Every language is different, and each one has its idiosyncrasies. The more languages you study and familiarize yourself with, the more this becomes apparent. This is not something you have to be a polyglot for, but just part of the fun of learning other languages. In the case of Japanese, the biggest idiosyncrasy I have come across is the system of particles.
Particles in Japanese (and Korean language, iirc) are the language’s answer to determine who did what, where and how. While this is very different from Western languages, it practice it basically does the same thing that inflections and conjugations do in languages like ancient Greek or Sanskrit, or word-order does in English. Different systems, same outcome. Particles have no intrinsic meaning; they cannot stand alone. However, if they’re attached to end of the word they’re affecting, it takes on a new meaning. Some common examples:
- book + は (wa) / が (ga) – The book (does something or is something).¹
- book + を (wo) – Something “does” the book (e.g. direct object).
- book + に (ni) – Something “targets” the book.²
- book + で (de) – “With the book” (e.g. “instrumental case” for grammarians)
- book + の (no) – “The book’s …” (possessive)
- book + も (mo) – “The book too …” (inclusive list)
But, the devil’s in the details. For example, English has lots of small, unwritten rules about what to use here, but not there (e.g. when to use preposition X vs. Y). Native speakers just intuitively learn these, but people learning English as a second language just have to slowly grind their way through and learning these subtleties over time. In Japanese, the same thing happens with particles. These little usage rules are too numerous to memorize as a grammar exercise, they’re things you just kind of learn through time and grinding.
Take the common verb hanasu (話す, to speak). The usage that I knew of was (person) + と + 話す which means “to talk with (person)”. However, as I learned recently in the excellent textbook Japanese From Zero! 3 (originally published by Yesjapan.com), there are other common usages:
- (person) + と + 話す – to talk to (person)
- (topic) + の + こと + を + 話す – to talk about (topic)
This isn’t the only example where particles can tweak the meaning of a verb. Another common example is 出る (deru, “to come out”):
- (place) + を + 出る – to leave (place)
- (TV show) + に + 出る – to appear on (TV show)
- (object) + が + 出る – (object) comes out.
…this is not a comprehensive overview, but you can see how the particles really make a difference. Similarly in English, the difference between “think of”, “think about” and “think up” is subtle, but each one is different.
Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, this is not something you can really memorize grammar rules for. There’s just too many exceptions, examples, etc. Instead, it helps to read actual Japanese sentences and use the cloze method for any Japanese flash-cards you make, such as through Anki SRS:
This helps isolate the particles needed, and get a feel for what’s correct and what’s not.
P.S. Suggestion reading on particles are Tae Kim’s excellent Guide to Japanese and tofugu.com’s cheatsheet.
¹ は (wa) and が (ga) are much too complicated to go into depth. The easiest way to think of it is that “wa” just sets the topic of conversation, while the “ga” particle specifically answers the “who” “what” or “which” question only. They’re often used in the same sentence as a result.
² Credit for this term goes to Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese. Sometimes に (ni) is wrongly translated as a “location/time” particle, but this is misleading in a lot of examples. It’s not the direct object, but it is being targetted by the verb for some other reason. For example (but not always) an indirect object. Some verbs just take に no matter what.
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