In English, you generally rely on word order to determine what each word is doing in the sentence. In Japanese, while there are rules for word order, only a handful of verb-related rules are actually mandatory (they're explained in Grammar Part 3: Clauses). The optional rules can be summed up by the fact that Japanese sentences default to SOV (subject, object, verb) order. English enforces an SVO (subject, verb, object) order on all of its sentences. For instance, in English we say "I bought flowers", but in Japanese you would normally put "flowers" in front of "bought", though other arrangements are also valid.
Instead of word order, Japanese relies on its particles to tell you what each word is doing. It is impossible to define these particles in terms of any single English word or concept, so I need to use some basic grammatical terms to explain them. If you aren't confident you know what terms like "subject", "object", "inflection", "conjugation", "stem", "tense" and of course "particle" mean, go read the Grammar Terminology page now.
I divide Japanese particles into four categories: simple case markers, sentence ending particles, compound particles, and grammatical vocabulary. That last category is made up of words which may or may not be considered particles, so I'm saving it for the next page.
Simple Case Markers
“case marker” is the term for a word that denotes the grammatical role of another word (in Japanese they are all postpositions, meaning they denote the role of the previous word or phrase). Case markers are the core of all Japanese grammar, and you should spend the vast majority of your time trying to master them. As a result, I'll cover each one individually, after quickly showing you a list with all of them.
When explaining them individually, I will use example sentences simple enough that you should be able to work them out just by looking up some words and reading what I wrote around them. However, I will also omit some details and even entire meanings which neither can nor should be explained at this stage, instead leaving links to places in the guide where they are explained.
List of Simple Case Markers
は (wa) indicates the subject, or the context
が indicates the subject, the object in certain cases, or just means “but”
も indicates a subject and implies the existence of another subject
を (o) indicates an object
と can mean “and,” “with,” “if,” or mark any object which can be interpreted as a quotation
の indicates possession, means “of” (except backwards), or links adjectives to nouns
へ (e) indicates the goal, destination or direction of an action
で indicates either the means by which or the situation in which an action is performed
な marks an adjective or changes a noun into an adjective
に changes a noun to an adverb, or indicates location, or indicates an animate or optional object
って indicates a quotation, or informally a subject/context
は is normally pronounced "ha", but it changes to "wa" when used as a particle. Don't worry, it's the only kana that ever does this.
1) denotes the subject of the clause
This should be easy to understand even if it's hard to get used to. To say it a bit more intuitively: は wa comes immediately after whatever is performing the action.
|学校は楽しい||School is fun.||学校 "School" is the subject|
|馬は跳んだ||The horse jumped.||馬 "The horse" is the subject|
If you tried to learn Japanese through watching anime, you may have convinced yourself that は means "is". It does not. In fact the first sentence has no verb at all, which is perfectly fine in Japanese.
2) denotes the context in which the main clause occurs
This sounds odd at first, but it's surprisingly easy to understand in examples.
|昨日はみんなが欠席だった||Yesterday, everyone was absent.||昨日 "Yesterday" is the context within which "everyone was absent".|
|俺は蛇が怖い||For me, snakes are scary.||俺 "me" is the context within which "snakes are scary".|
With simple sentences like this, it's possible to treat these as special cases and not as a true alternate meaning of は wa. But there are more complex sentences where you need to see this as a genuine alternate meaning.
1) denotes the subject
This meaning is shared with は wa. Usually, when denoting a subject, は wa and が ga are technically interchangeable.
|学校が楽しい||School is fun.||学校 "School" is the subject|
|馬が跳んだ||The horse jumped.||馬 "The horse" is the subject|
A lot of the time either は wa or が ga will be a more natural choice (either due to convention or to prevent clause break ambiguity), but that is not something you should be worrying about at this stage. It's much better to learn it through experience anyway.
