in need of something more in-depth and exhaustive, I highly recommend the Dictionaries of Japanese Grammar.  This 3-volume set of thick books (beginner, intermediate, advanced) will cover pretty much anything you can imagine and then some.  It is extremely thorough.  It is written with the serious learner in mind, so it will give you pretty much all the information you could possibly need about a particle.

On top of that, it gives you a detailed view of the form of each grammar point and then gives you a healthy list of all the ways one can use the grammar.  If you are seriously studying Japanese, you will want to get these books sometime.  They are a little bit of a big investment, but I’ve found that they have paid for themselves many times over, just because of the convenience of only having to look in one place for answers.

They do have a few downsides though.  First, they are three books.  N5 and N4, and some N3 stuff is covered in the first, beginner volume.  N3+ material is covered in the middle, intermediate volume, and the advanced volume tends to cover some N2 points and most of N1.  However, surprisingly some grammar points might not be in the book you think it is.  This is okay if you own all 3, but if you choose to buy as you go, you might be out of luck.

A second factor is the cost.  If you buy all 3, it might set you back $140+.  But this is actually quite cheap considering what you are getting.  If you are a self-learner, you probably aren’t spending that much on lessons, but you need really detailed explanations.  A small investment can answer a lot of questions for you.  If you want to skimp a little though, you can probably go without the advanced book.  Most of what you will use regularly is in the beginner and intermediate books.

How do you Fight Particles?

How did you master them?  What are you doing now to study them?  Let us know in the comments.

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