Saturday, May 18, 2019

を Particle

WIP : this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In Japanese, the wo を particle has one function: it marks the direct object of the sentence. Which should make it the simplest particle in all Japanese. However, just because it's the simplest one, that doesn't mean it's going to be simple.

To begin with, the wo を particle is also romanized o を. This happens because the wo を particle is pronounced like o お in Japanese.

In this article, as well as in the rest of this blog, it's romanized wo. In other blogs, resources, it may be romanized o. There's no difference: it's the same Japanese, different romaji.

Direct Object Marker

The wo を particle can mark the direct object in a sentence in active voice. The direct object is usually the word receiving the action expressed by the verb.

The ga が particle marks the subject, the agent in active voice, who's doing the action.
  • gorira ga banana wo tabeta
    The gorilla ate the banana.

Note that Japanese, unlike English, doesn't require the subject to be explicit. In fact, most of the time it will be implicit, and must be inferred from context. And you'll only have the wo を particle in the sentence.
  • nihongo wo benkyou shita
    [Someone] studied Japanese.
    [I] studied Japanese.
    [You] studied Japanese.
    [Natalie Portman] studied Japanese.

The ni に particle marks the indirect object of the action.
  • kono kimochi wo kimi ni tsutaeru
    To convey this feeling to you.
    [I'll] convey these feelings to you.

In Passive Voice

In passive voice, the wo を particle tends to be replaced by the ga が particle.

In Japanese, the passive voice is expressed by conjugating the verb of the sentence to its passive form.
  • kuu
    To eat.
    To devour. (active.)
  • kuwareru
    To be eaten.
    To be devoured. (passive.)
  • hito wo kuu
    To eat people. (active voice.)
  • hito ga kuwareru
    People are eaten. (passive voice.)

To understand why this happens, it's necessary to understand a few things.
  1. The patient is the noun that receives the action in a phrase.
  2. In active voice, the patient is the direct object.
  3. In passive voice, the patient is the subject.

In other words, the ga が in passive voice and the wo を in active voice both mark the patient. But in passive voice, the ga が is preferred over the wo を.

Note that, in the passive, ni に marks the agent.
  • hito ga kyojin ni kuwareru
    People are eaten by giants.
    People are eaten by [titans].

Direct Object vs. Patient

Usually, in practice, the direct object and the patient are pretty much the same thing. However, grammatically, they are not.

The patient is the noun that receives the action. This is a semantic definition: it relates to the meaning of the phrase.

The direct object is an argument for the verb. This is a syntactic definition: it relates to the grammar syntax.

The grammar syntax is a set of logical rules that must always make sense somehow. They're solid. Set in stone. But the meaning of the phrase is up to interpretation. So it's more loosely defined.

What's important to know is that, since the direct object is syntactic, the direct object will always be the direct object. That never changes. You can rely on that fact. It's never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you

Whatever is marked by womust be the direct object of the verb.

This happens, in particular, even when the sentence is in passive voice.
  • hito wo kuu
    People (direct object) to eat (active form).
    To eat people (in active voice).
  • hito wo kuwareru
    People (direct object) to eat (passive form).
    To eat people (in passive voice).

Above we have the same noun marked as direct object for the same verb. Therefore, it must be syntactically the same thing: people must be being eaten in both cases, because "people" is an argument for "to eat" in both cases.

But wouldn't that mean "people" is the patient? Well, yes. Which is why ga が is used in passive voice.

However, there are cases where the direct object and the patient are different nouns in a same sentence in Japanese. This is where the difference between the hard syntax of the "direct object" and the soft semantics of the "patient" becomes clear:
  • kare ga kazoku wo kutta
    He ate the family (in active voice).
    He ate [his] family.
    • "He" is the agent.
    • So we interpret that he's doing the action "to eat."
    • We can assume he ate his family, but it could be someone else's family too.
  • kare ga kazoku wo kuwareta
    He (subject patient) family (direct object) to eat (passive form).
    He (subject patient) to eat family (in passive voice).
    [His] family was eaten.
    • "He" is the patient.
    • We interpret the action is being done to him.
    • So "to eat family" is done to him.
    • We assume this family-eating business means that "his" family was eaten, as that makes most sense.

Note that in both cases the thing that was eaten doesn't change, because grammar is solid, but we're forced to interpret and assume how exactly that thing being eaten affects the patient in the second example, because semantics aren't as solid.