2) can denote an object if it is inanimate or the object of an emotion
This is much more likely to be an issue with simple sentences, but it's also a lot less common than the first meaning, so don't worry too much about it.
|成績がもらった||I received my grades.|
|野菜が嫌い||I hate vegetables.|
My theory is, が ga can denote an object if either: the object is inanimate and thus incapable of performing the action in question (grades can't receive, vegetables can't hate), or it's the object of an emotion. The latter is a genuinely special case, since it seems to apply to only a small handful of emotional words like 好き suki (like/love), 嫌い kirai (dislike/hate), 怖い kowai (afraid), which already have some odd grammatical behavior, so don't let this worry you.
3) can simply mean “but”
|宿題はいいが、テストが難しすぎる||The homework is fine, but the tests are too hard.|
4) used to make a certain conditional verb form
Will be explained later.
1) denotes one of multiple subjects (the others may be implied)
|学校も楽しい||School is also fun.|
|馬も跳んだ||The horse also jumped.|
This should be pretty easy.
2) changes interrogative pronouns into indefinite or negative pronouns
を wo is often pronounced closer to "o" than "wo", and may be romanized as just "o", though I don't consider this a serious pronunciation change.
1) denotes the object of the clause
This should also be easy to understand: を wo comes immediately after whatever is being acted upon.
|リスが栗を拾った||The squirrel picked up a chestnut.||栗 "a chestnut" is the object|
|私は帽子を被る||I'll wear a hat.||帽子 "a hat" is the object|
Since this particle has no other meanings or uses, it should be one of the easiest to learn. On the other hand, several other particles are capable of denoting objects, so don't get complacent with this one.
1) denotes an object which can be interpreted as a quote, often before a verb such as 言う (say) or 思う (think)
|俺は一ヶ月が必要と思う||I think one month is needed. |
I think that "One month is needed".
|The quote/thought "One month is needed" is the object.|
|彼女がはいと言ったか？||Did she say yes? |
Did she say "yes"?
|The quote "yes" is the object.|
Basically, there's a handful of verbs that love to use と to for denoting their objects instead of を wo, and about a year ago it finally hit me that objects for those verbs can almost always be interpreted as quotations. This includes onomatopoeias, which Japanese has loads of.
2) denotes one of multiple subjects that performed a single action together; often means “with”
|あいつと勝負した||I fought with him.|
|みんなと行きました||I went with everyone.|
3) simply means “if” or “when” after verbs
|終わると、夜明けでした||When I finished, it was dawn.|
|今行くと死ぬぞ||If you go now you'll die.|
4) can simply mean “and” between two short nouns or adjectives
|彼女と私は協力しています||She and I are working together.|
|教科書とノートを持ってきた||I brought my textbook and notebook.|
5) used to make a certain negative conditional verb form
Will be explained later.
1) means “of,” except backward compared to English, and is used more broadly
|これは愛の物語||This is a story of love.||"愛 (love) の 物語 (story)" becomes "story of love"|
|赤のチームは負けた||The team of red lost. or The red team lost.||"赤 (red) の チーム (team)" becomes "team of red" or "red team"|
This is another one of those things that's easy to understand but hard to get used to. By "more broadly", I meant that の no is used even in sentences like the second example where the use of "of" is considered incorrect in English.
2) denotes possession
|近所のガーデンは森だ||The neighbor's garden is a forest.||"近所 (neighbor) の" becomes "neighbor's"|
|俺のコンピューターは早い||My computer is fast.||"俺 (I/me) の" becomes "my"|
This is even easier than in English, since you don't have to memorize a set of possessive pronouns like "my", "his", "her", and "theirs". Arguably this is a special case of the first meaning ("garden of neighbor" becomes "neighbor's garden", "computer of me" becomes "my computer").
3) in compound particles, may be short for a clause-ending noun
Will be explained later.
4) connects nouns to adjectives in a noun phrase used as an interjection
This is a special case you shouldn't spend much time on. In English, it's common to exclaim things like "You idiot!" or "That bastard!", even though those are neither sentences nor interjections. Specifically, noun phrases can be used like interjections. You can do exactly the same things in Japanese, as long as you put の no in between: "君のバカ！" or "あいつの野郎！"
へ he is often pronounced closer to "e" than "he", and may be romanized as just "e", though I don't consider this a serious pronunciation change.
