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Japanese Particles Introduction - What are Particles & How do They Work?

Monday, July 31, 2017
One important piece of the Japanese grammar is the use of the "particles," or joshi 助詞, and that might sound weird to people who just started learning Japanese. After all, what are particles? Are there particles in English or something like it? And how do the particles work? This article will try to answer these questions and give a summary about the particles of the Japanese language.

To begin with, let's understand what particles are not. Particles are not nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, prepositions, interjections, or basically anything else you can find in the English language. Though English might have some particles (I guess?), it's better to think about Japanese particles as something that doesn't fit in English grammar model and has absolutely no English equivalent at all.

What Particles Look Like

Most particles are just one single syllable of length, like ga が, wo を, ni に, ka か, no の and na な. Some particles are two syllables, like yori より and kara から. And a few are three syllables, like bakari ばかり and nagara ながら.

One special thing about the particles is that wa は and e へ are written with the kana ha は and he へ, but are pronounced in modern Japanese as wa わ and e え. This sounds like it's easy to forget, but trust me it is not. You get used to it. It's also very easy telling apart the wa は particle from a normal ha は syllable.

Finding Particles in Phrases

The particles are present in practically every phrase of the Japanese language. They are always written with hiragana, never with kanji, and they are used mostly to connect words and parts of a phrase to each other.

In most cases the first hiragana after a kanji is a particle. Exceptions exist. Sometimes the kanji is part of a verb or adjective, so the hiragana right after it is actually its inflection. Other times the hiragana is a separate word entirely, usually a common adverb or verb not written with kanji.

Japanese particles and hiragana in a text - a diagram showing their distribution and frequency. Text extracted from the light novel Knight's & Magic ナイツ&マジック

It's very easy to tell apart particles from adjective inflections and verb conjugations. Those always follow patterns that rarely overlap with syllables that are particles. For example, rareta られた is a common inflection, but there are no particles that start with ra ら, re れ or ta た.

On the other hand, it's possible to mistake as a particle a word written with just hiragana. Normally, such words are few, so there is no problem. However, some texts labelled for beginners deliberately avoid using kanji, writing all words with hiragana. Ironically, since that makes it easier to mistake the particles, those texts can turn out to be harder to read than if they were written normally with kanji and furigana.

There are some words that are actually combinations of one word and one particle, like nani ka 何か, you ni 様に, de aru である, and others. It's important to note that dictionaries usually have one entry for the original word and one for the combination because the particle changes the meaning of the original word so much it's like if it was a new word entirely. For example, nani 何 means "what," but nanika 何か means "something."

Particles... Sort of?

A number of "particles" are not really "particles" but "idk-what-this-is-so-I-guess-they-are-sort-of particles."

The best example for this is the word de aru である. Whether de で is a particle or not in that word is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. I'm 100% sure aru ある is a verb, though. But de で can be a conjugation of the copula desu です... except desu です is a contraction of de arimasu であります, which is actually conjugation of de aru である, so we go back to what we started with. We can escape this circular logic bullshit by remembering that de で is originally a contraction of the particle nite にて... so... uh.... it's probably a particle...? Since it comes from a particle? But it's also a conjugation of the copula made from an expression containing the particle? And that means it's not a particle, but an abbreviated copula...? WHICH ONE IS IT?!?!?!?!? IS A COPULA A PARTICLE?!?!?! HOW DO YOU CLASSIFY THIS THING?!?!?!??!1

Alright, I'll be honest. I have no fucking idea.

If you ever find yourself wondering whether something is a particle or not, remember: in the end, it doesn't even matter. You can understand the meaning of words without knowing how to classify them. Don't worry about it.

Particles in Katakana

Sometimes common words like yatsu 奴, "[the] guy (or thing)," are written with hiragana, yatsu やつ, and sometimes they end up being written with katakana, yatsu ヤツ. Although this can happen with a lot of words, such thing does not usually happen with particles.

It's not normal to write particles with katakana. Sometimes authors will write a character's dialogue in katakana because his voice is weird or something, but even then they leave the particles in hiragana. This happens mostly because it's difficult to tell where a word starts and where it ends if the entire text is in katakana.

Of course, not all authors follow this rule. In rare cases the particles all end up being written in katakana, and you end up struggling to read it right.

Particles written in katakana spoken by the character 3 freeze from the manga JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken ジョジョの奇妙な冒険

Function, Meaning & Translation

Each particle has a different function in the Japanese grammar. Some are similar, some are of the same type, but they are all mostly unique. There are also some that vary only slightly in nuance and take some time to figure out, akin to how people learning English have trouble differentiating "for" from "to."

Just one post can't teach you how all of them work, so instead I'll show how you a sample of how changing a particle can change a phrase.
  • neko ga taberu 猫が食べる
    The cat eats.
  • neko wo taberu 猫を食べる
    Eat the cat.

As we can see above, changing the ga が particle to the wo を particle drastically changes the translation of the phrase in English despite only changing the Japanese phrase slightly.

This happens because when we use the ga particle we are saying neko is the grammar subject, but when we use wo particle we are saying neko is the direct object.

There is no word in English used to appoint which word is the subject and which word is the direct object. English grammar relies on the position of the word to determine this. When the word is before the verb, "cat eats," the word is the subject. When the word is after the verb, "eats cat," the word is the direct object. And if there is a preposition, "eats for cat," then it's an indirect object.

Because of this and other reasons, most Japanese particles can't be exactly translated to English. They don't have an equivalent word in the English language. However, there are indeed some particles that can be translated sometimes. For example:
  • hito no neko 人の猫
    Person's cat.
  • hito to neko 人と猫
    Person and cat.

The particles above do have an equivalent English word. But even so, their translation varies according to the context.
  • kare no neko 彼の猫
    His cat.
  • neko to asobu 猫と遊ぶ
    Play with cats.

Effect Direction

In general, Japanese particles affect what comes before them, not after, and this is completely different from how English works.

For example, in English we say "from zero," and the preposition "from" affects the word after it, "zero." In Japanese, the same phrase would be zero kara ゼロから, and the particle kara から affects the word before it, zero ゼロ.

A noticeable, convenient side-effect of this is that: in manga, light novels, visual novels, games, etc., long lines of texts are sometimes broken right after a particle to make it easier to read This happens because the particle has effect on what is right before it, so it's more convenient if we keep the particle in the same line as the word it affects.

Particles and line wrapping in Japanese grammar, as shown in the manga JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken ジョジョの奇妙な冒険

Lines are also usually wrapped after the verb of a subordinate clause. In short speech bubbles, long inflected words like tabemasendeshita 食べませんでした can get broken by affix: 食べ・ません・でした.

Particles with Multiple Functions

Some particles (and by some I mean many) have multiple functions instead of a single one. For example, ga が can be both a case-marking particle and a conjunctive particle. See:
  • yasui ga ichiban 安いが一番
    Cheap is best.
  • yasui ga, tsukai-nikui 安いが、使いにくい
    Cheap, but hard to use.

Technically, we are talking about two different particles that use the same syllable, ga が. There is one ga が, and other ga が, and they mean different things. But in practice that doesn't even matter either. Just pretend it's a single particle with multiple functions and go with it.

The important thing to know is that, as you learn Japanese and learn how to use the particles, you'll encounter some cases where a particle you know how to use is used in a way that doesn't make any sense to you. In these cases, it's most likely a different function that the particle has and you are still not familiar with. That is, what you have already learned about the particle is not wrong, it's just that there's more to learn about.

Anyway, now you know what the particles are like in Japanese. Next time I'll write about how to use them.

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