Sunday, July 14, 2019

Null Particle

WIP: this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In Japanese, the "null particle," "zero particle," is an invisible, unpronounced, and basically imaginary particle that often replaces the particles wa, ga, wo, and ni, in all sorts of phrases. Literally, it's using "no particle," mu-joshi 無助詞, or just omitting the particle.

For example, in kankei ga aru 関係がある, kankei is marked as the subject by the ga が particle. However, the phrase is often just: kankei aru 関係ある. Since a particle is supposed to come after kankei, but isn't there, we call that the null particle.

Symbolically, the empty set symbol ∅ or the similar-looking Greek letter phi φ is used to refer to the null particle during analysis: kankei φ aru 関係φある, the null particle φ marks kankei.


Linguistically, "particle omission," or "particle ellipsis," implies there was a particle, and it's been omitted from the sentence, so it could always be put back in place without a problem.

This is totally different from a "null particle," which is a whole new particle, that just happens to look exactly like an omitted particle.


Since it's pretty hard to tell one thing apart from the other, some linguists analyze a phrase without a particle as merely omitting a particle, while other linguists analyse it as deliberately using a different (invisible) particle because of its unique, different properties.(Shimojo, 2006)

And maybe sometimes it's one thing, sometimes it's the other thing. Who knows? I don't. So, from here on, I'll just call it the "null particle" because it's easier.

For the record, something marked by the null particle is "null-marked," or "zero-marked" if you call it a zero particle.


The null particle is used in diverse ways in Japanese.

Phrases like koto aru ことある, koto nai ことない, kankei aru 関係ある, kankei nai 関係ない, something aru, something nai, frequently feature the null particle.[萩原由貴子, 2003. 話し言葉における無助詞―形式的側面を中心として― -, accessed 2019-07-09]

They feature it so often that it's often more natural to say kankei aru than to say kankei ga aru. Similarly:
  • ore wa {yatta} koto ga nai
    As for me, {doing} never happened.
    I've never done it.
  • ore wa {yatta} koto φ nai
    (same meaning, more common.)

Another common case is omitting the topic marker, specially when it marks a first person pronoun.
  • ore φ {yatta} koto φ nai
    (also same meaning.)

Sometimes, a short pause is inserted instead of the null particle. In manga and light novels—dialogue lines, speech bubbles, etc.—this is represented by a space.
  • ore, {yatta} koto φ nai
    俺 やったことφない
    (still same meaning.)

Besides topic and subject, the null particle can also replace the direct object:
  • okashi wo taberu ?
    Will [you] eat candy?
  • okashi φ taberu?
    (same meaning.)

And the indirect object:
  • gakkou ni ikanai
    Won't go to school.
  • gakkou φ ikanai
    (same meaning.)


The use of the null particle, or rather, the lack of an actual particle, carries with itself a nuance, or rather, a lack of a nuance.


Dropping the particles is more common in casual speech compared to formal speech.(Tsutsui, 1984, cited in Yatabe, 1999 and Shimojo, 2006)

After all, dropping a particle shortens the sentence, so in a way it's akin to contractions and relaxed pronunciation. The golden rule that long sentences are formal and short sentences are casual apply even in this case.

The lack of particles implies a lack of formality.


The null particle can mark the topic, subject, direct object, or indirect object. There's no way to tell which one it's marking exactly besides guessing. This lack of clear marking introduces a lot of ambiguity.

Consequently, the null particle tends to be used more when it's less ambiguous. This can happen in various ways.(Fry, 2003, cited in Shimojo, 2006)

For example, in longer, more complex sentences, the ambiguity can become very troublesome, so the null particle tends to be used more with shorter sentences.

Proper nouns (names of people, places) and personal pronouns (I, you, he, they) tend to be used as the subject of sentences a lot. Consequently, even if they aren't clearly marked as the subject, it's easy to assume that they are the subject.

Monosyllabic words can be very confusing in speech if not clearly marked, so the null particle tends to be avoided with them.

In Fry's analysis, multisyllabic subjects were null-marked 34% of the time, monosyllabic, 21%. Added to that, null-marking unaccented monosyllabic nouns is less natural than null-marking accented monosyllabic nouns.(Yatabe, 1999)
  • ?ka φ tonderu
    The mosquito is flying.
    • ka 蚊 is unaccented, so it's less natural to null-mark it.
  • me φ itai
    [My] eye hurts.
    • me 目 is accented, so it's more likely to be null-marked.

Two Ga

People tend to avoid using two ga が one after the other, since that would mean you have two subjects and that doesn't make sense.

However, the ga が particle has more than one function. In particular, it has two functions called neutral-description and exhaustive-listing. The latter being able to mark the focus of a sentence. (see wa は vs. ga for further reference.)

