1. Textual classifications
2. Nouns, pronouns, and other deictics
3. Conjugable words
4. Other independent words
5. Ancillary words
5.1.1 Topic, theme, and subject:
は (wa) and が (ga)
5.1.2 Objects, locatives, instrumentals: を (o), に (ni), で (de), へ (e)
5.1.3 Quantity and extents: と (to), も (mo), か (ka), や (ya), から (kara), まで
と (to), に (ni), よ (yo)
5.1.5 Final: か
(ka), ね (ne), よ (yo) and related
5.1.6 Compound particles
5.2 Auxiliary verbs
Text (文章 bunshō) is composed of sentences (文 bun), which are in
turn composed of phrases (文節 bunsetsu), which are its smallest coherent components. Like Chinese and classical Korean, written Japanese does not typically demarcate words with spaces; its agglutinative nature further
makes the concept of a word rather different from words in English. Word divisions are informed by semantic cues and a
knowledge of phrase structure. Phrases have a single meaning-bearing word, followed by a string of suffixes, auxiliary
verbs and particles to modify its meaning and designate its grammatical role. In the following example, bunsetsu are
indicated by vertical bars:
- taiyou ga | higashi no | sora ni | noboru
- The sun rises in the eastern sky.
Some scholars romanize Japanese sentences by inserting spaces only at phrase boundaries (i.e., "taiyouga
higashino sorani noboru"), in effect treating an entire phrase as the equivalent of an English word. Traditionally, however,
a more basic concept of word (単語 tango) forms the atoms of sentences. Words unlike phrases need
not have intrinsic meaning, therefore admitting particles and auxiliary verbs. It must be noted that this classification of
textual structure in modern Japanese is descriptive; some classical auxiliary verbs such as -te are grammaticalized as
conjugations or verb endings in modern Japanese, not individual words.
- watashi | wa | mainichi | gakkō | e | aruite | iku
- Every day I walk to school.
The structure of this article will mirror the following classification of words. There are two broad categories —
independent words (自立語 jiritsugo) having internal meaning, and ancillary words
(付属語 fuzokugo) which are meaning modifiers. Independent words divide into a conjugable
(活用語 katsuyōgo) class containing verbs (動詞 doushi), pure adjectives
(形容詞 keiyōshi, also known as i-type adjective), and adjectival nouns
(形容動詞 keiyōdōshi, also known as na-type adjective); and a non-conjugable
(無活用語 mukatsuyōgo) class containing nouns (名詞 meishi), pronouns
(代名詞 daimeishi), adverbs (副詞 fukushi), conjunctions
(接続詞 setsuzokushi), and interjections (感動し kandōshi). Of
ancillary words there are only two classes: grammatical particles (助詞 joshi) and auxiliary verbs
Nouns, pronouns, and other deictics
respectful forms of nouns
Japanese nouns are non-inflecting,
have no gender, and take no articles. Thus 猫 (neko) could be translated into English as "cat", "a cat", "the
cat", "cats", "some cats", or "the cats", depending on context. A small number of nouns have plurals formed by reduplication (possibly accompanied by
rendaku): thus 人 hito "person" and 人々 hitobito
"people", although these are typically collective rather than
true plurals. Additionally, in respectful speech, the prefix o- is often used with native nouns, as is the prefix
go- with Sino-Japanese nouns. Some common nouns have unpredictable respectful forms; a few examples are in the adjoining
The use of pronouns in Japanese is rare, limited to when the referrent cannot be
deduced from the context. For example, 日本に行きました (nihon ni
ikimashita) says just "went to Japan". The subject is inferred from context: if the topic is the first person, then it means
"I went to Japan", for a third person, "he/she went to Japan", etc. Speakers of Japanese tend to use names instead of pronouns in
speech. For example:
- Kinoshita-san wa, se ga takai desu ne.
- (addressing Mr. Kinoshita) "You're pretty tall, aren't you?"
Japanese has many nouns that can be used as personal pronouns; see  for a long list. Some common ones are given
in the following table.
||僕 (boku, male), 俺 (ore, male, very informal)
あたし (atashi, female)
||君 (kimi, usu. used by males)
||貴方 (anata), そちら (sochira)
||彼 (kare, male)
彼女 (kanojo, female)
|あの人 (ano hito)
Although Japanese nouns do not inflect for number, there are "plural" forms to indicate semantic number: 私達
(watashi-tachi) for "we", あなたたち (anata-tachi) for "you (plural)",
僕等 (bokura) for "we (inform. male)". Interestingly, one uncommon pseudopronoun, 我 (ware,
"I") has a much more common reduplicative plural 我々 (wareware, "we"). However, 達 (-tachi)
and 等 (-ra) are by far the most common pluralizing suffixes -- although 達 (-tachi) is not
strictly a pluralizing suffix: for example, 太郎達 (Tarō-tachi) does not mean "some number of
people named Tarō" but instead means "Tarō and his friends," or "Tarō and those people who are with him". The
suffixes ス (-su) and ズ (-zu), derived from the English plural suffix -[e]s, are also
occasionally used to indicate the plural, although this is not even remotely standard Japanese.
