The Particle Ga I 格助詞「が」①

第12課: The Particle Ga が I: Subject Marker 主格を表す格助詞「が」①

Particles are small affixes that follow words to mark a particular grammatical function. Generally speaking, “case” particles (kaku-joshi 格助詞) are akin to the prepositions of English. “Case,” simply put, is the grammatical function that a noun has, and in the case of Japanese, the particle tells the speaker what that function is.

The case particle が is often confused with the particle は, but whereas が’s role is defined by the grammatical function it marks, は’s role is tied to the commentary that is lived out in the surrounding context. This will become clearer as you become familiarized with them.

Let’s recap our grammar terminology with what we have just learned as well as cover a few more terms to make this lesson easier. Then, we will be off to learning about the particle が.

  • Subject: The person/thing that performs an action (with verb predicates) or is what exhibits a certain state (with adjectival/adjectival-noun predicates).
  • PredicateThe part of a sentence that makes a statement about the subject. 
  • CopulaA word used to link the subject and predicate of a sentence.
  • NounIn its most basic definition, a word that refers to a person, place, thing, event, substance, or quality. 
  • Adjective: A word that describes a state and may constitute the predicate at the end of a sentence or be a part of a noun-predicate if it’s the modifier. 
  • Verb: A word that describes an action, state, or occurrence. It may constitute the predicate at the end of a sentence or be part of a noun-predicate when used as a participle/modifier. 
  • AuxiliaryAn ending that helps construct conjugations in adjectives, verbs, and other auxiliaries.
  • Independent Clause: A phrase that stands alone as a complete sentence.
  • Plain SpeechJōtaigo 常体語 refers to the entire plain speech register in Japanese grammar.
  • Plain StyleJōtai 常体 is the plain speech rendition of any given phrase.
  • Plain FormKihonkei 基本形 is the basic form of any given phrase: a.k.a, its plain form.
  • Polite SpeechTeineigo 丁寧語 refers to the entire polite speech register in Japanese grammar.
  • Polite StyleTeineitai 丁寧体 is the rendition of polite speech with any particular phrasing.
  • Polite FormTeineikei 丁寧形 refers to polite speech conjugations.
  • Case Particle: A particle that attaches to a noun to mark a particular grammatical function/case. 
  • Intransitive VerbA verb that only takes a subject and does not take an object. 

Curriculum Note: Properly learning about the particle が will require us to look at full sentences, and in doing so, you will see parts of speech and grammar points that have not been formally introduced. However, the only thing that you are required to pay attention to is the particle が as we will be covering every other grammar point in due time.

The Case Particle が 格助詞「が」の使い方

The particle が marks the subject (shukaku 主格 ). The person/thing that performs an action (with verb predicates) or is what exhibits a certain state (with adjectival/adjectival-noun predicates). You may notice that this definition is an updated version from the one we say in Lessons 10-11. 

The purpose of marking the subject in Japanese is to indicate information that is newly registered to the speaker, and that information is thus being distilled to the listener(s) as new information. This distinction helps が serve as an objective means of making neutral statements and providing answers to questions, as well as asking direct questions such as “what is…?” or “who is…?”

New information

Whereas the purpose of は is to topicalize something and bring attention to the comment that follows, the particle が is used mostly to present new information in the form of neutral statements. This is especially true with statements regarding the existence of something, the five senses, and simple intransitive verbs (verbs that don’t take objects).

i. Existential Sentences

Existential sentences are those that state something exists. Typically, these sentences include information such as location. In English, the subject of an existential sentence is “there” and the item that exists ends up being treated as an object. 

vii. There is a dog in the yard.
viii. There are oranges on the table.
ix. There isn’t a dragon here.
x. There aren’t any pens in the room.

In Japanese existential sentences, the thing that exists is treated as the subject. Furthermore, the “to be” verb for showing existence is carried out by two verbs. ある is used to express existence of (non-living) inanimate objects, whereas いる is used to express living animate objects.

1. 飴がある。
Ame ga aru.
There is candy.

2. 鉛筆がある。
Empitsu ga aru.
There is/are pencil(s).

3. 鳥がいる。
Tori ga iru.
There is/are (a) bird(s).

4. 牛がいる。
Ushi ga iru.
There is/are (a) cow(s).

5. 魚が{ある・いる}。
Sakana ga [aru/iru].
There is/are (a) fish.

