Japanese Particles : The Contrastive wa

contrastive waLast week, I talked about the topical or thematic use of the Japanese wa. This is where you will typically first start using the Japanese wa, but the magic of this little Japanese particle doesn’t stop there. There is another use for the particle that is a little bit more complicated. I’m talking about the contrastive Japanese wa.

Although it is sometimes hard to tell which wa is being used in a particular sentence. It is useful to know how to use it when you are using Japanese as well as to know that sometimes the sentence you are reading or listening to might have another meaning.

Contrastive wa – The Basics

We can use the Japanese wa to compare to things. For example,

この本は、写真はきれいだけど説明はつまらない。
Kono hon wa shashin wa kirei. Shikashi, setumei wa tumaranai.
This book(‘s) pictures are pretty. But, the explanations are boring.

Notice that the first wa is the topic marking wa and not a contrastive wa. This is usually the case. If there are several wa-s in a sentence, the first one is the topic marking wa and the other wa-s are contrastive.

When there is only one wa in the sentence, it can either have a contrastive or topic marking role. This is unfortunately not always clear, and is something that you’ll have to pick up from the context of the sentence by reading the sentences around it or by guessing from the situation. Let’s look at an example of that:

ビールは飲まない。
biiru wa nomanai.

As for beer, I don’t drink it. (topic marking)
I don’t drink beer, (but I can maybe drink some other alcohol). (contrastive)

In the above situation, we can not really tell what meaning the speaker is going for.  We need to have more context.  For example,

ビールは飲まない。ビールは健康じゃないし高い。
biiru wa nomanai.  biiru wa kenkou jya nai shi takai.
(As for beer, I don’t drink it. It is unhealthy and expensive.)

ウィスキーは大好きです。でも、ビールは大嫌い。
uisukii wa daisuki desu.  demo, biiru wa daikirai.
(I really like whiskey, but I hate beer.)

Stressing the wa in spoken Japanese

Telling the difference between topic marking wa and contrastive wa in spoken Japanese is a lot easier. You just have to listen for the stress. If stress is placed on the wa, then it is contrasting otherwise it is the topic marking.

ビール飲まない。
(I don’t drink beer, but I drink other things.)

Try this out the next time you are speaking Japanese. Try to place emphasis on two different items.

Using the wa to negate a part of your sentence

We can use the contrastive wa to emphasize a particular part of the sentence that we want to negate. This is something that is a bit unique to the contrastive wa and is more for advanced nuanced use. Let’s look at a quick example of this:

1) 私は今朝なっとうを食べなかった。
Watashi wa kesa natto wo tabenakatta.
(I didn’t eat natto this morning.)

2) 私は今朝はなっとうを食べなかった。
Watashi wa kesa wa natto wo tabenakatta.
(I didn’t eat natto this morning.)

3) 私は今朝なっとうは食べなかった。
Watashi wa kesa natto wa tabenakatta.
(I didn’t eat natto this morning.)

Notice that all three of these sentences have the same basic meaning (I didn’t eat natto this morning.), but each has a slightly different nuance. (1) is just regular old vanilla sentence conveying the meaning of not eating natto this morning. (2) implies that I ate natto but not this morning or that I usually eat natto in the morning, but this morning for whatever reason I didn’t. (3) emphasizes the natto, which implies that you ate something this morning, just not natto.

Where did the wo go?

You may have noticed that the object marking particle wo disappeared. This usually happens when you want to convey the meaning of contrastive wa with an object. You can’t have wo and wa together, although you can have では、には、へは、からは、とは、 and よりは。 I’m not sure why this is. I’m guessing it was simply too difficult to say をは , so it isn’t used.

Does that make sense?

That’s all I have for wa. I hope this makes some foggy points a little more clear. If you have any questions let me know in the comments below. Or if you have any tips about how to use wa, I’m sure others would love to hear it.

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