は (wa) - Topic Particle Japanese

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は (wa) - Topic Particle Japanese

は is a particle which is used to indicate the topic of the sentence.

The particle は is generally one of the first grammar topics you learn in Japanese. This is because は is very useful and found in almost all sentences encountered in the Japanese language.

This particle can be confusing for 2 main reasons:

  • The concept of "topic" of a sentence is typical of the Japanese language
  • The particle は can be confused with the particle が, which instead indicates the subject of the sentence

Let's now look at the は particle in more details with various examples to understand its meaning and usage.

The topic particle is the Hiragana character 「は」. Although this character is usually pronounced /ha/, is only pronounced /wa/ when used as an topic particle

は・ "topic" particle of the sentence

What does it mean that は indicates "the topic" of the sentence? What does the phrase "topic" mean in Japanese? What is the difference with the subject?

The particle は is used to indicate what we are talking about, and is needed to specify the context of the speech.

When we say (A) は (B) it is as if we give a "title" to the speech: We are talking about (A)

In this way we clarify to our interlocutors what is the topic or context around what we are about to say in the part (B) of the sentence.

Since in (A) は (B) the particle は indicates what we are talking about, it is necessary that the argument (A) is known by all the interlocutors ("We are talking about (A)") everyone must know what (A) is. If (A) is not clear, then use the particle が

Why do we need to clarify the context of the sentence?

When we interact with someone there is some information that we take for granted that everyone knows and other information that is new.

Sometimes it is necessary to specify what we are talking about to make the speech understandable. For example, if we wanted to talk about the weather and say: It rains but then the sun will come out, our interlocutor could answer Sorry, When it is?.

In this sentence there is no context: one can guess that we are talking about the weather, but other doubts remain. For example: when are you referring to?, why are you telling me about the weather?, where is this weather you are talking about?.

  • The new information is: it's raining, but the sun will come out
  • The information needed to understand this new information is: When? Where is it? Why?

A clearer and more complete sentence is: Later I am going for a walk, as it is raining here right now, but then the sun will come out. This sentence has a lot more information about the context:

  • I talk about the weather because it is relevant to the fact that I want to take a walk
  • Specifically, I'm talking about the weather "here" (I assume that my interlocutor already knows what I mean when I refer to "here")
  • I'm talking about now, "right now"
The purpose of the particle は is precisely to clarify this outline information to make the speech understandable

How to use the は particle

Let's see a specific example to understand how the は particle is used:

その
()(ごと)
(わたし)
します。

As for that job, I will do it.

Difference between particle は and particle が

This sentence contains both the particle は (topic) and the particle が (subject). Let's try to break down the sentence to understand the meaning.

(わたし)
します。

I will do.

If we remove the particle は we notice how we are missing the context of the sentence: I'm saying that I will do something, but what? What am I talking about?

If the context is missing, the sentence becomes incomprehensible. If instead we remove the particle が:

その
()(ごと)
します。

As for that job, (it) will do.

Again the sentence is confusing. The topic is the job, but who is doing what to the job? Who will do the job (します)?

This example shows us how both は and が are needed in this sentence, and that the two particles fulfill two different roles

The role of the particle は

Returning to the complete example:

その
()(ごと)
(わたし)
します。

As for that job, I will do it.

The particle は is used to indicate that, of all people, I specifically will do the job.

The particle therefore serves to "give a title" to the sentence: now we are talking about that job, as far as that job is concerned, I will do it (only that job, I don't know the others).

It is clear that ()(ごと) (job) is not the subject of the sentence, but the topic, and how subject and topic are two distinct concepts

When は and が are similar?

The particles は and が can be confused if the subject is the same as the topic.

A simple and classic example is when we introduce ourselves:

(わたし)
トム
だ。

As far as I'm concerned, I'm Tom.

In this example we can see how the topic (わたし) and the subject are the same (I).

We could also complete the sentence by adding the particle が:

(わたし)
(わたし)
トムだ。

As far as I'm concerned, I'm Tom.

In this and many other similar cases it is easy to confuse the subject and the topic, which causes confusion between は and が.

Remember that the subject can also change:

(わたし)
(かれ)
トム
だ。

As far as I'm concerned, he is Tom.

The subject here is different ((かれ) he), but the argument remains the same. In this case, は specifies that in my opinion / as for me he is Tom.

When は is omitted

Remember that the purpose of は is to specify the context of the sentence.

When the sentence context is clear to everyone or has already been specified with は previously, then it is not necessary to specify it again with は

This is the case where the particle は is omitted. If は is not present, then the topic must have been explained previously.

For this reason, it is not always possible to accurately translate a sentence in isolation, without the context of the preceding sentences

Example of は in a real context

In a real dialogue, the context is specified only at the beginning, and is omitted once defined. Let's see an example:

ボブ:アリス
(がく)(せい)

Bob: Are you a student, Alice?

アリス:うん、
(がく)(せい)

Alice: Yes, I'm a student.

As we can see, in the answer Alice does not use the particle は to specify again that she is talking about. This is because the topic, that is, the fact that we are talking about Alice, has already been specified by Bob previously.

Alice could also have used は, but the speech would have been unnatural:

ボブ:アリス
(がく)(せい)

Bob: Are you a student, Alice?

アリス:うん、
(わたし)
(がく)(せい)

Alice: Yes, as far as I'm concerned, I'm a student.

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