What are Japanese Particles? Are They Important?
What are the Japanese Particles and why are they so important
Japanese has many particles, and these particles serve a variety of different functions. Particles are used for everything from marking parts of speech (e.g. differentiating a sentence’s subject from its object), to showing the direction of a motion (e.g. “to” rather than “from”), to expressing the possessive (e.g. mine, yours, Mr. Smith’s).
In the paragraphs below, we will introduce 16 of the most commonly used Japanese particles along with the ways in which you are most likely to see them used.
One of the most important things to keep in mind about particles is that they are also called “post-positions.” This is because particles should always be placed directly after the word they relate to.
For example, if I was saying “with my big sister,” the particle meaning “with” (と, “to”) should be placed immediately after “big sister” (お姉さんと, “onee–san to”).
When speaking informally, particles are sometimes dropped. However, one reason it can be important to use particles is that word order is not set in stone in many Japanese sentences.
For instance, sometimes the object of a sentence might come before the location the action is performed or vice versa; but because particles are always attached directly after the word they relate to regardless of the order of the words, it will still be clear what words are performing what functions in that sentence.
How to use the Japanese particles in context
は、が (Wa, ga)
These particles are used to mark your sentence’s subject. One of the primary differences between these two subject-marking particles is that は (wa) emphasizes what is being said about the subject, and が (ga) emphasizes the subject itself. For example,
黒い猫は好きです (Kuroi neko wa suki desu) implies that you like black cats (as opposed to disliking them, or feeling neutrally about them), while
黒い猫が好きです (Kuroi neko ga suki desu) implies that you like black cats (as opposed to other colors of cat).
Note that in Japanese, when the sound “wa” is a particle, it is written with the character は, which is normally pronounced “ha.” In all other words that contain a “wa” sound (nouns, verbs, etc), “wa” is written with the “wa” kana (わ).
There are some sentence patterns which tend to favor は (wa) or が (ga) regardless of whether the commentary or subject itself is being emphasized, but generally speaking using は (wa) rather than が (ga) or vice-versa will not drastically change the meaning of your sentence.
One additional use for が (ga) is at the end of a sentence or phrase, where its meaning is similar to “but” or sometimes “and.” This end-of-phrase “but” meaning can be used as we use “but” in English, and can also be utilized when you wish to sound tentative. For example:
映画を見に行きたいんですが (Eiga o mi ni ikitai n desu ga) means “I want to go see a movie, but…”. In this sentence, ending with が gives whomever you are speaking to the opportunity to either agree with your suggested activity, or make a counter-suggestion.
This particle is used to express the location in which an action is performed, or to express the idea of completing an action using a particular means or tool. For example,
うちで本を読んでいました (Uchi de hon o yonde imashita) means “I was reading a book at home.”
レポートをペンで書きました (Repo-to o pen de kakimashita) means “I wrote a report with/using a pen.”
地下鉄で学校に行きます (Chikatetsu de gakkou ni ikimasu) means “I go to school via/using the subway.”
This is a highly multi-purpose particle that can be used to express “in,” “at,” “on,” “to,” “from,” and similar location- or direction-based ideas. For example,
３時に、友達のうちに行きます (San ji ni, tomodachi no uchi ni ikimasu) means “at 3:00, I will go to my friend’s house.”
お風呂に入りました (Ofuro ni hairimashita) means “I got in the bath.”
おばさんにプレゼントをもらいました (Obasan ni purezento o moraimashita) means “I got a present from my aunt.”
This particle is used to express “and” when listing two or more objects, to express performing an action with another person, or to quote someone or something. It can be used to quote something a person said, as well as one’s own thoughts. For example,
卵焼きと水、お願いします (Tamagoyaki to mizu, onegai shimasu) means “tamagoyaki and water, please.”
川原さんと夕食を食べました (Kawahara san to yuushoku o tabemashita) means “I ate dinner with Kawahara-san.”
彼は「大丈夫です」と言いました (Kare wa “Daijoubu desu” to iimashita) means “he said ‘it’s alright.’”
猫はすごく可愛いと思います (Neko wa sugoku kawaii to omoimasu) means “I think cats are super cute.”
This particle means “also.” For example,
昨日も今日も雨が降っていました (Kinou mo kyou mo ame ga futte imashita) means “it was raining yesterday and also today.”
This particle is one of the more limited particles, and is primarily used to express motion towards a location or idea. For example,
東京へ行きます (Tokyo e ikimasu) means “I’m going to/in the direction of Tokyo.”
Note that “e” is written with the character へ, which is normally pronounced “he.”
This particle is used to mark your sentence’s object. Any item, whether physical or metaphysical, that is being acted directly upon in a sentence can be marked with を (o). For example,
コーヒを飲みます (Ko-hi- o nomimasu) means “I drink coffee.”
歌を歌います (Uta o utaimasu) means “I sing a song.”
Note that when “o” is a particle, it is written with the character を, which is technically “wo.” The “w” is frequently not pronounced, although sometimes it is (particularly in music). The particle “o” is never written with the true “o” character (お), and the character を (wo) is almost never used except as the particle “o.”