Whereas in English there are many reflexive pronouns (himself, herself, itself,
themselves, etc.), in Japanese there is a single reflexive pronoun 自分 (jibun). The uses of the
reflexive pronoun in the two languages are very different. The following incorrect literal translations demonstrate the
differences (*=impossible, ??=ambiguous):
|History repeats itself.
*Rekishi wa jibun wo kurikaesu.
|the target of jibun must be animate
| ??John talked to Bill about himself.
Jon ga Biru ni jibun no koto wo hanashita.
John talked to Bill about himself (=John)
|jibun refers unambiguously to the subject.
|*John expects that Mary will take good care of himself.
??Jon wa Merī ga jibun wo daiji ni suru koto wo kitaishite iru.
either "John expects that Mary will take good care of him", or "John expects that Mary will take good care of herself."
|jibun can be in a different sentence or dependent clause, but its target is ambiguous
If the sentence has more than one grammatical or semantic subject, then the target is the subject of the main action;
thus in the following sentence 自分 (jibun) refers unambiguously to Mary (even though John is the
grammatical subject) because the main action is "Mary's reading".
- Jon ga Merī ni jibun no uchi de hon wo yomaseta.
- John made Mary read book(s) in her house.
In practice the main action is not always discernible, in which case such sentences are ambiguous. The use of jibun
in complex sentences follows non-trivial rules.
that one over there
(of) that over there
like that over there
how? what sort of?
that way over there
in this manner
in that manner
in that (other) manner
in what manner?
that other fellow
- * irregular formation
Demonstratives occur in the ko-, so-, and
a- series. The ko- series refers to things closer to the speaker than the hearer, the so- series for
things closer to the hearer, and the a-series for things distant to both the speaker and the hearer. With do-,
demonstratives turn into the corresponding question form. Demonstratives of are also used for people, for example
- Kochira wa Hayashi-san desu.
- This is Mr. Hayashi.
Demonstratives limit, and therefore precede, nouns; thus この本 (kono hon) for "this/my book", and
その本 (sono hon) for "that/your book".
When demonstratives are used to refer to things not visible to the speaker or the hearer, or to (abstract) concepts, they
fulfill a related but different anaphoric role. The anaphoric so- series is used to refer to experience that is
not shared between the speaker and the listener, generally because one party has no information about it. For shared information
the anaphoric a- series is used.
- A: Senjitsu, Sapporo ni itte kimashita.
- A: I visited Sapporo recently.
- B: Asoko (*Soko) wa itsu itte mo ii tokoro desu ne.
- B: Yeah, that's a great place to visit whenever you go.
Soko instead of asoko would imply that B has no knowledge of Sapporo, which is inconsistent with the rest of
- Satō : Tanaka to iu hito ga kinō shinda tte...
- Sato: I heard that a man called Tanaka died yesterday...
- Mori: E', hontō?
- Mori: Oh, really?
- Satō : Dakara, sono (*ano) hito, Mori-san no mukashi no rinjin ja nakatta 'kke?
- Sato: It's why I asked... wasn't he an old neighbour of yours?
Again, ano is inappropriate here because Sato doesn't (didn't) know Tanaka personally.
The ko- series demonstratives don't have clear anaphoric uses. They can be used in situations where the a-
series sound too disconnected:
- Ittai nan desu ka, kore (*are) wa?
- What on earth is this?
Prior to discussing the conjugable words, a brief note about stem forms. Conjugative suffixes and auxiliary verbs are
attached to the stem forms of the affixee. In modern Japanese there are the following six stem forms.
- Terminal form (終止形 shuushikei)
- is used at the ends of clauses in predicate positions. This form is also variously known as plain form
(基本形 kihonkei) or dictionary form (辞書形 jishokei).
- Attributive form (連体形 rentaikei)
- in modern Japanese is practically identical to the terminal form (but see Adjectives, below), but differs in use: it is
prefixed to nominals and is used to define or classify the noun. In this function, the root of this stem form is called a
prenominal adjective (連体詞 rentaishi).
- Continuative form (連用形 ren'yōkei)
- is used in a linking role. This is the most productive stem form, taking on a variety of endings and auxiliaries, and can
even occur independently in a sense similar to the -te ending. This form is also used to negate adjectives.
- Imperfective form (未然形 mizenkei)
- is used for plain negative (of verbs), causative and passive constructions. The most common use of this form is with the
-nai auxiliary that turns verbs into their negative (predicate) form. (See Verbs below.)
- Hypothetical form (仮定形 kateikei)
- is used for conditional and subjunctive forms, using the -ba or -domo ending.
- Imperative form (命令形 meireikei)
- is used to turn verbs into commands. Adjectives do not have an imperative stem form.
The application of conjugative suffixes to stem forms follow certain euphonic principles (音便 onbin),
which is discussed below.
Verbs in Japanese are rigidly constrained to the ends of clauses in what is known as the predicate position.
- (The) cat eats fish.
The subject and objects of the verb are indicated by means of particles (see the section on it below), and the
grammatical functions of the verb—primarily tense and voice—are indicated by means of conjugation. When the subject
and the dissertative topic coincide, the subject is often omitted; if the verb happens to be intransitive, then it might have no
objects either, in which case the entire sentence consists of a single verb. For this reason, it is often claimed that verbs (or
more accurately, predicates) are the most important parts of speech in Japanese. Verbs have two tenses indicated by conjugation
— past and nonpast. The semantic difference between present and future tenses is not indicated by means of conjugation.
