Japanese From Zero (Part 3)

The following is an unedited post created on our Tumblr page. You may find the original here.

The final stretch! Woo!
Today, we’re going to look at particles and then verbs. But first…

In part 2, when laying out a basic syntax pattern, I stated that everything in parenthesis () is optional. Well, I forgot to put the final particles in parentheses. Those are optional as well.

A particle is sort of like a preposition, except that it does not come before the phrase it modifies but after and it tells us not about the position but about its function in a sentence.
You will remember that I said that Japanese has a very small phonetic set. In Linguistics, small phonetic sets imply a large amount of homophones. And we need to keep this in mind because it’s true for Japanese.
Particles can be monosyllabic and they can extend in length considerably. Wikipedia has a very good article on them, providing basic translations and explaining where they are used.

I’m going to tell you about the basic set of particles and the ones you need to be mindful of.

This particle is very popular and very distinctive in that it is written with the Hiragana は, normally read as “ha”. Wa is our topic marker. It is not the subject marker. What’s the difference? A topic marker denotes the general theme being discussed while the subject states who or what did the thing the verb describes. That being said, you will sometimes have situations where either Wa or the subject marker can be used. The only difference in this case is that the subject marker will be more emphatic. For the sake of translation, because English requires a subject, if there is no explicit subject in the sentence, then topic phrase, the one Wa follows, will become the subject in the translation.

This is the subject marker. It denotes the subject.
(Here’s where the homonym thing comes into play.)
Ga also serves as a contrafactual marker. It will not go after a noun phrase, but a verbal phrase (if you’re a linguist, don’t think verbal phrase but inflectional phrase), which is a complete phrase with a verb. Ga follows this phrase and precedes another verbal phrase: X Ga Y. This translates to: “Despite X, Y” or “X but Y”
And, it also serves as a kind of genitive marker, which we’ve seen in earlier posts. For the newcomers, a genitive is a grammatical case (like the possessive and objective) that denotes that the noun belongs to something else. In English, the pronouns his, her, their and its are inflected in the genitive case. When Ga is being used this way, it will follow a noun phrase and X Ga Y will translate to “Y of X”

No is the more popular genitive marker. It functions just as I described Ga.

Its second function is to nominalize, i.e. to make the whole verbal phrase (or IP) a noun. There’s no real analogous phenomenon in English, but perhaps we can get a general idea. In the English sentence, “It is a fact that X”, the noun “it” is referring to “X”. “X” will always be a verbal phrase, one that could stand as a sentence on its own. So that “X”, in a way, has been nominalized, proved by it having a pronoun, “it”, refer to it. So we’ll have verbal phrases (Y) succeeded by a No, Y No Z, where Z is everything else in the sentence. We’ll translate this as “The fact that X” or “X-ing”, where “X-ing” is a gerund. (A gerund is when you make a verb end in -ing and then use it as a noun. “Reading is cool.”) That should do the trick on most days.

It’s also popular to see a sentence end in No. However, this is not a bone fide ending particle. It’s just that the verb has been omitted. In this case, what’s happening is that someone’s seeking confirmation for the verbal phrase X. That’s all.

De is a locative marker and an instrumental marker. It tells us with what the subject enacted the verb and where it happened when the action is not very contingent on the location, which is to say that the action itself would not change much if done somewhere else. So “I ate a sandwich at school.” would have De for “school” while “I went to school today” would not have a De for “school”.
But De can be confusing because De is a homophone of the Te-form of the copula Da. (The copula Da has a very strange etymological history and it doesn’t make much sense the first time around, so just trust me when I talk about it.)

I’ll be frank: Ni does everything at one point or another.

First of all, Ni is the other locative marker. It’s the one used when the action is contingent on location. Most of the verbs that’ll employ ni are ones of movement, ones that require one to move somewhere.
Related to this is the use of Ni when the governing verb is the copula aru or iru. In these cases, where a thing is is very crucial. “I am in jail.” “I am in school.” Very different things. [This is more so related to how exactly those two verbs function. We’ll get to that soon.]
Secondly, Ni is the indirect object marker. “John gives the ball to Sally.” “Sally” is the indirect object.
Thirdly, Ni is the passive agent. The passive agent is what the subject turns into when you take an active voice sentence and make it passive. “John ate the sandwich”, “The sandwich was eaten by John.” “John” in the second sentence is the passive agent. And if the sentence were in Japanese, it’d take Ni as its particle.
Now, particles can be combined to create new particles. The most important of these particles, in my mind, is Ni Wa, which has two functions divided semantically into three. That’s fancy talk for “it makes more sense to see it as three different things also it’s just two.”
Firstly, Ni Wa, succeeding a verbal phrase, means “in order to”: “X Ni Wa” = “In order to X”.
Secondly, Ni Wa, as a combination of a locative marker and a topic marker, generally will mean “this is the case in respect to X”. That’s too much for a simple translation. So we divide it into two cases: 1) when the predicate (Y) is something subjective, which will be translated “As for X, Y”, 2) when the predicate (Y) is not subjective but a simple fact, which will be translated as “In X”.


Here’s another simple particle. Yet its pronunciation is tricky. I write it was Wo because it’s written in Hiragana as を (Wo), but younger generations will pronounce it almost exclusively as O. (Most of the people who say it was Wo are Pre-WWII and the generation immediately following WWII). And, in fact, the only time you will see を in modern literature is as a particle. (There used to be a We and Wi in Japanese too, interestingly.)
The first function of Wo is to denote the direct object. “John ate the sandwich.” “the sandwich” is the direct object. This would take Wo.
The second function of Wo is to denote that the verb occurs through what precedes Wo. “X wo Y”, where Y is the verb and to use X as the direct object makes no sense will probably mean that action Y occurs through X.


We’re almost done with the non-ending particle. Mo by itself is fairly simple to understand. It means “too” and either goes after or substitutes particles to indicate this.
It will substitute Ga, Wa, and Wo.
It will go after Ni and De. “I went to the store too.” will have Ni Mo. “I ate a sandwich at school too.” will have a Ni De.


First, To can be a conjunctive particle. It can mean either “with” or “and” and will succeed noun phrases.
Second, it can be a conditional particle, an “if”, which will succeed verbal phrases.
Third, it can be a statement marker, both direct and indirect. It will succeed the verbal phrase, the whole quote (either direct or indirect), and be followed eventually by a word meaning “said” or “stated” or something that will make clear that it is a quote.
Also, To can pair with Mo to create a new combo particle, which goes with a number of verbal phrases and its meaning depends on the kind of verb. If you want to learn more about To Mo, read the wikipedia article because it’s thorough. I’ll say there that it generally means “even if”, the particle being a combination of To as a conjunction and Mo as a sort of inclusive marker. You’ll see it following and preceding verbal phrases in “X to mo Y”, which translates to “Even if X, Y”

Before we get to the ending particles, let’s take a breather. We’ve seen a lot already. I don’t want anybody to sit down and memorize the uses for each particle. We’ll have time for that. I just want you all to become familiar with how many things one particle can do and how they can be translated simply. That’s it.


Ka is the most important ending particle. It makes the sentence an interrogative. In “X Ka.”, where X is a verbal phrase (or an inflectional phrase), Ka makes it a question. “John ate the sandwich” becomes “Did John eat the sandwich?”


Ne adds a dubitative element to the sentence. It makes the sentence one that seeks confirmation. This use is heard a lot in interviews.
Its other use is to soften a statement that might sound rude. In Japanese culture, a lot of things may sound rude to say. Just to give you an example, to state outright that it’s cold or sunny to someone else may sounds somewhat aggressive. So what you hear is “It’s hot, isn’t it?” And that’s a good translation for Ne, “isn’t it?”


Yo is the opposite of Ne in many ways. It states something as a fact. “I’m telling you” would be a good translation if it didn’t sound so aggressive in English. It follows facts that the interlocutors should keep in mind.
It is also an exhortative particle. It adds an energetic emphasis to a sentence.
The first use of Yo combines with the second use of Ne (to soften a statement) to create Yo Ne, which is really common to hear in anime. It’s a way of stating a fact that might not otherwise be known without sounding brutish about it.


Na is meant to emphasize the verb and in that becomes an imperative or a prohibitive. Here’s what distinguishes the two. When it is imperative, it will succeed an unconjugated form of the verb. When it is prohibitive, it will succeed a conjugated present-plain (I’ll explain what plain means in a moment) form of the verb.
When used with a copula, its meaning is comparable to Ne in that it seeks some kind of confirmation. However, Na is more emphatic and energetic than Ne.


This is an exhortative particle. “Do it!”


The cruder brother of Zo. It means the same thing, but is nastier.

And that’s all I’m saying on particles. You’ve gotten a good taste of it; but this is not all she wrote.


I’ve left verbs for the very end because people have very strange conceptions about Japanese verbs and they’re just complicated in some respects.

First, let me tell you how Japanese textbooks explain verbs.
The first Japanese verb will be “desu” and it will be translated as “is”
All other verbs end in -masu. “to eat” is “tabemasu”. “to do” is “shimasu”. “to make” is “tsukurimasu.” So on and so forth. To make the past tense, you take -su and substitute it for -shita, which give you “deshita” “tabemashita”, “shimashita”, “tsukurimashita”, etc.
But there is also the dictionary form of the verb, which is like the form you’ve already learned but not so polite. (No book every tells you what the dictionary form of “desu” is, so I won’t even mention it.) Dictionary forms: “Taberu”, “suru”, “tsukuru”, etc.
And so you end up with a whole bunch of verbs with these endings: -u, -tsu, -ru, -mu, -bu, -nu, -ku, and -gu. To make the -Te forms, you learn a silly song and memorize that in -Te form: -u, -tsu, and -ru turn into -tte; -mu, -bu, and -nu turn into -nde; -ku turns into -ite, and -gu turns into -ide. The exceptions are “suru”, which turns into “shite”, “kuru”, which turns into “kite” and “iru”, which turns into “ite” and if you’re lucky they’ll tell you that the -Te form of “desu” is “de”.
After all of that, you are told that to make the plain past form (you having already internalized that the dictionary form is a plain way of saying things while the -masu endings give it a politer tone), you just take the -Te form and that ending -e becomes an -a.
And after all of that, you learn some conjugations using the “-masu stem”, which is just the verb sans the -masu ending.

This is convoluted. This makes little sense. The only thing it guarantees you is that you will feel more at home with the -masu conjugation, which is important when speaking because you’ll sound less like a jerk in doing so. However, if you want to read manga and watch anime, you will not be hearing a whole lot of this very polite, -masu crap.

This post has run long enough. I’ll have to finish up verbs in a part 4. There I’ll explain how verbs really work, the exceptions to the rules, and then establish a framework by which the many possible conjugations will become easy to grasp.

Till then!