Japanese Particles: An Overview

JP Particle overview

Japanese grammar has a few quirks, and I would say that after sentence structure, the use of particles is the trickiest thing for Japanese beginners to get their head around.

Particles are little words similar to prepositions in English that follow verbs, nouns and adjectives to indicate various things within a sentence. I like to think of them as little signposts that show the relationship between different parts within the sentence.

Let’s have a look at an example sentence.

私はあした東京に行きます。

わたしはあしたひこうきでとうきょうにいきます。

In the example above, は indicates the topic and に indicates the destination.

There are a lot of particles in Japanese, but I have put together a mini summary of the most important particles and how they are used:

は Topic marker

  • Not necessarily the subject of the sentence

アントニアは映画が好きです。

アントニアはえいががすきです。

In the sentence Antonia is the topic and movies are the subject

  • Often omitted unless the topic changes
  • Can be used to show contrast as below:

赤ワインは好きですが、白ワインは好きではありません。

あかワインはすきですが、しろワインはすきではありません。

が Subject marker

  • Usually followed by a verb or adjective phrase

スイーツがあまり好きではありません。

スイーツがあまりすきではありません。

  • Always marks the subject of a subordinate clause

先生が私にくれた本は今でも読みます。

せんせいがわたしにくれたほんはいまでもよみます。

  • When used after the end of a clause it acts as a conjunction that can mean ‘and’ or ‘but

レストランに行きましたが、まだ開いていませんでした。

レストランにいきましたが、まだあいていませんでした、

  • Used with intransitive verbs and potential forms of a verb

あそこから海が見えますよ。

あそこからうみがみえますよ。

を Object marker

  • Always followed by a verb/ verb phrase and follows the strict object of a sentence

トムさんは毎日漫画を読みます。

トムさんはまいにちまんがをよみます。

  • Transitive verbs are preceded by を

キムさんはドアを開けます。

キムさんはドアをあけます。

に Time/ place marker

  • Always indicates the location or place with a verb indicating movement

ロンドンに行ったことがあります。

ロンドンにいったことがあります。

  • Also used to denote a time when an action takes place

私は7時に朝ごはんを食べます。

わたしは7じにあさごはんをたべます。

  • Indicates the recipient of an action

リンさんにケーキをあげました。

で Indicates means of an action

  • Indicates the location in which an action takes place

公園でお弁当を食べました。

こうえんでおべんとうをたべました。

  • Can also be used to show the means of doing an action

電車で大学に来ました。

でんしゃでだいがくにきました。

の Possessive marker

  • Can be used in place of が in relative clauses

彼は自分のしたことを後悔しています。

かれはじぶんのしたことをこうかいしています。

  • As a sentence-final suffix, it can add an explanatory nuance

新しい店でワンピースを買ったの。

あたらしいみせでワンピースをかったの。

と Meaning ‘with’

  • Is also used to quote direct or indirect speech

来年アメリカに行こうと思っています。

らいねんアメリカにいこうとおもっています。

If you are looking to get a book that has a great job of explaining the vast majority of the particles you are likely to come across, then I would consider the book All About Particles by Naoko Chino.

This book gives an overview of what each particle can mean in different contexts alongside example sentences. I like that the book shows where particles can be used interchangeably as well as how this can affect the nuance of the sentence, especially with the infamous ha and ga particles. This makes it a great reference book for beginner-intermediate learners.

Getting a good grasp on how particles work from an early stage will help immensely later on when tackling more complex grammar, so do not be afraid to spend a lot of time on studying particles.

Quick Quiz:

1 京都にはお寺__多いです。 きょうとにはおてら__おおいです。

2 家__遊びに来てください。 いえ__あそびにきてください。

3 ペン__名前を書いてください。 ぺん__なまえをかいてください。

4 今日は私__誕生日です。 きょうはわたし__たんじょうびです。

5 マアリーさんは大学__仕事をしています。 メアリーさんはだいがく__しごとしています。

6 先週私は友達__パリに行きました。 せんしゅうわたしはともだち__パリにいきました。

7 きのう天気__よかったです。 きのうてんき__よかったです。

8 窓__開けてもいいですか。 まど__あけてもいいですか。

Practising how to use Particles

  • The JLPT grammar section has some questions on particles where you have to select the appropriate particle missing from the sentence. This is a great way to practice as there are a few quizzes available online.

Examples: JP Drills, JOSHU Particle Quizzes from the University of Texas

  • Pay attention to the sentences you use in your normal studies. I do write a lot about the importance of context – when it comes to particles, certain verbs for example will be used with specific particles, eg. 〜が見えます instead of 〜を見えます.

How do you study particles? Know any useful resources? Let me know in the comments!

