Introduction to particles

One of the most difficult things to learn in Japanese is the use of particles. Even experienced learners can have difficulty using the correct particle all the time, but do not despair. The basic outlines are easy to grasp and you will use them a lot when practicing so your knowledge won’t fade. 

First the basics:

  • Particles are Hiragana-characters attached to the end of a word or phrase to signify their grammatical use in a sentence.

Particles in Japanese indicate what the function of a word is. For example if a word is followed by the particle は, you know what the topic of the sentence is. Because particles indicate the purpose of a word in a sentence, the word order becomes less important. In almost all western languages the word order indicates what purpose a word has in the larger sentence. But because the particle does that in Japanese, words can be arranged without changing their function although there is often a preferred word order. 

There are many particles but the most important for beginners to learn are 

Below you can find a summary for each particle with a link to a more comprehensive explanation.  

The topic of a sentence with は

  • は is used to indicate what the topic of a sentence is. As so, it’s called the topic marker. 
  • It’s important to note that while the は-particle has the hiragana for ‘ha’ it’s pronounced ‘wa’ when used as a particle.

So in other words, the は-particle lets the listener know what the speaker is going to talk about in the following sentence. Take for example these sentences:

That person is a student
That person is 5 years old
That person is a lawyer

‘That person’ is the topic of the sentence and in Japanese the は-particle would therefore go behind ‘that person’ like below.

あの ひと は がくせい です
That person is a student

あの ひと は にじゅうにさい です
That person is 22 years old.

あの ひと は べんごし です
That person is a lawyer

あの ひと = That person
がくせい = Student
です = Is
にじゅうに = 22 years old
べんごし = Lawyer

To really grasp the meaning of the は-particle, you could translate it as ‘as for …’ or ‘speaking of’. So in the sentences above you would say:

As for that person, he/she/x is a student/5 years old/a lawyer.

You can find more examples and explanation for the は particle in this article 

A direct object with を

The を-particle indicates the direct object of a sentence. You use it when a direct object is directly linked to the verb at the end of the sentence.

The particle has the hiragana of ‘wo’ but as a particle is pronounced more like ‘o’. In casual everyday speech, Japanese people tend to omit the を-particle.

りんご を たべます
I eat an apple

りんご = Apple
たべます = To eat.

にほん の ほん を よみます
I read a Japanese book

にほん の ほん = Japanese book
よみます = To read

ゴジラさん は すし を つくります
Mister Godzilla makes sushi

ゴジラさん = Mister Godzilla
すし = Sushi
つくります = To make

You can find a more elaborate explanation of the を-particle here. 

Putting emphasis on a word or phrase with が

So this is one of the hardest particles to grasp for non-Japanese speakers. Most of the time it is translated as indicating the subject of a sentence, but this is not always true as it also marks the object of a sentence in combination with a lot of verbs and adjectives. 

Knowing when to use the が-particle takes some practice so don’t be embarrassed when you make a mistake. Japanese native speakers are used to foreigners mixing their は and が particles. 

Summarized, the が-particle puts emphasis on the word in front of it in contrary to the は-particle, with which you put emphasis on the information after the は-particle. 

Take for example the following sentence: 

I am Emma

わたし = I, me
エマ = Emma

The important part here is that you are called Emma. The point is to say what your name is, so the bit after は is the most important information. Now, if you replace が with は, the sentence does not change literally, but the emphasis does.

I am Emma

わたし = I, me
エマ = Emma

Now the emphasis is put on the word わたし (I, me). You would use this in a situation where for example someone mistakes somebody for you. Upon noticing the case of mistaken identity, you would use the sentence above with が and it translated loosely to ‘No, I (!!) am Emma”.

You can find a more comprehensive explanation and more examples for the particle が here 

Indicating where you are going with に

に is used for

  • indicating direction.
  • time and exact dates

So when you say you are going somewhere, for example to Japan as in the sentence below. 

にほん に いきます
I will go to Japan

にほん = Japan
いきます = To go

Mister Godzilla is going home

ゴジラさん = Mister Godzilla
うち = Home
かえる = To return home

あした は こうえん に いきます か?

あした = Tomorrow
こうえん = Park
か = Particle for questions

くがつ いちにち に にほん に いきます
I am going to Japan on the 1st of September

きゅがつ = September
いちにち = 1st

You can find a more comprehensive explanation on に here

Other particles

The aforementioned particles are the most important for learners to understand Japanese and construct sentences themselves, but there are loads of other particles. Below is a short summary of some other important particles and how they are used. 

The Question Particle か
か is mostly used to indicate if a sentence is a question. It is then placed at the end of a sentence.

Not every question sentence has the か-particle at the end. In informal speech often people use a rising intonation, but in formal speech and written text you will often see this particle used.

Some examples:

にほん に いきます か
Are you going to Japan?

にほん = Japan
いきます = To go

ゴジラさん うち に かえります か
Is Mister Godzilla returning home?

ゴジラさん = Mister Godzilla
うち = Home
かえります = Return home

Seeking confirmation with ね
ね is used to seek confirmation from a listener and is positioned at the end of a sentence. It can be translated as ‘isn’t it?’ or ‘right?’ and is often used in situations that both the speaker and listener are observing, for example the weather

いい てんき です ね
The weather is nice, isn’t it?

いい = Good
てんき = Weather

にほんご が むずがし です ね
Japanese is difficult

にほんご = Japanese
むずがし = Hard, difficult

Present new information with よ
よ is used to give information that should be new to the speaker or to place emphasis on the information. Imagine you are strolling with a friend through a neighborhood in Tokio and see the statue of Godzilla in front of you. Your friend might say.  

すごい ティラノサウルス です
Wow, a tyrannosaurus.

And you grab the opportunity to correct your friend by saying:

ティラノサウルス じゃない. ゴジラ です よ
That is not a tyrannosaurus. That is Godzilla