Sentence Note: When the verb ある is used, “fish” is being treated as a food item that is no longer living. When the verb いる is used, the fish is still alive and well.

The subject of a sentence does not have to be at the front of a sentence, which is a major difference Japanese has with English. In fact, location phrases usually take precedence in existential sentences.

Particle Note: Location is marked by the case particle に. In English, this role is carried out by the prepositions “in” and “on.” 

6. あそこに学校がある。
Asoko ni gakkō ga aru.
There is a school over there.

7. 部屋に猫がいる。
Heya ni neko ga iru.
There is/are (a) cat(s) in the room.

8. 机の上に本がある。
Tsukue no ue ni hon ga aru.
There is/are a book(s) on top of the desk.

9. テーブルの下にネズミがいる。
Tēburu no shita ni nezumi ga iru.
There is/are (a) mouse/mice underneath the table.

10. 橋の隣に滝がある。
Hashi no tonari ni taki ga aru.
There is a waterfall next to the bridge.

ii. Neutral Statements

Neutral statements describe temporary states and/or actions. They form the objective truth of the recent past, the present, or the future. A great example of this is Ex. 11. Monkey business is serious in grammar.

11. 猿が木から落ちた。
Saru ga ki kara ochita.
A monkey fell from tree.

Particle Note: The case particle kara から means “from” (→ Lesson 52).

12. 品質がいい。
Hinshitsu ga ii.
The quality is good.

13. 日食が起きます。
Nisshoku ga okimasu.
There will be a solar eclipse.

14. (彼は)礼儀が悪い。
(Kare wa) reigi ga warui.
His manners are bad.
Literally: As for him, (his) manners are bad.

15. (あなたは)頭がいい。
(Anata wa) atama ga ii.
You’re smart.
Literally: As for you, your mind is good.

iii. Five senses

Another facet of expressing new information/neutral statements is creating statements regarding the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

16. 寒気がする。
Samuke ga suru.
I’m chilly.

17. 臭い匂いがする。
Kusai nioi ga suru.
There is an awful smell.

18. 変な音がする。
Hen na oto ga suru.
There is a strange noise.

19. 山が見える。
Yama ga mieru.
The mountain(s) [is/are] visible.

20. 歯応えがいい。
Hagotae ga ii.
The feel (of the food) is good.

21. 塩辛い味がする。
Shiokarai aji ga suru.
It tastes salty.

iv. Intransitive sentences

One of the most practical applications of expressing new information is speaking about what happens, is happening, or has happened. Intransitive verbs are verbs that, put simply, discuss what happens. 

22. 雪が積もる。
Yuki ga tsumoru.
(The) snow accumulates.

23. 強い風が吹きました。
Tsuyoi kaze ga fukimashita.
Strong wind blew.

24. 雨が降ります。
Ame ga furimasu.
It is going to rain.

25. ドアが閉まります!
Doa ga shimarimasu!
The door(s) will close!

26. 台風が上陸しました。
Taifū ga jōriku shimashita.
The/a typhoon landed.

2. Exhaustive-listing: It is X that…

There are times when が isn’t meant as a mere statement of new information. Instead, it can also explicitly state that it is “X” that is the subject of the predicate. The “X” can be one entity or several entities, which is where “exhaustive-listing” comes into play. When the predicate describes a static state, one that is not a temporary reality, this interpretation is typically meant. A static state can be expressed with a copular sentence, adjectives, adjectival nouns, or verbs which describe states. In fact, this interpretation reigns supreme over the existential sentences studied above. With が, the things mentioned to exist in a certain place are what’s there.

27. 彼が学生です。
Kare ga gakusei desu.
 is the student.

28. この教科書が便利です。
Kono kyōkasho ga benri desu.
 (is the) textbook that is useful.

29. 波が高い!
Nami ga takai!
These waves
are high!

30. このサンマのほうが歯応えが弱い。
Kono samma no hō ga hagotae ga yowai. 
The chewiness of this saury is weak.

Grammar Note: The use of no hō のほう (side of a comparison) intensifies the exhaustive nature of が. Whenever there are two が phrases next to each other like this, the first が phrase is always treated as the subject of the main clause. The secondary が phrase is embedded in the predicate. 

ii. Asking Questions

Exhaustive-listing is a feature of が that is not normally brought out without cause. Meaning, just as is the case for the English equivalents seen in translation, such phrasing is usually brought about by some sort of question being asked, for which a direct and substantive answer is required. Unsurprisingly, が is involved in the making and answering of those questions. To ask the direct questions, you add が to an interrogative (question word). The basic question words in Japanese are as follows:

Dare 誰
Nani 何
Itsu/Nanji いつ・何時
Doko どこ
Naze 何故

Meaning NoteNanji 何時 literally means “what time?”