1) denotes a direction or destination of literal or figurative travel
|東へ行きます||I'll go east.||"東 (east)" is the literal direction|
|熟達へ近づいてる||I'm approaching mastery.||"熟達 (mastery)" is the figurative destination|
Also pretty easy, although the compound particles using へ he are so similar in meaning that they often get used more than へ he itself.
1) denotes the situation in which the action is performed
|家で眠りたい||I want to sleep at home.||"家 (home)" is the situation in which "sleeping" is performed|
|放課後で話した||We talked after school.||"放課後 (after school)" is the situation in which "talking" is performed|
This use of で de often corresponds to English prepositions such as "at" and "during".
2) denotes the means by which the action is performed
|鉛筆で書く||I'll write it in pencil.||"鉛筆 (pencil)" is the means by which "writing" is performed|
|人形で遊びたくない||I don't want to play with dolls.||"人形 (dolls)" are the means by which "playing" is preformed|
This use of で de often corresponds to English prepositions such as "with" and "in".
Notice that the use of "with" I'm referring to here is distinct from the use of "with" that と can correspond to.
3) can simply be a transition, meaning “so” (causal) or “then” (temporal)
Also pretty easy, although the compound particles using で de are so similar in meaning that they often get used more than で de itself (for this meaning at least).
1) denotes an adjective
|素敵な歌だわ||It's a wonderful song.||"素敵 (wonderful)" is the adjective|
2) together with 的 (てき), can transform any noun into an adjective (like the -y suffix in English)
|精神的な問題だ||It's a mental problem.||"精神 (mind)" becomes "精神的な (mental)"|
1) denotes an adverb
|すぐに着きます||I'll arrive soon.||"すぐ (soon)" is the adverb|
2) together with 的 (てき), can transform any noun or adjective into an adverb (like the -ly suffix in English)
|直接的に話すべき||We should talk to him directly.||"直接 (direct)" becomes "直接的に (directly)"|
3) denotes the location where the action occurs, or indicates a location as an object
|私はここに残ります||I'll stay here.||"ここ (here)" is the location where the action of "staying" occurs|
|店に行きます||I'm going to the store.||"店 (store)" is the location being used as an object|
4) denotes an animate object, or an indirect/optional object
|彼に言いかけた||I spoke to him.||"彼 (him)" is the animate object|
|友達に贈り物をあげた||I gave a gift to my friend.||"贈り物 (gift)" is the direct object, while "友達 (friend)" is the indirect one|
The direct object is always the one being "given", while the indirect object is the one being "given to". For some verbs, indirect objects are optional.
5) can simply mean “and” between two names
|明日香に姫子もいた||Asuka and Himeko were there.|
1) denotes a quotation (not necessarily verbatim) which may be the subject, context, or an object
|会長は来週まで休んでって||The boss said take a break until next week.|
Notice that the verb "say" is left completely implied here, because after って tte is used it's already obvious what the action is.
2) in colloquial speech, denotes the context or subject
|あいつってすごく不気味||That guy's so gross.|
This does match は wa's meanings exactly, but it is almost exclusively used in colloquial speech.
As you probably noticed, these basic particles often overlap in meaning. So I've rearranged some of the information down here to help minimize confusion.
Particles that can denote a subject:
は wa and が ga are the defaults for this, and should be treated as interchangeable until you have enough experience to know when one or the other is more natural
も mo strongly implies the existence of another subject
って tte is an extremely colloquial way of doing it
Particles that can denote an object:
を wo is the default for this
と to denotes an object which can be interpreted as a quotation
に ni denotes either an animate object, or an optional/indirect object
が ga does this only as special cases: 1) if the noun is inanimate and can't be the subject 2) if the noun is the object of an emotion (only comes up around a small number of specific words like 好き, 嫌い and 怖い)
There is also some minor overlap between へ he and に ni when marking locations. 店へ行く is more like "I'll head for/go toward the store" while 店に行く is more like "I'll go to the store". The latter assumes that the destination will be reached and that the journey there is irrelevant.
