Confusion over は & が

Japanese particles are certainly a headache for most Japanese learners. Many of them – even intermediate level students can still make mistakes in choosing the right particles when they speak.

If you are not familiar with its functions, particles are used to identify parts of speech in the Japanese language. This is because Japanese sentence structure is pretty flexible in terms of word order compared to English sentence structure which requires Subject/Verb/Object in its proper order. The most important rule that you need to abide by is to place the verb at the end of the sentence. Apart from that, you are practically free to arrange your word order depending on which word you want to put more emphasis in your sentence.

But how do we make sense of which word acts as the subject or object if the word order doesn’t matter? Simple. That’s where particles come in handy. Each particle tells you what role the word plays in a sentence, much like a nameplate. If it were not for particles, we would forever be lost in trying to figure out the meaning of the sentence.

I won’t discuss the entire list of particles in this blog post, if you want me to go over each one of them in my future posts, please leave me a request on the comment section.

Today I’d like to focus on the difference between the two infamously confusing particles: Wa and Ga.

So you may already know that Wa is called the topic marker while Ga is called the subject marker. But you may be wondering – what’s the real difference? How do we know when to use which?

Firstly, wa particle is not necessarily used only for marking the subject in the sentence. Like I said earlier, it’s the topic marker which is used to introduce any part of speech, be it the subject or the object or the adverb as the topic of the sentence, followed by the predicate which makes a comment on the topic.

For example, 東京(とうきょう)は、おもしろい街(まち)です。

As for Tokyo, it is an interesting city.

Here the topic and the subject coincide but it’s not always the case.

For example, 朝ごはんは、あまり食べません。

As for breakfast, I rarely eat it.

Here the topic is 朝ごはん (breakfast) but it’s actually the object of the sentence while the subject would be assumed わたし (I).

This omission of the subject happens quite often since Japanese is a type of language that likes to omit something obvious, therefore in a lot of cases the subject gets dropped like in the following sentence:


Here, the subject (わたし = I)is assumed as is often the case with pronouns and demonstratives.

But sometimes, it happens that you want to clarify who/what is the subject of the sentence.

Let’s say, you want to say “He is George”, then you have 2 options:




Both sentences mean “He is George” although there is a subtle difference in meaning.

The first one with the particle WA sounds very neutral and there is no particular emphasis on anything. It sounds like you are just introducing a guy called George.

As for the second sentence using Ga particle, there is a definite emphasis on the subject かれ – as if you are saying “He is the one who is called George and not the other one” kind of nuance. Maybe a new employee at work mistakenly thought you were the person called George, so you are trying to deny it by saying, “no no, he’s George, not me. ” – かれが、ジョージです。

I hope you get the difference now. If you are not intending to put any kind of emphasis on the subject itself for some reason, by default you can mark the subject with wa.

Now you may wonder, when should we use GA instead of WA then?

OK, I’ll tell you when exactly you should use GA.

1. When you want to put a stress on the subject

I explained this already.

2. After a question word

For example, when you want to say “Who did it?”, you would use GA to say: だれ やったの?

For answering this type of question, you would also use GA: わたし やりました。

3. The subject in the subordinate clause

This means, when the sentence is a complex sentence comprised of the main sentence and subordinate clause, the particle WA is usually taken by the subject of the main sentence thus the subject of the subordinate clause would be left to take GA particle instead. This is because usually one sentence can only have one topic. That’s why we rarely see WA particle happening twice in the same sentence.

Ex) 友達(ともだち)来た時、私掃除(そうじ)していました。

I was cleaning when my friend came over.

4. The subject of certain adjectives

Adjectives such as すき/きらい/ほしい/〜たい usually take GA particle.

Ex) お寿司大好きです。

I love Sushi.

This is because the subject in this type of sentence is actually the object in meaning and the real subject (or technically the topic) is assumed. So the full sentence is supposed to be (私、お寿司大好きです).

So if the sentence falls under the above 4 categories, you may pick GA instead of WA.

One more note on WA particle is that it is also used to make a contrast between two subjects.

Ex) 魚(さかな)たべますが、肉(にく)たべません。

I eat fish but I don’t eat meat.

Here the subjects さかな and にく are contrasted against one another.

If you want to know more about Japanese particles, please check out my youtube video below for more info.

I hope this post was helpful. Please leave a comment if you have any further question.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart