The Japanese particle wa (は) has been a mystery to many people studying the Japanese language. I remember the first time I heard of it, I got terribly confused as to the meaning and how to use it. The main reason is that there really isn’t a clear translation for it in English.
This particle is sometimes called the topic marker particle (whatever that means) or thematic particle (an equally useful moniker), which can cause a lot of headaches when you first start studying Japanese. To top it off everyone seems to have their own way of explaining it. So, it can start to get more confusing as you do more research and ask more people about it.
Even at more advanced levels, this particle and it’s close brother ga (が) come up on the test. As a matter of fact, the New Kanzen Master N2 Grammar Book has an entire section on it in the back of the book. So, don’t get tricked into thinking that you are exempt if you are at a higher level. It will come back to haunt you.
This week I’m going to break down the Japanese particle wa and try to give you a few clear explanations of what exactly it means and how to use it. Hopefully by looking at it from a couple of different angles you can really get a feel for how it is used.
Thematic or Topic Marking wa
Loosely translated the particle wa, means ‘talking about~’; ‘as for~’; or simply ‘the’. All of these definitions fit in their own little way, but can be a bit unwieldy and don’t fit every situation. Mostly because as I said earlier wa really doesn’t have an English translation.
The wa particle marks information that the listener already knows about. It is a theme or topic that is either understood from context or was mentioned earlier. So, when we use wa we assume that our audience knows exactly the thing we are talking about.
For example, we can use it to talk about a subject that has already been mentioned:
となりに、おばあさんが住んでいます。 (An older woman lives next door to me.)
毎朝、おばあさんは歌を歌います。(Every morning the older woman sings.)
It can also be used with proper nouns (like 日本 or たなかさん), nouns that have only one instance (like 月 ‘moon’ or 神 ‘god’), and generic nouns (like つくえ ‘desk’ or 携帯 ‘(abbr. for) cell phone’) when talking about them in general.
携帯は便利だね。(Cell phones are pretty useful.)
In this way, the wa particle is somewhat similar to a, an, and the in English. When we first mention something in English we can use ‘a’:
I found a dog today.
Then, after we mention it, we start using ‘the’.
I named the dog Joe.
We can use ‘the’ because we know that the listener knows which dog we are talking about. It is understood. It is the topic of the conversation. Note that I said somewhat though, wa DOES NOT mean ‘the’.
It’s because of this rule (the topic must be understood by the listener) that we can’t use wa with questions. We can’t say:
何は好きですか？ (What do you like?)
We need to ask it in the following way instead:
何が好きですか？ (What do you like?)
Because we don’t know the topic yet. The topic is the answer.
私は本が好きです。 (I like books.)
Notice we used the wa particle to mark the topic here because that information is not important. What the speaker was asking about is the listener’s likes. The listener is the topic of the conversation though, so it is helpful to include that in the answer, but not necessary. We could also answer:
本が好きです。 (like books.)
This shortened response is okay, because the topic is understood.
To make things even more complicated we could ask:
A: 本は何が好きですか？ (What book do you like? – lit. On the topic of books, what do you like?)
B: 「吾輩は猫である」が好きです。 (I like ‘I am Cat’.)
Another was to think of this use of the particle wa is that we are placing more emphasis on the later part of the sentence. The noun marked by wa is there to clarify the sentence and make it easier to understand. The more important part of the sentence is the later half.
You can test this theory by simply deleting the wa and seeing if the sentence still makes some sense. If the noun marked by the wa particle is missing the sentence should still have the basic meaning, but become more ambiguous.
車は高いです。 (Cars are expensive.)
In context, the second sentence can probably be understood perfectly fine. Imagine if someone asked you what you thought about a car:
この車はどうですか？ (What do you think of this car?)
高いです！ ([It’s] expensive!)
You might be wondering about the question word and why we used wa instead of ga. Well, that’s because what we want to know is your opinion, not the car. We already know what car we are talking about (maybe the speaker is pointing at it, or is standing beside it). Mentioning it in the question then helps clarify that we are on the topic of this car.
The wa particle = is?
Although this rule doesn’t hold up all the time, you can also think about the wa particle being used when we would use the be-verb. Take a look at the following sentence:
あなたはつまらない。 (You are boring.)
Again, this doesn’t always hold true, but it is another test you can do to make sure you are correct.
I’m a Cheeseburger?
One last example, to help you wrap your head around this concept of a topic marker is how you can order at a restaurant. When the waiter comes and takes your order you can say something like:
私はチーズバーガーだ。(I am a cheeseburger?)
Obviously, “I am a cheeseburger.” is not the translation for this phrase, but something more like “As for me, it is the cheeseburger.” That is because again, the wa (は) particle marks the topic not the subject. The topic of this sentence is me, the (understood) subject is the order (it).
How about you?
What helps you remember when to use the wa particle? Let me know in the comments below.
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