There is also some minor overlap between の no and な na when marking adjectives. There's no rule of thumb I can give here, since the overlap arises largely because the English and Japanese languages disagree about which words/concepts should be given noun or adjective status.
Sentence Ending Particles or 語尾 gobi
Every Japanese clause ends with a verb (though it may be implied), and possibly one or more of a special set of particles called 語尾 gobi meant to go immediately after said verbs. Believe it or not, many of these you can actually ignore without changing the meaning of the sentence, so don't obsess over exactly what they mean. An italicized m or f indicates a gobi which is particularly masculine or feminine.
か marks a question (more advanced uses later)
だ or よ simply mark the end of a sentence or add a little emphasis
です is like だ but somewhat more formal, while っす (m) is somewhat less formal
ぞ (m) or ぜ (m) are very masculine particles expressing eagerness or excitement
さ (m) or な place some emphasis on the descriptive words in the clause
ね (f) is like さ or な but may also ask a question or imply a response of some sort is desired
だろう (m) and でしょ (f) are like ね but may also mean something is likely to be the case
の (f) and わ (f) are like ね except they may be used solely for aesthetic reasons
ん is also aesthetic, but is only used between the verb and some other particle
じゃない often means “not,” but at the end of a sentence can mark a negative rhetorical question
っけ is a somewhat uncommon combination of って and か often meaning “did/didn't you say _?”
ってば is an emphatic form of って often equivalent to “I'm telling you _”
ん is sometimes used to smooth the transition between the end of a verb and the gobi following it, e.g. 思い出すんだ. Occassionally, an ん can even replace the る at the end of an unconjugated verb.
Simple Example Sentences
I'll be using the "BDT format" below for dissecting all the example sentences in this guide. It's also the same format used in the pages of dissected source material. Click on the B, D and T to see a Breakdown of each sentence into words and particles, Definitions of every word and particle, and finally a Translation.
If the dissection has to refer to something this guide hasn't discussed yet (like verb forms), I will gray it out so you know not to worry about it yet. In the Breakdown subsection, the color codes are as follows: nouns and pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, particles, gobi, other.
Hopefully it is now obvious why I say “thinking in Japanese” is very different from “thinking in English.” Also keep in mind that several of these examples could be translated other ways depending on the context, especially when it comes to plurality, implied subjects and general manner of speaking.
If you really understand the basic particles, then several of these can be partly or even wholly understood just by combining the meanings of two particles. However, several of them need to be explained since it's not always obvious how to combine the meanings and they've drifted away from their most literal interpretation.
には indicates a location and a subject/context at the same time (if location is figurative, “in the case of _”)
にも indicates a location and an additional subject at the same time (“also in the case of _”)
とは indicates a quote-like object and a subject/context at the same time
とか most literally “and ?,” meaning “_ and similar things,” “_ and such,” or “etc”
との combines the "with" and "of" meanings to do something like "a [noun] with [noun]", e.g. 彼女との再開 = "a reunion with her"
のは can indicate an entire clause as the subject/context, or mean “that which is _” or “the fact that _”
のが same as のは but more likely to mean “that which is _”
のに same as のは but with an additional “despite” or “even though” nuance
のを is just short for ものを or “things [object]”
なの refers to anything which can be described by whatever precedes it; “things which are _”
での describes a subset or specific instance of something; e.g. “the _ which _ at/with _”
では indicates a situation and context at the same time; often used as a transition like "in that case"
へと is a lot like へ, but has a stronger emphasis on the destination than the journey
への describes a directed subset or specific instance of something;“the _ which _ toward _”. For example, 知事への怒り = "the anger directed at the governor".
だって sometimes just denotes a quote with a だ at the end, but can also act like も, まで or でも with a bit more emphasis
だっけ is probably just short for だってか, but like っけ itself may also mean“was that what it was/called?”
なんて and なんか are sometimes like だって, sometimes like のが and sometimes like とか
Example sentences using these compound particles can be found at the end of the next page.
I exclude most combinations of gobi from this category because they don't have any special grammatical meaning. Though they often have gender or formality connotations, those never affect intent or meaning so you can just learn them gradually through experience.
Next is Essential Vocabulary.