This particle is one of the most versatile. In formal and semi-formal Japanese, it is used primarily to express possession. In informal Japanese, it can also be placed at the end of a sentence to express a question or an explanation. For example,
私の猫は小さくて白いです (Watashi no neko wa chiisakute shiroi desu) means “my cat is small and white.”
いつ日本に行くの？ (Itsu nihon ni iku no?) means “when will you go to Japan?”
外に雨が降っているの (Soto ni ame ga futte iru no) means “it’s raining outside” and implies that you are telling or explaining to the listener something they did not already know.
This particle can mean either “from,” “because,” or “after doing [verb]” depending on what type of words come directly before it. For example,
私は京都から引っ越しました (Watashi wa Kyoto kara hikkoshimashita) means “I moved from Kyoto.”
今日は日曜日ですから、学校に行きません (Kyou wa nichiyoubi desu kara, gakkou ni ikimasen) means “because today is Sunday, I will not go to school.”
映画を見てから、カフェに行きました (Eiga o mite kara, kafe ni ikimashita) means “after I saw the movie, I went to a cafe.”
These meanings are very different from one another, but fortunately the words that come directly before the から (kara) will nearly always let you know which meaning applies. If the から (kara) comes directly after a noun, it most likely means “from.” If the から (kara) comes directly after an i-adjective, a verb, or です (desu) (or だ (da), the short form of です (desu)) it most likely means “because.” If the から (kara) comes directly after the te-form of a verb, it most likely means “after doing [verb].”
This particle means “until.” For example,
東京から京都まで、３時間かかりました (Tokyo kara Kyoto made, san jikan kakarimashita) means “from Tokyo until/to Kyoto, it took 3 hours.”
If the additional particle に (ni) is added directly after まで (made), the meaning changes to “by [the time of].” For example,
明日までにこのレポートを書かないといけない (Ashita made ni kono repo-to o kakanai to ikenai) means “I have to write this report by tomorrow.”
This is a particle that is used to make comparisons. It can be translated roughly as “more than.” When comparing two objects, it should be placed directly after the lesser object. For example,
アメリカより、日本の方が小さいです (Amerika yori, nihon no hou ga chiisai desu) means “Japan is smaller than America.”
This is a sentence-ending particle that expresses a mild exclamation. Unlike other exclamatory particles such as ぞ (zo) (which tends to sound masculine), よ (yo) is a gender-neutral particle.
大丈夫ですよ (Daijoubu desu yo) means “that’s alright,” and implies that you may be reassuring someone or emphasizing the fact that it is alright rather than making a general statement that it is alright.
This is a sentence-ending particle that expresses a (sometimes rhetorical) request for confirmation. Though ね (ne) frequently does not express a real desire for an answer, it is still polite to respond to someone’s ね (ne) sentence with a はい (hai), a そうですね (sou desu ne), or something similar.
今日はすごく寒いですね (Kyou wa sugoku samui desu ne) means “it’s cold today, huh?”
本は好きですけど、忙しくてあまり読みませんね (Hon wa suki desu kedo, isogashikute amari yomimasen ne) means “I like books, but I don’t read them much [I suppose].”
ね (ne) is also used occasionally at the beginning of a phrase to attract someone’s attention or to begin a train of thought. For example,
ねえねえ、これはどう思う？ (Nee nee, kore wa dou omou?) means “look/hey, what do you think of this?”
This particle is similar to と (to) in that it links two or more items in a list. The primary difference is that や (ya) is more vague than と (to). While と (to) implies that a list is concise or complete, や (ya) implies that the list may be incomplete, or that the things listed might be examples. For example,
カレーやスープをよく作ります (Kare- ya su-pu o yoku tsukurimasu) means “I often make foods such as curry and soup.”
When used at the end of a sentence, this particle turns a statement into a question. In formal or semi-formal Japanese, this is the most common way to turn a statement into a question. In formal or semi-formal Japanese, か (ka) is a gender-neutral question particle, but in informal Japanese it is used more by men than by women. When speaking informally, women often use の (no) instead of か (ka) to turn statements into questions. In addition, when used between nouns or phrases か (ka) can also mean “or,” and when used after “what” plus a counter word it can express an uncertain quantity. For example,
明日は仕事に行きますか？ (Ashita wa shigoto ni ikimasu ka?) means “will you go to work tomorrow?” (semi-formal)
明日、仕事に行くか？ (Ashita, shigoto ni iku ka?) also means “will you go to work tomorrow?” (informal)
やめるかやめないか分かりません (Yameru ka yamenai ka wakarimasen) means “I don’t know if I will quit or not.”
茶色か黄色、どっちを選びますか？ (Chairo ka kiiro, docchi o erabimasu ka?) means “brown or yellow, which will you choose?”
お土産を何個か買いました (Omiyage o nanko ka kaimashita) means “I bought some gift souvenirs.”
Many of these particles are multi-purpose, and you will come across other meanings and usages for some of them as you progress in your studies. However, we tried to cover the most common meanings and usages in this blog post. We hope that you found it to be helpful! Once you’re done here, you can also click over to our Library tab and download our particle cheat sheet to use while reading or studying!
Are there any particles we didn’t cover that you’d like to know about? Have you come upon one of the particles we covered, but used in an unfamiliar-looking way? Leave us a comment, and we’ll be happy to answer any questions you have!