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I thought if you say "I don't smoke cigarettes" that would be "[Watashi wa] tabako o suimasen". But I just saw something that said it would be "tabako wa suimasen". Are they interchangable? Is there a difference?

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People also say 私はタバコは吸いません, with two はs. – snailplane Oct 8 '13 at 4:18
が can be replaced by は when emphasizing – Lưu Vĩnh Phúc Oct 8 '13 at 5:28
up vote 4 down vote accepted

There are actually three options.

  1. [タバコを吸いません]{LLLLLLLLL}
    tobacco-OBJ smoke-NEG-POLITE
    "I don't smoke tobacco."

  2. [タバコは吸いません]{LLLLLLLLL}
    tobacco-TOP smoke-NEG-POLITE
    "I don't smoke tobacco."

  3. [タバコは吸いません]{LLLHLLLLL}
    tobacco-CON smoke-NEG-POLITE
    "I don't smoke tobacco, (but I do smoke something else)."

1 and 2, (marking タバコ with the object marker and topic marker, respectively), are semantically the same.

However, 3 (marking タバコ with the contrastive marker, which is also は but has a raised pitch) has the implication that you smoke something else.

So, to answer your question, for a transitive verb, marking the object with を or は both always work (assuming that you aren't constructing an embedded clause), but depending on how は is pronounced, it can potentially have the contrastive meaning.

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"assuming that you aren't constructing an embedded clause"... well since we're on the subject, how would the sentence look if that was the case (in an embedded sentence)? – dotnetN00b Oct 8 '13 at 4:29
(2) is not possible in an embedded clause, (1) and (3) are. That means you need to use を if you don't want the contrastive reading. – Darius Jahandarie Oct 8 '13 at 4:37
And while I'm at it, the example @snailboat gave, 私はタバコは吸いません is using the contrastive marker to mark タバコ (because after the first は, following はs must be contrastive). – Darius Jahandarie Oct 8 '13 at 4:45
I disagree with your pitch on #3. タバコはすいません【HHHLLLLLL】 to emphasize "tobacco" (just as you did with the italics in the English) seems more correct. But maybe that's a regional thing. – istrasci Oct 8 '13 at 17:16
I found a couple of articles that talk about stressing the contrastive marker は. I've heard it this way but I can't say if that's the same as raised pitch, as I am not a native speaker. jlptbootcamp.com/2012/02/japanese-particles-the-contrastive-wa phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/reiko/Proceedings-WAFL5.pdf – user3169 Oct 8 '13 at 20:05

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