Usually there is no ambiguity because few verbs can operate in both uses. Voice and aspect are also indicated by means of
conjugation, and possibly agglutinating auxiliary verbs. For example, the continuative aspect is formed by means of the
continuative conjugation known as the gerundive or -te form, and the auxiliary verb iru; to
illustrate, 見る (miru, to see) → 見ている (mite-iru, is
Verbs can be semantically classified based on certain conjugations.
- Stative verbs
- indicate existential properties, such as to be (いる iru), can do
(出来る dekiru), need (要る iru), etc. These verbs generally don't have
a continuative conjugation with -iru because they are semantically continuative already.
- Continual verbs
- conjugate with the auxiliary -iru to indicate the progressive aspect. Examples: to eat
(食べる taberu), to drink (飲む nomu), to think
(考える kangaeru). To illustrate the conjugation, 食べる (taberu, to
eat) → 食べている (tabete-iru, is eating).
- Punctual verbs
- conjugate with -iru to indicate a repeated action, or a continuing state after some action. Example:
知る (shiru, to know) → 知っている (shitte iru, am
knowing); 打つ (utsu, to hit) → 打っている (utte
iru, is hitting (repeatedly)).
- Non-volitional verb
- indicate uncontrollable action or emotion. These verbs generally have no volitional, imperative or potential conjugation.
Examples: 好む (konomu, to like, emotive), 見える (mieru, to be
- Movement verbs
- indicate motion. Examples: 歩く (aruku, to walk), 帰る (kaeru, to
return). In the continuative form (see below) they take the particle ni to indicate a purpose.
There are other possible classes, and a large amount of overlap between the classes. Lexically, however, nearly every verb in
Japanese is a member of exactly one of the following three regular conjugation groups.
- Group 2a (上一段 kami ichidan, lit: upper first group)
- verbs with terminal stem form rhyming with -iru. Examples: 見る (miru, to see),
着る (kiru, to wear).
- Group 2b (下一段 shimo ichidan, lit: lower first group)
- verbs with terminal stem form rhyming with -eru. Examples: 食べる (taberu, to eat),
くれる (kureru, to give).
- Group 1 (五段 godan, lit: fifth group)
- verbs with terminal form rhyming with -u. This description has a slight ambiguity -- certain verbs like
帰る (kaeru, to return) are group 1 instead of group 2. (See Miscellaneous section, below.) In modern
Japanese the endings -yu and -fu are impossible, though they were common in classical Japanese; they are
spelled with -u in modern Japanese.
Historical note: classical Japanese had upper and lower first and second groups and a fourth group
(上／下一段 kami/shimo ichidan, 上／下二段 kami/shimo
nidan, and 四段 yodan), and nothing like the modern godan group. Since verbs have migrated
across groups in the history of the language, conjugation of classical verbs is not predictable from a knowledge of modern
Of the irregular classes, there are two:
- sa-group (サ変 SA-hen, an abbreviation of サ行変格活用
SA-gyou henkaku katsuyō or SA-row irregular conjugation)
- which has only one member, する (suru, to do).
- ka-group (カ変 KA-hen, an abbreviation of カ行変格活用
KA-gyou henkaku katsuyō)
- which also has one member, 来る (kuru, to come).
Classical japanese had one further irregular class, the na-group, which contained 死ぬ (shinu,
to die) and a handful of other now rare verbs, but these verbs are regular group 1 verbs in modern Japanese.
The following table illustrates the stem forms of the above conjugation groups, with the root indicated with dots. For
example, to find the hypothetical form of the group 1 verb 書く (kaku), look in the second row to find its
root, ka, then in the hypothetical row to get the ending ke, giving the stem form kake. When there are
multiple possibilities, they are listed in the order of increasing rarity.
|same as attributive form
- the unexpected ending is due to the verb classically conjugating as -ha, phonemic drift moving -ha to
-wa, and finally modern spelling reform reuniting pronunciation with spelling.
The above are only the stem forms of the verbs; to these one must add various verb endings in order to get the fully
conjugated verb. The following table lists the most common conjugations. In cases where the form is different based on the
conjugation group of the verb, arrows point to the correct formation rule.
|cont. + ます (masu)
|cont. + た (ta)
|imperf. + ない (nai)
+ なかった (nakatta)
|-te form (gerundive)
||cont. + て (-te)
||hyp. + ば (ba)
||cont. + たら (tara)
||imperf. + う(u)
|imperf. + よう (-yō)
||imperf. + れる (reru)
|imperf. + られる (-rareru)
||imperf. + せる (seru)
|imperf. + させる (-saseru)
||hyp. + る (ru)
|imperf. + られる (-rareru)
- Note that this is an entirely different verb; する (suru) has no potential form.
The polite ending -masu conjugates as a group 1 verb. The passive and potential endings -reru and
-rareru, and the causative endings -seru and -saseru all conjugate as group 2b verbs. Multiple verbal
endings can therefore agglutinate. For example, a common formation is the causative-passive ending,
- boku wa ane ni nattō o tabesaserareta.