Also note that, usually, phrases like this are rare, because you can say the same thing using a possessive no の adjective created by the no の particle instead:
  • kare no kazoku ga kuwareta
    The family of he (subject patient) to eat (passive form).
    His family was eaten.
    • Here, "his family" is being done the action "to eat," so we interpret they were eaten.

The obvious difference between the two is that, with possessive, "his family" becomes the subject, not "he." If you need "he" to be subject for some reason, you wouldn't choose this phrase.

It's also more normal to make it the topic instead:
  • kare wa kazoku ga kuwareta
    He, the family was eaten.
    [His] family was eaten.
    • "The family" is the patient receiving the action of being eaten.
    • "He" is the topic narrowing the scope to which pertains the "family was eaten" fact.

Lastly, although this will rarely happen, the ga, wo, and ni can show up in a single passive sentence all at once:
  • kare ga kazoku wo kyojin ni kuwareta
    He (subject patient) the family (direct object) giants (agent) to kill (passive form).
    He (patient) giants killed the family (in passive voice).
    [His] family was killed by giants.
    [His] family was killed by [titans].

Disparity with English

The wo を particle consistently marks the direct object in Japanese grammar. However, that doesn't mean it will translate to English as the direct object.

Nouns Becoming verbs

For example, consider the following phrase:
  • kotae 答え
    Answer. (noun.)
  • mochigaeru 間違える
    "To wrong."
    To get wrong.
  • kotae wo machigaeru
    "To wrong the answer." (literally.)
    To get the answer wrong.
    To answer wrong.

Above, although, literally, the phrase should have been "to wrong the answer," nobody speaks that way in English. So the two words switched places: "to answer wrong."

Passing Through

Another case is that wo を can be used with verbs that express movement to indicate where the subject is moving "on" or "through." For example:
  • michi wo aruku
    "To walk the street."
    To walk on the street.
  • michi wo aruite gakkou ni iku
    To walk the street to go to the school.

This often happens with tooru 通る, "to pass through."
  • michi wo tooru
    To pass through the street.
  • denki ga shinzou wo tootta
    Electricity passed through [his] heart.

That's the same verb as of keikaku doori 計画通り, by the way.

The word tooru is intransitive. It has a transitive counterpart, toosu 通す, which can mean "to pass something through something else."
  • hashira ni densen wo toosu
    To pass electric-lines through the pillar.
    To pass electric cables through the pillar.

It's often used in idioms, like:
  • shurui ni me wo toosu
    To pass [one's] eyes through the documents.
    [To take a look at] the documents.

Which works just like you'd expect, except when it doesn't.

In the te-form, -wo tooshite ~を通して, it connects "with what" the clause after it is done. In other words, "through what" something is achieved. For example:
  • doryoku wo tooshite seikou suru
    "To pass effort through" to success.
    To succeed through effort.
  • manga wo tooshite nihongo wo manabu
    "To pass manga through" to learn Japanese.
    To learn Japanese through manga.

Replaced by ga

Sometimes, the wo を particle is replaced by the ga が particle. This can happen for various reasons.

One of the reasons is when we have a sentence in passive voice. But we already learned about that earlier in this article. So we're going to talk about the other reason this happen.


A transitive verb is one that can take an object, someone does something, while an intransitive verb only has a subject, someone just does, and it stops there.

One example in English are the verbs "to rise," which's intransitive, and "to raise," which's transitive. They translate to agaru 上がる and ageru 上げる respectively.

Note that, if "you raised the volume," the volume is the object, but if "the volume has risen," the volume is the subject. The same applies to Japanese, where ga が replaces wo を if the transitivity changes.
  • onryou wo ageru
    To raise the sound-volume.
  • onryou ga agaru
    The sound-volume rises.

Dummy Subject

In some cases, an intransitive verb in Japanese is translated to a transitive verb in English. One way to notice is by the pronoun "it." Japanese doesn't have the pronoun "it," so if you find an "it" in the English translation, know that it didn't come from Japanese.
  • okane ga kakaru
    "Money costs."
    [It] costs money.

Stative Verbs

Another case is that some verbs in Japanese do not describe an action that's taking place, but, instead, a quality of the subject. For example, that it "is understood" or "is seen."

Since such verbs, called stative verbs, describe qualities, they're akin to adjectives. And with subjects you only mark the subject, with ga が. Therefore, the same thing happens with stative verbs:
  • sore ga wakaru
    That "is understood."
    [I] understand that.
  • sore ga mieru
    That "is seen."
    [I] can see that.

