Thursday, June 5, 2014

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What is the difference between wa and ga in Japanese?

If you are looking for a simple answer to this question without the grammatical mumbo jumbo then you have come to the right place but interestingly I already know a number of things about you:
  • Firstly, you are interested in the Japanese language; 
  • Secondly, you are not fluent (pera pera) in the Japanese language; 
  • Thirdly, you have probably looked elsewhere to try and find out the answer to this question; and
  • Fourthly, the other places you looked were probably so complicated and confusing that they induced a type of anger that made you want to slap the author with a large freshly bought Tsukiji Tuna, which incidentally would be a very unJapanese thing to do. 
Perhaps the most common answer given is that 'wa' is the topic marker and 'ga' is the subject marker, which is frustrating and of almost no help at all given English has neither topic or subject markers. It is however only slightly better than the patronising "Don't worry, you'll pick it up at some stage", which leads me to think I will be picking up the Tuna again before I understand the difference between 'wa' and 'ga'.

But I suppose both are better than when people reply to the question "How long is a piece of string", which can be short or long, or its Japanese equivalent, 'how long is a sumo wrestlers mawashi (waistband) sash', which is invariably very very long.

I don't claim to be an expert on either the Japanese language or English linguistics but here is what you have been waiting for - the easiest, simplest, best way to remember the difference between 'wa' and 'ga'.
  • If I use 'wa' the important bit of information in the sentence is after the 'wa'. 
  • But if I use 'ga' the important bit of information in the sentence is before the 'ga'. 
What do I mean?

If someone asks me "What is your name?", onamae wa nan desu ka?, I answer 'Watashi wa Andrew desu'. But if someone asks out of a group of people "Who is Andrew?" - Dare ga Andrew desu ka?, I answer 'Watashi ga Andrew desu'.

In the first example the important bit of information is after the 'wa', that is, 'Watashi wa Andrew desu'. In the second example the important bit of information is before the 'ga', that is, Watashi ga Andrew desu.

Of course there are exceptions to this, and unfortunately there are exceptions to the exceptions, but on the assumption you are not about to qualify as the next interpreter to the Japanese Prime Minister, or be hired as the Japanese translator for the Imperial Palace, remembering this little idea should be a huge help for your study.

Japanese is quite often very simple, but for some reason we insist on making it more complicated, such as by adding confusing grammatical explanations that don't make sense.

If you enjoyed reading this, or it has helped your Japanese study, please share or leave a comment below.


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