- I was made to eat natto by my (elder) sister.
As should be expected, the vast majority of lexically legal combinations of conjugative endings are not semantically
Japanese has two main classes of adjectives.
- Pure adjectives (形容詞 keiyōshi, aka. i-type adjective)
- these are very similar to verbs, having roots and conjugating stem forms.
- Adjectival nouns (形容動詞 keiyōdōshi, aka na-type adjective)
- these are grammatical nouns (though not necessarily legally possible as nouns) that are affixed with -na or
-no to form the adjective.
All pure adjectives except for いい (ii, good) have regular conjugations, and ii is irregular
only in the fact that it is a corruption of the regular adjective 良い (yoi) which manifests itself in the
conjugations. All adjectival nouns conjugate regularly.
stem forms for adjectives
- The attributive and terminal forms were formerly 安き (.ki) and 安し (.shi),
respectively; in modern Japanese these are used productively for stylistic reasons only, although many set phrases such as
名無し (nanashi, anonymous) and よし (yoshi, sometimes written yosh',
general positive interjection) derive from them.
- The imperative form is extremely rare in modern Japanese, restricted to set patterns like
遅かれ早かれ (osokare hayakare, sooner or later), where they are treated as
adverbial phrases! It is impossible for an imperative form to be in a predicate position.
Like verbs, we can enumerate some common conjugations of adjectives. Also, ii isn't special-cased, because all
conjugations are identical to yoi.
|term. + copula です (desu)
|root + copula です (desu)
|cont. + あった (atta)
(u + a collapse)
|cont. + あった (atta)
(e + a collapse)
|cont. + (は)ない ((wa) nai)1
|cont. + (は)ない ((wa) nai)
shizuka de (wa) nai
|cont. + (は)なかった ((wa) nakatta)1
|cont. + (は)なかった ((wa) nakatta)
shizuka de (wa) nakatta
|inf. neg. non-past + copula です (desu)1
|inf. cont + (は)ありません ((wa) arimasen)
shizuka de wa arimasen
|inf. neg. past + copula です (desu)1
|inf. cont + (は)ありませんでした ((wa) arimasen deshita)
shizuka de wa arimasen deshita
|inf. neg. past + なかったです (nakatta desu)1
shizuka de wa nakatta desu
||cont. + て (te)
||hyp. + ば (ba)
|hyp. (+ ば (ba))
||inf. past + ら (ra)
|inf. past + ら (ra)
||imperf. + う (u)
||imperf. + う (u)
= root + だろう (darō)
|静かだろう (shizuka darō)
|root + に (ni)
||root + さ (sa)
|root + sa
- note that these are just forms of the pure adjective ない (nai)
- see the note on hypothetical forms below.
- since most adjectives describe non-volitional conditions, the volitional form is interpreted as "it is possible", if
sensible. In some rare cases it is semi-volitional: 良かろう (yokarō, OK (lit: let it be
good)) in response to a report or request.
Adjectives too are governed by euphonic rules in certain cases, as noted in the section on it below. For the polite negatives
of adjectival nouns, see also the section below on the copula だ (da).
The copula (だ da)
The copula da behaves very much like a verb or an adjective in terms of conjugation.
stem forms of the copula
|である (de aru)
|だ (da, informal)
です (desu, polite)
でございます (de gozaimasu, respectful)
|では (de wa)
Note that there are no potential, causative, or passive forms of the copula, just as with adjectives. The following are some
- JON wa gakusei da
- John is a student.
- ashita mo hare nara, PIKUNIKU shiyō
- If tomorrow is clear too, let's have a picnic.
In continuative conjugations, では (de wa) is often contracted in speech to じゃ
(ja); for some kinds of informal speech ja is preferrable to de wa, or is the only possibility.
conjugations of the copula
||でございます (de gozaimasu)
||cont. + あった (atta)
||でございました (de gozaimashita)
||cont. + はない (wa nai)
||cont. + はありません (wa arimasen)
||cont. + はございません (wa gozaimasen)
||cont. + はなかった (nakatta)
||cont. + はありませんでした (wa arimasen deshita)
||cont. + はございませんでした (wa gozaimasen
||hyp. + ば (ba)
||cont. + あれば (areba)
||same as conditional
||でございましょう (de gozaimashō)
||cont. + ありまして (arimashite)
||cont. + ございまして (gozaimashite)
Euphonic changes (音便 onbin)
|あ＋う (a + u)
あ＋ふ (a + fu)
|い＋う (i + u)
い＋ふ (i + fu)
|う＋ふ (u + fu)
|え＋う (e + u)
え＋ふ (e + fu)
|お＋ふ (o + fu)
お＋を (o + wo)
|medial or final は (ha)
|medial or final ひ (hi), へ (he), ほ (ho)
||い (i), え (e), お (o)
(via wi, we, wo, see below)
|any ゐ (wi), ゑ (we), を (wo)
||い (i), え (e), お (o)
- * usu. not reflected in spelling
Modern pronunciation is a result of a long history of phonemic drift that can be traced back to written records of the
thirteenth century, and possibly earlier. However, it was only in 1946 that the Japanese ministry of education modified existing
kana usage to conform to the standard dialect (共通語 kyōtsūgo). All earlier texts used the
archaic orthography, now referred to as historical kana usage. The adjoining table is a
nearly exhaustive list of these spelling changes. As mentioned above, conjugations of some verbs and adjectives differ from the
prescribed formation rules because of euphonic changes. Nearly all of these euphonic changes are themselves regular. For verbs
the exceptions are all in the ending of the continuative form of group 1when the following auxiliary has a ta-sound,
i.e., た (ta), て (te), たり (tari), etc.