Therefore, using two ga が should be perfectly valid if one ga が marks the focus and the other marks the subject. Because then you don't have two subjects. You have one focus and one subject. To elaborate:
  • kanojo wa ashi ga hayai
    Her: legs fast are.
    Her legs are fast.
    She is quick on her feet.
    • kanojo wa - topic.
    • ashi ga hayai - focus.
    • ashi ga - subject.
  • {ashi ga hayai} no wa dare?
    That [which] {the legs fast are}: who?
    The one [whose] {legs are fast} is who?
    Whose legs are fast?
    Who is quick on their feet?
    • ashi ga hayai no wa - topic.
    • dare - focus.
    • ashi ga - still the subject.
  • dare ga ashi ga hayai?
    Who: legs are fast?
    Whose legs are fast?
    Who is quick on their feet?
    • dare ga - focus.
    • ashi ga hayai - topic.
    • ashi ga - yep, still the subject.
  • dare ga ashi φ hayai?
    (same meaning.)
    • dare ga - focus.
    • ashi φ hayai - topic.
    • ashi φ - it's the subject.

As you can see above, ashi ga hayai no wa dare? and dare ga ashi ga hayai? are synonymous. However, in the second sentence we have two ga. To avoid this, the neutral-description ga gets omitted if it comes immediately after an exhaustive-listing ga.

On the other hand, the exhaustive-listing ga が sounds "unnatural" if dropped.(Tsutsui, 1984, cited in Yatabe, 1999)

That's because this focus ga が has an exclusivity nuance. It sounds different from the usual, neutral-description ga が. So, if it's missing, it'll be harder to ignore because its presence exerts a greater effect on the meaning of the sentence. For example:
  • ?dare φ yatta?
    Who did [it]?

The phrase above sounds unnatural because dare isn't marked by the exhaustive-listing ga が. How unnatural it feels varies from person to person, phrase to phrase. However, questions asked with this ga が are normally answered with the same ga が.
  • dare ga yatta?
    Who did [it]?
    • dare ga - focus.
  • ore ga yatta
    I did [it].
    • ore ga - focus.

If someone said dare ga yatta, and someone else answered:
  • ?ore φ yatta
    (same meaning.)

It'd become very obvious that the ga が that was supposed to come after the culprit is missing from the sentence.

To make matters worse, even the neutral-description ga が can sound unnatural if dropped in topic-less, all-focus sentences.(Ono et al., 2000, cited in Shimojo, 2006)

This also known as the "news" ga が, since it answers the question "what happened?" And tends to be used to express something newsworthy.

For example, in games like JRPGs, when a battle starts, you often see the following phrase show up:
  • monsutaa ga arawareta!
    A monster appeared!
    • (nothing) - topic.
    • monsutaa ga arawareta - focus.

This is an neutral-description ga が in an all-focus sentence. It answer the question: what happened? A monster appeared! Therefore, it would be unnatural to omit the ga が particle in the situation above.


In a sense, the null particle is a particle that simply refers to things without adding any extra meaning. Unfortunately, because other particles can add a lot of extra meaning, this absence of effect is the null particle's nuance.

As we've seen above, in "exclusive" and "newsworthy" sentences, the null particle is unnatural. Why? Because those are effects associated with the ga が particle.

The null particle lacks those effects, so using it feels unnatural because it simply doesn't sound like it does what you're trying to do with it.

On the other hand, if you use the ga が particle, in ANY sentence, it can evoke the feeling of either of those two effects. It can, also, be misinterpreted by the hearer as having either of those two effects, even when the speaker doesn't intend for it to have those effects.

As a consequence, the null particle is used instead of ga が when the speaker doesn't want the hearer to think he's trying to evoke the "exclusive" function or the "newsworthy" function in a sentence. For example:
  • kore ga ii desu ne
    This is good, isn't it?
    • Exclusive effect: this thing is particularly good. It's specially good. It's great. Greatest.
  • kore φ ii desu ne
    This is good, isn't it?
    • No effect.

The same thing happens with the wa は particle. It has a second function, which marks the contrastive topic, also known as the contrastive wa, which can be implied practically anywhere.
  • kore wa ii
    This is good.
    • Implicature: not-this is not-good: that is bad, other things are bad.

In order to avoid the implicature that may be evoked by wa は, the particle is omitted, and the topic is null-marked by the null particle.
  • sore φ yabakune?
    Isn't that dangerous?
    Isn't that bad?
    Isn't that amazing?
  • sore wa yabakunai?
    (same meaning.)

Indeed, a lot of times, specially in manga, both particles get omitted, which kind of sucks if you're a beginner trying to figure out how the words related with each other in a sentence.
  • kanojo φ atama φ ii
    (huh...) she... head... good? (what?)
  • kanojo wa atama ga ii
    Her: head is good.
    Her head is good.
    She's smart.


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