Monday, July 31, 2017


In Japanese grammar, "particles,", or joshi 助詞, are the basis of a very large part of the Japanese language, however, they're also a very alien concept to a lot of people learning Japanese. In this article, I'll explain what are particles and how they work in Japanese.


The first thing to understand about particles is that particles aren't even really particles.

Some particles are actually nominalizers or light nouns. Some particles are actually copulas. Some particles are actually clitic morphemes, suffixes.

Different linguists have different analyses of what is a particle and what is not a particle in Japanese, so some things that aren't called particles by some end up being particles according to others.

The term "particle" ends up being just a catch-all term used by learners, teachers, and resources for these mysterious things you put after words.

Some examples of particles include: ga, wo, ni, wa, e へ, ka か, no, na, ne ね, wa わ, yo よ, zo ぞ, to と, ya や, de で, yori より, kara から, made まで, nite にて, bakari ばかり, and nagara ながら.

In general, particles don't have kanji and are written with hiragana, although exceptions exist.

The particles wa は, e へ, wo を are pronounced different from what you'd expect. Normally, the first two kana are read as ha は and he へ. They're read like wa わ and e え when they're particles. The wo を sounds just like o お, so it's also romanized as o を by some authors.

Some beginners have trouble telling apart wa は from ha because they start by reading text made for learning Japanese, which is written without kanji. That makes it harder to tell the words apart, which is why I recommend to go read text with furigana instead.

Normally, only certain things are written with hiragana in Japanese—particles, inflections, okurigana, adverbs, mimetic words, kosoado words, auxiliaries, copulas—and everything else is written with katakana or kanji, so you'll rarely see a ha は that's not the wa は particle.

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 particles apart from adjective and verb inflections. Those always follow certain patterns and rarely overlap. 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.

In Katakana

Sometimes, you may find a particle written with katakana instead of hiragana. This is highly unusual, and basically only happens because of aesthetics: you have a character that speaks weirdly, maybe it's a robot, so they speak in katakana rather than normally.

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

In Kanji

An even more unusual case are particles spelled with kanji. When this happens, it's an ateji: spelling a word with different characters that are read the same way in other words.
  • 〇〇 yori ×× san e
    From 〇〇 to ××-san.
    • yotou
      Ruling party. (government.)
    • rieki
    • sansei
      Agreement. (note: san is a honorific, not a particle.)
    • Edo
      Tokyo's old name.


All particles affect words that come before them. In other words, they're postpositions: they're placed after the word they affect. This contrasts with English prepositions, that come before the word they affect.
  • zero kara
    From zero.
  • saigo made
    Until the end.

Above, both "from" and "until" come before the words they govern in English. The Japanese equivalents, the particles kara and made, come after the word they govern.

What particles govern isn't necessarily a single word. It can be a whole phrase that contains particles inside of it.
  • {kare ga umareta} hi kara
    From the day {he was born}.

A particle can also govern another particle which governs something else, forming a compound particle.
  • {watashi ni dekiru} koto
    Something [that] {[I] can do}.
  • watashi ni wa dekinai
    I can't do [it].
  • {dekiru} no ni wa riyuu ga aru
    There's a reason [why] {[I] can do [it]}.
  • {watashi mitai na} no ni wa muri datta
    It was impossible for someone [that] {is like me}.

Particles can even join a whole clause that comes before it to the next one.
  • {kyou wa samui} no de
    soto ni detakunai

    今日寒いので 外出たくない
    Because {today is cold},
    [I] don't want to go outside.

Particles can join what comes before and after into a single noun phrase.
  • watashi to kimi

    Me and you.
  • watashi ka kimi ka

    Whether me or you.
  • watashi mo kimi mo

    Me and you too.
  • watashi no kazoku
    The family of me.
    My family.

For all these reasons, you'll see that particles are often the last thing before a line wraps.

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: tabe-masen-deshita 食べ・ません・でした.

Not all authors have the basic decency or wrapping lines right. Some texts can wrap in the middle of words, or start lines with a particle, and so on.


Most particles can't be translated to English. They don't mean anything that can be translated as a word. Instead, they express a grammatical function that can be translated to English through syntax, or even a nuance that can't be easily translated to English at all.

Case-Marking Particles

The "case-marking particles," kaku-joshi 格助詞, are particles that mark the grammatical "case" of a word. There are various kinds of cases, but the most common ones are subject and object, which are marked by the particles ga が and wo を respectively.
  • neko ga nezumi wo tabeta
    The cat ate the rat.

Above, English uses the syntax, the pattern "subject-verb-object," to determine what words fill what arguments of the verb. Japanese, on the other hand, marks the subject and object with particles to express what are their role in the sentence.

The purpose of these particles becomes clear in sentences that are missing one argument or another, which is pretty much most sentences you'll find in Japanese.
  • neko ga tabeta
    The cat ate [something].
  • nezumi wo tabeta
    [Something] ate the rat.