|い, ち or り
||*買いて *kaite → 買って katte
*打ちて *uchite → 打って utte
*知りて *shirite → 知って shitte
|び, み or に
||ん, with the following タ sound voiced
||*遊びて *asobite → 遊んで asonde
*住みて *sumite → 住んで sunde
*死にて *shinite → 死んで shinde
||*書きて *kakite → 書いて kaite
||い, with the following タ sound voiced
||*泳ぎて *oyogite → 泳いで oyoide
There is one other irregular change: 行く iku (to go), for which there is an exceptional continuative form:
行き iki + て te → 行って itte, 行き
iki + た ta → 行った itta, etc.
The continuative form of proper adjectives, when followed by polite forms such as ございます
(gozaimasu, to be) or 存じます (zonjimasu, to know), undergo a transformation.
|[not し] + く
||う, possibly also combining with the previous syllable according to the spelling reform chart
||*寒くございます *samuku gozaimasu →
寒うございます samū gozaimasu
*おはやくございます ohayaku gozaimasu →
おはようございます ohayō gozaimasu
||*涼しくございます *suzushiku gozaimasu →
涼しゅうございます suzushuu gozaimasu
Respectful verbs such as くださる (kudasaru, to get), なさる (nasaru,
to do), ござる (gozaru, to be), いらっしゃる (irassharu,
to be/come/go), おっしゃる (ossharu, to say), etc. behave like group 1 verbs, except in
the continuative and imperative forms.
||ーり changed to ーい
||*ござります *gozarimasu → ございます
*いらっしゃりませ *irassharimase →
||ーれ changed to ーい
||*くだされ *kudasare → ください kudasai
*なされ *nasare → なさい nasai
In speech, common combinations of conjugation and auxiliary verbs are contracted in a fairly regular manner.
|負けてしまう (makete shimau, lose) →
死んでしまう (shinde shimau, die) → 死んじゃう
|食べてはいけない (tabete wa ikenai, must not eat) →
食べちゃいけない (tabecha ikenai)
|寝ている (nete iru, is sleeping) → 寝てる (neteru)
|しておく (shite oku, will do it so) → しとく (shitoku)
|出て行け (dete ike, get out!) → 出てけ (deteke)
|何しているの (nani shite iru no, what are you doing?) →
何してんの (nani shitenno)
Other independent words
Adverbs in Japanese are not as tightly integrated into the morphology as in many other languages. Indeed, adverbs are not an
independent class of words, but rather a role played by other words. For example, every adjective in the continuative form can be
used as an adverb; thus, 弱い (yowai, weak, adj) → 弱く (yowaku, weakly,
adv). The primary distinguishing characteristic of adverbs is that they cannot occur in a predicate position, just as it is in
English. The following classification of adverbs is not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive.
- Verbal adverbs
- are verbs in the continuative form with the particle ni. Eg. 見る (miru, to see) →
見に (mi ni, for the purpose of seeing), used for instance as: 見に行く
(mi ni iku, go to see (sth.)).
- Adjectival adverbs
- are adjectives in the continuative form, as mentioned above.
- Nominal adverbs
- are grammatical nouns that function as adverbs. Examples: あまり (amari, a little/not a lot),
どう (dō, how), 一番 (ichiban, most highly), etc.
- Sound Symbolism
- are words that mimic sounds or concepts. Examples: きらきら (kirakira, sparklingly),
ぽっくり (pokkuri, suddenly), するする (surusuru, smoothly
Often, especially for sound symbolism, the particle to ("as if") is used.
Conjunctions and interjections
These parts of speech are much as in English.
Examples of conjunctions: そうして (sōshite, and then), また (mata,
and then/again), etc.
Examples of interjections: はい (hai, yes/OK/uh), へえ (hē, wow!),
いいえ (īe, no/no way), おい (oi, hey!), etc.
Particles in Japanese are postpositional—they immediately follow the modified component. A full listing of particles
would be beyond the scope of this article, so only a few prominent particles are listed here.
It should be noted that the pronunciation of some hiragana characters is altered
when used as particles, namely は (ha -> wa), へ (he -> e), and を
(wo -> o). The altered pronounciation is usually used in rōmaji.
Topic, theme, and subject: は (wa) and が (ga)
The distinction between the so-called topic (は wa) and subject (が ga) particles is not
straightforward, and in fact has been the theme of many doctoral dissertations and scholarly disputes. The reader is warned to
take the material in this section, more than any other part of this article, as a poor and approximate guide. Interested readers
are referred to two major scholarly surveys of Japanese linguistics in English, (Shibatani 1990) and (Kuno 1973). To simplify
matters, the referrents of wa and ga will be called the topic and subject respectively, with
the understanding that if one or the other is absent, then the grammatical topic and subject may coincide depending on
As a first approximation, the difference between wa and ga is a matter of focus: wa gives focus to
the action of the sentence, i.e., the verb or adjective, whereas ga gives focus to the
subject of the action. However, this description is too abstract; a more useful description must proceed by ennumerating
uses of these particles.