Verbs Becoming Adjectives

A rather bizarre case is when you have a verb in English that translates to a literal adjective in Japanese. Such is the case of the following two words:
  • neko ga suki
    Cats "are liked."
    [I] like cats.
  • inu ga kirai
    Dogs "are disliked."
    [I] dislike dogs.

Potential Form

The potential form, "is able to," also changes the transitivity of the verb.
  • manga wo yomu
    To read manga.
    [I] read manga.
  • manga ga yomeru
    Manga "is able-to-read."
    Can read manga.
    [I] can read manga.

Auxiliary Adjectives

Auxiliary adjectives attached to the noun form (a.k.a masu stem, conjunctive form, ren'youkei 連用形) effectively turn the verb into an adjective, and with adjectives you only use ga が.
  • manga ga yomitai
    Manga "is want-to-read."
    [I] want to read manga.
  • manga ga yomiyasui
    Manga "is easy-to-read."

Sentence-Ending Particle

Like literally any particle in Japanese, wo を can end up at the end of a sentence for some reason.

By Dislocation

The speaker can dislocate the direct object to the end of the sentence.

Although the order of the subject, direct object, and indirect object tend to be pretty much always the same in Japanese, there's no requirement for one to come before the other. As long as you properly mark the direct object with wo を, it's the direct object, even if it comes after the verb.
  • kare wo shinjiru
    To believe him.
  • shinjiru, kare wo
    To believe, him.

This is an unusual phrase, but it can happen to put emphasis on the direct object, by making it be the last thing uttered.

By Omission

The wo を particle can be the last thing of the sentence if the verb is either omitted or implied.

Fortunately, I've got a pretty good example of this, so I don't need to come up with anything:
  • Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo!
    Blessings (direct object) to This Wonderful Word !

In the title of pretty much the only good isekai ever made above, wo を marks shukufuku 祝福, "blessings," as the direct object for the verb.


In such cases, you'll have to imagine a verb that fits that direct object. As we already know, the direct object is always the direct object, so no matter what verb it's supposed to be shukufuku must be the direct object of it. For example:
  • Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo Iu
    To Tell Blessings to This Wonderful World. (eh, this makes no sense.)
  • Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo Meeru Suru
    To E-Mail Blessings to This Wonder World. (hmm....)
  • Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo Benkyou Saseru
    To Make This Wonderful World Learn Blessings. (this ain't it either.)
    To Let This Wonderful World Learn Blessings. (nope.)
  • Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo Ataeru
    To Bestow Blessings to This Wonderful World. (finally!)

As you can see, after just four tries we were able to guess a verb that completes the sentence.


The wo を particle can be combined with the no の particle when it acts as a nominalizer, turning adjectives and verbs into nouns, forming the compound nowo のを.

Not to be confused with OwO which has nothing to do with Japanese.

Some examples of how it's used:
  • oishii keeki wo tabeta
    [I] ate a delicious cake.
  • oishii no wo tabeta
    [I] ate the delicious one.
  • isha wo yameta
    [I] gave up [being] a doctor.
  • benkyou suru no wo yameta
    [I] gave up the act [that is] "to study."
    [I] gave up studying.

Note that you can have only one wo を particle per clause, since each clause only has one verb, and each verb can only have on direct object. However, you can have two wo を particles in a phrase if they are in different clauses.

The nominalizer no の is syntactically a noun. Whatever comes before it is a relative clause. So whenever you have nowo のを you have at least two clauses.
  • nihongo wo benkyou suru no wo yameta
    [I] gave up the act [that is] "to study Japanese."
    [I] gave up studying Japanese.

Above we have two clauses, two verbs¹, and two direct objects²:
  • (clause) no wo² yameta¹
    Gave up¹ (clause)².
  • nihongo wo² benkyou suru¹
    To study¹ Japanese².

As usual, when the predicative da だ copula is part of a relative clause, it becomes an attributive copula, the na な particle, and when it qualifies the no の nominalizer you get the compound nano なの, combined with the direct object marker you get nanowo なのを.
  • uso da

    To be a lie.
  • sore ga uso da
    That is a lie.
  • sore ga uso na no wo shitteiru
    [I] know [that] "that is a lie."

1 comment:

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  1. Nice article!
    I would add that を used in causative (when the verb is intransitive, and when "made" meaning prevail over "let" meaning).
    Similarly (though unexpectedly) you may find 何を in questions with intransitive verbs in the meaning of "why". Though 何で is obvious choice, 何を implies some nuamces.