Above, "[something]" is the object in the first sentence and the subject in the second sentence. That's because there's nothing marked as subject or object in those sentences, but we know that if "the cat ate," then the cat must have eaten "something," and the same applies to the second sentence.

Binding Particles

The "binding particles," or kakari-joshi 係助詞, are particles that mark what the whole sentence is about. This sense overlaps with the concept of topic, and, indeed, the topic-marker wa は is one of the binding particles.
  • neko wa kawaii
    Cats are cute.

Another such particle is mo も. It works the same way as wa は, but it has an inclusive nuance: just like the other, this, too, is somehow.
  • inu mo kawaii
    Dogs, too, are cute.

Listing Particles

The listing particles, parallel markers, or "lining particles," heiritsu-joshi 並立助詞, are particles that create noun phrases by joining a list of items in parallel.

The simplest one is to と, which easily translates to "and."
  • aka to ao

    Red and blue.

A more difficult one is ya や, that's used in non-exhaustive listing. That is, when the things you've listed are an incomplete sample of everything you're talking about.
  • okane ya jinmyaku
    Money, personal connections, and other stuff like that.

Above, we're incompletely listing the things you need to be the villain in an anime set in modern day Japan: they use their power, their money, personal connections, and whatever other resources a kingpin would have, to do bad things to good people.

Adverbial Particles

The "adverbial particles," or fuku-joshi 副助詞, modify the words they're attached to.
  • gakkou made iku
    To go up to the school. (and not beyond.)
    To go even up to the school. (and not any less.)
  • shinu hodo kowakatta
    It was scary to the point of dying.
    It was so scary [I] could've died.

Conjunctive Particles

The "conjunctive particles," setsuzoku-joshi 接続助詞, express a relationship between two parts of a phrase.
  • atsui kara oyoida
    It's hot so [I] swam.

Many of these come after verbs, so they're often just treated like they're part of the conjugation.
  • asobinagara manabu
    To study while having fun.
  • hito wa korosarereba shinu
    As for people, if are killed die.
    People die when they're killed.

Sentence-Ending Particles

The "sentence-ending particles," or shuu-joshi 終助詞, are particles that come at the end of the sentence and affect the nuance of the entire sentence.
  • muzukashii desu ka?
    Is it difficult?

This is the trickiest type to learn because it's often a matter of nuance. In the sentence above, for example, the ka か particle adds a nuance of question.

In English, we achieve the same thing through subject-verb inversion:
  • It is difficult.
  • Is it difficult?

That doesn't mean we can't say this with a questioning intonation:
  • It is difficult?

Similarly, the ka か particle isn't necessary to ask a question.
  • muzukashii ne?
    It's difficult, huh?
  • muzukashii yo!
    It's difficult!
  • muzukashii ze
    (same translation.)
  • muzukashii zo
    (same translation.)

Note: any particle can end up in the end of the sentence if you deliberately say it last. The term "sentence-ending" is merely a category for particles that are normally used at the end of the sentence.

Female Particles

Some sentence-ending particles are part of female language, and are used predominantly by women in Japanese.
  • muzukashii kashira?
    Is it difficult?
  • muzukashii wa!
    It is difficult!

The separation isn't as exact as you'd like. You can find men using the wa わ particle too. It's simply said that most of the time it's women who speak like this and not men as a cultural thing.

これだわ, これだぜ quote from manga School Rumble.

Copula Particles

Some particles can also be analyzed as copulas that add their own subordinate clauses to a sentence.
  • kirei da
    Is pretty.
    • Predicative copula.
  • {kirei na} hito
    A person [that] {is pretty}.
    A pretty person.
    • Attributive copula
  • {kirei ni} naru
    To become so [it] {is pretty}.
    To become pretty.
    • Adverbial copula.

Not all linguists analyse them like this, but I prefer it because it makes more sense in my head.

Noun Particles

Some particles are actually nouns as far as syntax is concerned. They work exactly like nouns, but, unlike normal nouns, they don't mean anything. They're nominalizers that serve only syntactical purpose.
  • {benkyou suru} no ga kirai da
    The act [that is] {to study} is disliked.
    [I] dislike {studying}.

Particles with Multiple Functions

A particle doesn't necessarily have only one single function. In fact, a good number of them have multiple functions, and each function can easily fall under a different category.

For example, the ga が particle is also conjunctive, translating to "but."
  • yasui ga oishii
    Cheap but delicious.

Functions with Multiple Particles

Some functions can be expressed by multiple particles. The no の particle can mark the subject in a relative clause just like ga が.
  • {watashi ga yonda} hon
    The book [that] {I read}.
  • {watashi no yonda} hon
    (same meaning.)

Some particles are casual variants of other particles. For example, tte って is a casual variant of the quoting to と. A single n ん is a variant of the nominalizer no の.
  • ureshii no da
    [I'm] happy.
  • ureshii-n-da
    (same meaning.)

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