The use of wa to introduce a new theme of discourse is directly linked to the notion of grammatical theme. Opinions
differ on the structure of discourse theme, though it seems fairly uncontroversial to imagine a first-in-first-out hierarchy of
themes that is threaded through the discourse. Of course, human limitations restrict the scope and depth of themes, and later
themes may cause earlier themes to expire. In these sorts of sentences, the steadfast translation into English uses constructs
like "speaking of X" or "on the topic of X", though such translations tend to be bulky as they fail to use the
thematic mechanisms of English. For lack of a best strategy, many teachers of Japanese drill the "speaking of X" pattern
into their students without sufficient warning.
- JON wa gakusei de aru
- (On the topic of John), John is a student.
The warning against rote translation cannot be overemphasized. A common linguistic joke is the sentence
僕は鰻だ (boku wa unagi da), which according to the pattern should be translated as
"(Speaking of me), I am an eel." Yet, in a restaurant this sentence can reasonably be used to say "I'd like an order of
eel", with no intended humor. This is because the sentence should be literally read, "As for me, it is an eel," with
"it" referring to the speaker's order. We can clearly see that the topic of the sentence is not its subject! (As a side note, the
separation of grammatical topic and subject is sometimes transported by native Japanese speakers to other languages; for example,
a Japanese with a shaky grasp of English might say "I am an eel" in a restaurant in an attempt to order eel.)
Related to the role of wa in introducing themes is its use in contrasting the current topic and its aspects from
other possible topics and their aspects. The suggestive pattern is "X, but ..." or "as for X, ...".
- ame wa futte imasu ga...
- It is raining, but...
Because of its contrastive nature, the topic cannot be undefined.
- *dareka wa hon o yonde iru
- *Someone is reading the book.
In this situation ga is forced.
In practice, the distinction between thematic and contrastive wa is not that useful. Suffice it to say that there can
be at most one thematic wa in a sentence, and it has to be the first wa if one exists, and the remaining
was are contrastive. For completeness, the following sentence (due to Kuno) illustrates the difference.
- boku ga shitte iru hito wa daremo konakatta
- (1) Of all the people I know, none came.
- (2) (People came but), there wasn't any of the people I know.
The first interpretation is the thematic wa, treating "the people I know" (boku ga shitte iru hito) as the
theme of the predicate "none came" (dare mo konakatta). That is, if I know A, B, ..., Z, then none of the people who
came were A, B, ..., Z. The second interpretation is the contrastive wa. If the likely attendees were A, B, ..., Z, and
of them I know P, Q and R, then the sentence says that P, Q and R did not come. The sentence says nothing about A', B',
..., Z', all of whom I know, but none of whom were likely to come. The sentence is ambiguous up to this difference. (In practice
the first interpretation is the likely one.)
Unlike wa, the subject particle ga nominates its referrent as the sole satisfier of the predicate. This
distinction is famously illustrated by the following pair of sentences.
- JON wa gakusei desu
- John is a student. (There may be other students among the people we're talking about.)
- JON ga gakusei desu
- (Of all the people we are talking about), it is John who is the student.
For stative transitive verbs, ga instead of o is typically used to mark the object, although it is sometimes
acceptable to use o.
- JON wa FURANSU-go ga dekiru
- John knows French
Objects, locatives, instrumentals: を (o), に (ni), で (de), へ
The direct object of non-stative transitive verbs is indicated by the object particle を (o).
- JON wa aoi SE-TA- o kite iru
- John is wearing a blue sweater.
This particle can also have a instrumental use for motion verbs.
- MERI- ga hosoi michi o aruite ita
- Mary was walking along a narrow road.
English allows a similar concept ("walk the road"), though it is usually literary. The general instrumental particle is
で (de), which can be translated as "using".
- niku wa NAIFU de kiru koto
- Meat must be cut with a knife.
This particle also has other uses: "at" (temporary location):
- machikado de sensei ni atta
- (I) met my teacher at the street corner.
- umi de oyogu no wa muzukashii
- Swimming in the sea is hard.
"With" or "in (the span of)":
- geki wa shujinkō no shi de owaru
- The play ends with the protagonist's death.
- ore wa nibyou de katsu
- I'll win in two seconds.
The general locative particle is に (ni).
- tōkyō ni ikimashō
- Let's go to Tokyo
In this function it is interchangable with へ (e). However, ni has additional uses: "at
- watashi wa GUROSUTA- tōri 99 ban ni sunde imasu
- I live at 99 Gloucester road
- kōri wa mizu ni uku
- Ice floats on water.
"In (some year)", "at (some point in time)":
- haru no yūgure ni...
- On a spring eve...
Quantity and extents: と (to), も (mo), か (ka), や (ya),
から (kara), まで (made)
To conjoin nouns, と (to) is used.
- BAGU ni wa kyōkasho san-satsu to mangahon go-satsu irete imasu
- I have three textbooks and five comic books in the bag.