31. どこが病院ですか。
Doko ga byōin desu ka?
 is the hospital?

Sentence Note: This sentence is not a simple question about where the hospital is. Imagine a person looking at a line of buildings and wondering which is the hospital, perhaps there’s even a hint of frustration or urgency.

32. 何故ここに幽霊が存在するんですか。
Naze koko ni yūrei ga sonzai suru n desu ka?
Why is it that ghosts exist here?

Grammar Note: In polite speech, “why” questions end in n desu ka? んですか.

33. 何がおかしい!?
Nani ga okashii!?

What (is it that) is so funny!?

34a. 誰が社長ですか?
Dare ga shachō desu ka?

34b. 社長は誰ですか?
Shachō wa dare desu ka?
’s the company president? (34a)
Who is the company president? (34b)

Grammar Note: Ex. 34a would be appropriate to say when you are somewhere where there is a group of people, one of which you would like identified as the company president by who you’re asking the question to. Ex. 34b, on the other hand, would be used in a situation where the company president is already at the forefront of conversation and the speaker, you, is simply asking the listener about who that person is. This conversation doesn’t have to be held where the company president happens to be at.

35. 明日は{いつ・何時}が都合がいいですか。
Ashita wa [itsu/nanji] ga tsugō ga ii desu ka?
As for tomorrow, when is convenient (for you)?

iii. Answers to Questions

Questions brought about with が are typically answered back with the information sought. が provides an exhaustive answer to the question at hand.

36. 「誰が行く?」「僕が行きます。」
“Dare ga iku?” “Boku ga ikimasu.”
“Who’s the one going?” “I’m the one going.”

37. 「何がいい?」「ラーメンがいいでしょう。」
“Nani ga ii?” “Rāmen ga ii deshō.”
“What would be good.” “Ramen would be good.”

Spontaneous Remarks

Whenever someone spontaneously utters something, it is often in reference to some immediate concern. 

38. この薬が効くよ。

Kono kusuri ga kiku yo.
This medicine will work. 

Sentence Note: Suppose you find out a friend has a cold and you have some cold medicine on you. The moment you hear about your friend’s condition, you take out the medicine and say this’ll help him. This is one way Ex. 38 could be used.  

39. お客さんが来た。
O-kyaku-san ga kita.
Customer(s) are here. 

Sentence Note: You’re the owner of a restaurant. It’s nearing lunch hour and at last you hear the first guest(s) entering. Just as you hear this, you utter Ex. 39.  

ii. Sense of Discovery

Another application of this is expressing surprise in discovery. This application translates as “X is what Y is…” 

40. あ、これが雪だ!
A, kore ga yuki da!
Ah, this is what snow is!

41. あ、あの人が噂の山田師匠だ!
A, ano hito ga uwasa no Yamada-shishō da!
Ah, that person is the rumored Master Yamada! 

Object Marker with Stative-Transitive Predicates

Having already learned quite a lot about how が functions as a subject-marker, we will study its function as an object-marker in Lesson 22.

In Conclusion 最後に…

Despite having rather straightforward roles, the particle が is still very complex once you figure in the layers of nuancing that can be had with it. In our next lesson, we will be covering its archnemesis, the particle は. These two particles do cause a lot of headache for most learners, but at the same time, their differences run deep, and choosing one over the other will at the very least cause a change in nuance and at worse be a grammar mistake. 

Now, our goal here is not to fully dish out these two particles in one go. There is still plenty of elementary grammar that we have yet to cover. However, we will still be looking at over 100 sentences of these two particles once we’ve finished going through the next lesson’s examples, and the reason for this is to at least provide you enough context to get the big picture. Learning how to more or less understand these particles will help you figure out when to use them yourself and will become beneficial to you once it is time to learn more about them.

With that, know that learning about these particles is not over. It will take time to master them, so don’t fret if you’re confused with every sentence. That is a normal reaction to their complexity. Just because you’ve finished reading this lesson and/or the next one, that doesn’t mean you can’t revisit the topic.