Quick quiz answers:

  1. が 2) に 3) で 4) の 5) で 6) と 7) が 8) を
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The Quick ‘Why’ Guide: どうしてvs なぜ vs なんで

Japanese is so vocabulary rich that knowing when to use similar words and phrases can be a bit of a nightmare for language learners. どうして, なぜ and なんで can all be translated as ‘why’ in English but it is the level of formailty which largely differentiates the three words.

なぜ

なぜ orginated from the older term なにゆえ. It is the most formal of the three and is the word most often used in the written language rather than in speech.

なぜ日本語を勉強していますか?     naze nihongo wo benkyou shiteimasuka?

Why are you studying Japanese?

なぜ昨日のパーティーに来なかったの? naze pa-ti- ni konakatta no?

Why didn’t you come to the party yesterday?

どうして

In a lot of cases, どうして can be used interchangeably with なぜ, but is considered to feel less formal. The word is a contraction of an older term どのようにして, and therefore can sometimes be used to mean ‘how’ rather than why’ in English.

どうして知っているの? doushite shitteiru no?

How did you know?

どうして昨日そんなに早く帰ってしまったの? doushite kinou sonna ni hayaku kaette shimatta no?

Why did you go home so early yesterday?

なんで

なんで is the most informal of the three terms. As you can imagine, this word tends to be used more by young people than other age groups.

なんで私が? nande watashi ga?

Why me?

なんでそんな所に行ったの? nande sonna tokoro ni itta no?

Why did you go to that place?

どうして is probably the word you’ll hear used the most and is therefore your safest bet for everyday use, but make sure to choose wisely depending on what setting you are in.

Japanese Onomatopoeia オノマトペ/擬態語/ 擬声語

If you’ve been exposed to Japanese for even the shortest period of time, you’ll have noticed that onomatopoeia (known as オノマトペ or 擬態語/ぎたいご or 擬声語/ぎせいご in Japanese) is very frequently used. Japanese in incredibly rich in vocabulary when it comes to onomatopoeia, and is used in a much broader sense than in English, and so it can pose a bit of a challenge for learners. Fortunately onotmatopoeia is the easiest type of vocabulary to remember if you bear the following in mind:

Types of onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia can be broadly split into 5 categories:

1. those that imitate a voice of some kind, e.g.

わんわん = a dog’s bark

おぎゃ= a baby’s cry

2. those that imitate a sound, e.g. 

どんどん = drumming or pounding sound

がちゃん = slamming or clanging sound

3. those that indicate a state or condition, e.g. 

ぐちゃぐちゃ= soggy

つるつる= smooth

  1. those that describe how an action is being performed

うろうろ = aimless, wandering

のろのろ = slow, sluggish

  1. those that indicate feelings or emotions

イライラする = to be irritated

びっくりする = to be surprised

Context is key to memorising them

Having example sentences, or remembering what kinds of situations these type of words are used in are essential for being able to memorise onomatopoeia and use them naturally in conversation. When I come across a new onomatopoeia I look it up in a dictionary or ask a friend to confirm the meaning, and then make a note of it in my vocabulary notebook. When I write it down in my notebook, I normally write it down as a phrase rather than the word on its own depending on what type of onomatopoeia it is.

This is because are very frequently used with certain verbs so it is best to memorise them together with the said verb. Others are formed into verbs by adding する, so remembering the onomatopoeia as a verb means you will know the meaning of it even when it appears without する.

わんわん吠(ほ)える = to bark

にこにこ笑( わら)う = to smile

Referring to a decent Japanese-English dictionary is fine for giving an idea of a rough meaning, although you may find that there is not a direct English translation. I also recommend the onomatopoeia dictionary on the Nihongo Resources website for getting the general meaning of onomatopoeia in English.

However if you are an intermediate learner, then I fully recommend going straight to a Japanese resource Sura Sura, which is a online Japanese onomatopoeia dictionary. It may not have every word you are looking for, but for the onomatopoeia it does have on the site there is a simple explanation in Japanese, accompanied by a photo which helps illuminate the meaning. Each onomatopoeia also has example sentences and notes on things like the etymology of the word and how it differs to others with a simiar meaning. Best of all, each page has a link to Twitter showing tweets from native speakers using the word you are looking up.

I also recommend the National Institute for Japanese Language and Lingustics website, in particular the マンガを読もう section which has some extremely helpful comic illustrations giving you an idea of what situations each word is used in.

The above two websites show just how useful it is to have visual context for learning how onomatopoeia is actually used. Pictures, manga and TV therefore are especially good places to these words in context, so sometimes I will either draw a picture (despite being terrible at drawing) or write down in my notebook where I have taken my example sentences from.

Have you got a handy way of remembering onomatopoeia? Let me know in the comments.

PS. Think you’ve got onomatopoeia down? Check out this video and see if you can spot them all!