The additive particle も (mo) can be used to conjoin larger nominals and clauses.
- YO-HAN wa DOITSU-jin da. BURIGE-TA mo DOITSU-jin da
- Johan is a German. Brigette is a German too.
- kare wa eiga SUTA- de ari, seijika de mo aru
- He is a movie star and also a politician.
For an incomplete list of conjuncts, や (ya) is used.
- BORISU ya AIBAN wo yobe
- Call Boris, Ivan, etc.
When only one of the conjuncts is necessary, the disjunctive particle か (ka) is used.
- SUSHI ka SASHIMI ka, nanika wo chūmon shite ne
- Order sushi or sashimi or something.
Quantities are listed between から (kara, from) and まで (made, to).
- 92 do kara 96 do made no netsu wa shinpai suru mono de wa nai
- A temperature between 92 F and 96 F is not worrisome.
This pair can also be used to indicate time or space.
- asa hachi-ji kara jūichi-ji made jugyō ga aru n da
- You see, I have classes between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Because kara indicates starting point or origin, it has a related use as "because":
- SUMISU-san wa gōin na hito desu kara, itsumo tanomarete iru kamoshirenai
- Mr. Smith, I think it's because you're so assertive that you're always asked to do everything.
The particle kara and a related particle yori are used to indicate lowest extents: prices, business hours,
- wareware wa shichi-ji yori eigyō shite orimasu
- We are open for business from 7 onwards.
Yori is also used in the sense of "than".
- omae wa nē-chan yori urusai n da
- You are louder/more talkative than my sister!
Coordinating: と (to), に (ni), よ (yo)
The particle と (to) is used to set off quotations.
- "koroshite... koroshite" to ano ko wa itte'ta no
- The girl was saying, "Kill... kill."
- neko wa NYA- NYA- to naku
- The cat says: meaow, meaow.
It is also used to indicate a manner of similarity, "as if" or "like".
- kare wa "aishite'ru yo" to itte, pokkuri to shinda
- He said "I love you," and dropped dead.
In a related conditional use, it functions like "after", or "upon".
- ame ga agaru to, kodomo-tachi wa mou gakushū o wasurete, taiyō ni omote wo mukeru mizu-tamari no yūwaku o
- Rain stops and then: children, forgetting their lessons, give in to the temptation of sun-faced puddles.
Finally it is used with verbs like to meet (with) (会う au) or to speak (with)
- JON ga MERI- to hajimete atta no wa, 1942 nen no haru no yūgure datta
- John met Mary for the first time on a dusky spring afternoon in 1942.
This last use is also a function of the particle に (ni), but to indicates reciprocation which
ni does not.
- JON ga MERI- to ren'ai shite iru
- John and Mary are in love.
- JON ga MERI- ni ren'ai shite iru
- John loves Mary (but Mary might not love John back).
Finally, the particle よ (yo) is used in a hortative or vocative sense.
- kawaii musume yo, kao o shikamete watashi wo miruna
- O my beloved daughter, don't frown at me so!
Final: か (ka), ね (ne), よ (yo) and related
The sentence-final particle か (ka) turns a declarative sentence into a question.
- sochira wa AMERIKA-jin deshō ka?
- Are you perchance an American?
The particle ね (ne) softens a declarative sentence, similar to English "you know?", "eh?" or "I tell
- kare ni denwa shinakatta no ne
- You didn't call him up, did you?
- chikajika RONDON ni hikkosareru sou desu ne.
- I hear you're moving to London soon. Is that true?
A final よ (yo) is used for emphasis.
- uso tsuite nai yo!
- I'm not lying!
The particles ぜ (ze) and ぞ (zo) are sometimes used similarly, particularly by boys in movie
Compound particles are formed with at least one particle together with other words including, other particles. The commonly
seen forms are:
- particle + verb (term. or cont. or -te form)
- particle + noun + particle
- noun + particle
Other structures are rarer, though of course possible. A few examples:
- sono ken ni kan-shite shitte-iru kagiri no koto wo oshiete moraitai
- Kindly tell me everything you know concerning that case. (particle + verb in cont.)
- gaikokugo wo gakushū suru ue de taisetsu na koto wa mainichi no doryoku ga mono wo iu to iu koto de
- In studying a foreign language, daily effort gives the most rewards. (noun + particle)
- ani wa ryōshin no shinpai o yoso ni, daigaku wo yamete shimatta
- Ignoring my parents' worries, my brother dropped out of college. (particle + noun + particle)
All auxiliary verbs attach to a verbal or adjectival stem form and conjugate as verbs, but
they differ from normal verbs in having no independent meaning. In modern Japanese there are two distinct classes of auxiliary
- Pure auxiliaries (助動詞 jodōshi)
- are usually just called verb endings or conjugated forms. These auxiliaries cannot possibly function as an
- Helper auxiliaries (補助動詞 hododōshi)
- are normal verbs that lose their independent meaning when used as auxiliaries.
In classical Japanese which was more purely agglutinating than modern Japanese, the category of auxiliary verb
included every possible verb ending after the stem form, and most of these endings were themselves active participants in
composition. In modern Japanese, however, some auxiliaries have stopped being productive. The most classic example is the
classical auxiliary たり (-tari) whose forms た (-ta), て (-te), etc. are now
no longer viewed as verbal endings, i.e., they can take no further affixes.
some pure auxiliary verbs
||makes V polite
||書く (kaku, to write) → 書きます (kakimasu)
||cont. of grp. 2
||makes V passive/polite/potential
||見る (miru, to see) → 見られる (mirareru, to be able to
増える (fueru, to increae) → 増えられる (fuerareru, to
have the ability to increase)
||hyp. of grp. 1
||飲む (nomu, to drink/swallow) → 飲める (nomeru, to be able to
||cont. of grp. 2
||makes V causative
||考える (kangaeru, to think) → 考えさせる
(kangaesaseru, to cause to think)
||imperf. of grp. 1
||思い知る (omoishiru, to realize) → 思い知らせる
(omoishiraseru, to cause to realize/to teach a lesson)
- 1 られる (rareru) is often shortened to れる (reru, grp. 2); thus
食べれる (tabereru, to be able to eat) instead of 食べられる
- 2 させる (saseru) is sometimes shortened to さす (sasu, grp. 1),
but this usage is somewhat literary.
Much of the agglutinative flavour of Japanese stems from helper auxiliaries, however. The following table contains a small
selection of an abundant store of such auxiliary verbs.
some helper auxiliary verbs
|ある (aru, to be (inanimate))
only for trans.
|indicates state modification
||開く (aku, to open) → 開いてある (aite-aru, opened and is
|いる (iru, to be (animate))
||寝る (neru, to sleep) → 寝ている (nete-iru, is sleeping)
|indicates state modification
||閉まる (shimaru, (intransitive) to close) → 閉まっている
(shimatte-iru, is closed)
|いく (iku, to go)
||"goes on V-ing"
||歩く (aruku, to walk) → 歩いていく (aruite-iku, keep
|くる (kuru, to come)
||inception, "start to V"
||なる (naru, become) → なってくる (natte-kuru, start
|始める (hajimeru, to begin)
|"V begins", "begin to V"
||書く (kaku, to write) → 書き始める (kaki-hajimeru, start to
punctual & subj. must be plural
|着く (tsuku, to arrive) → 着き始める (tsuki-hajimeru, have
all started to arrive)
|出す (dasu, to emit)
||"start to V"
||輝く (kagayaku, to shine) → 輝き出す (kagayaki-dasu, to start
|みる (miru, to see)
||"try to V"
||する (suru, do) → してみたい (shite-mitai, try to do)
|なおす (naosu, to correct/heal)
||"do V again, correcting mistakes"
||書く (kaku, to write) → 書きなおす (kaki-naosu,
|あがる (agaru, to rise)
||"do V thoroughly" / "V happens upwards"
||立つ (tatsu, to stand) → 立ち上がる (tachi-agaru, stand
出来る (dekiru, to come out) → 出来上がる (deki-agaru,
|得る (eru/uru, to be able)
only for group 1 verbs
||ある (aru, to be) → あり得る (arieru, is possible)
|かかる (kakaru, to hang/catch/obtain)
only for intrans., non-volit.
|"about to V", "almost V"
||溺れる (oboreru, drown) → 溺れかかる (obore-kakaru,
about to drown)
|きる (kiru, to cut)
||"do V completely"
||食べる (taberu, to eat) → 食べきる (tabe-kiru, to eat it
|消す (kesu, to erase)
||"cancel by V"
"deny with V"
|揉む (momu, to rub) → 揉み消す (momi-kesu, to rub out, to
|込む (komu, to enter deeply/plunge)
||"V deep in", "V into"
||話す (hanasu, to speak) → 話し込む (hanashi-komu, to be deep in
|下げる (sageru, to lower)
||引く (hiku, to pull) → 引き下げる (hiki-sageru, to pull
|過ぎる (sugiru, to exceed)
||言う (iu, to say) → 言いすぎる (ii-sugiru, to say too much,
|付ける (tsukeru, to attach)
||"become accustomed to V"
||行く (iku, to go) → 行き付ける (iki-tsukeru, be used to
|続ける (tsuzukeru, to continue)
||"keep on V"
||降る (furu, to fall (eg. rain)) → 降り続ける
(furi-tsuzukeru, to keep falling)
|通す (tōsu, to show/thread/lead)
||読む (yomu, to read) → 読み通す (yomi-tōsu, to finish
|抜ける (nukeru, to shed/spill/desert)
only for intrans.
||走る (hashiru, to run) → 走り抜ける (hashiri-nukeru, to run
|残す (nokosu, to leave behind)
||by doing V, leave sth behind
||思う (omou, to think) → 思い残す (omoi-nokosu, to regret (lit: to
have sth left to think about))
|残る (nokoru, to be left behind)
for intrans. only
|be left behind, doing V
||生きる (ikiru, live) → 生き残る (iki-nokoru, to survive
(lit: to be left alive))
|分ける (wakeru, to divide/split/classify)
||the proper way to V.
||使う (tsukau, use) → 使い分ける (tsukai-wakeru, to indicate
the proper way to use)
|忘れる (wasureru, to forget)
||to forget to V
||聞く (kiku, to ask) → 聞き忘れる (kiki-wasureru, to forget