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I originally asked in the chatroom which out of the two phrases is better:

PlaceにThingがありますか?

or

ThingがPlaceにありますか?

If anyone can translate these to make them relevant in English, it would be welcomed by all means.

Darius Jahandarie suggested some examples to make sense of what I'm talking about:

学校{がっこう}に子供{こども}たちがいますか?

VS

子供{こども}たちが/は学校{がっこう}にいますか?

As well as:

ロンドンに山{やま}がありますか?

VS

山{やま}がロンドンにありますか?

Is there anyone who can explain the difference, and possibly where the appropriate place to use both of them is?

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1  
I actually think my explanation is incorrect, so you may want to change your question to not include those translations. –  Darius Jahandarie Dec 17 '13 at 0:05
1  
I would phrase "are the children at school" as 子供たち学校にいますか。. If the children are the children, they must already exist in the universe of discourse, and you are describing some already known noun. In this case the topical case should be used. –  user54609 Dec 17 '13 at 0:17
1  
@user54609 は isn't usually considered a case marker. –  snailboat Dec 17 '13 at 3:17
    
It does mark case, thus, it is a case marker. It might be a suffix/clitic/particle/auxiliary/whatever, and that is subject to debate, but it does mark case. –  user54609 Dec 17 '13 at 14:55

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's an information structure and presentation question. The first constituent is typically topic, and the second one is focus:

子供が学校にいる。 (The) kids are at school. (as opposed to somewhere else)

学校に子供がいる。 There are kids at school. (as opposed to, say, adults, or no one at all)

Like Darius has said, with questions, they become the following:

子供が学校にいるのか? Are the kids at school? (as opposed to somewhere else)

学校に子供がいるのか? Are there kids at school? (as opposed to someone else)

It's a bit confusing, as the は/が distinction also has to do with the same information structure stuff. Certainly the first one needs は instead of が to really work right. However, since は is a topic particle, it almost always goes in the topic slot - it can only go in the focus slot if you're comparing things:

学校に子供はいるけど大人はいない。 The kids are at school, but the adults aren't.

*学校に子供はいる。 is ungrammatical outside of this context, as far as I know.

Basically, the topic slot is for old information (things that are already being talked about) and the focus slot is for new and/or contrastive information (things that are just being mentioned, or things that are being compared). With questions, this works out to the second (focus) slot being filled with what's directly being questioned - so, in the first example, it's where the kids are that's in question; and in the second, it's who is at school that's in question.

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Perhaps a simple answer is best?

As I think you know, the two sentences literally mean the same thing and in Japanese it is grammatically correct to change the order.

The key concept is context and the good news is that it works much the same way in English. The order depends on what you want to communicate in a given situation.

For example:

子供が学校にいる。might be used to say "The kids are at school." (as opposed to somewhere else)

学校に子供がいる。 might be used to say "There are kids at school." (as opposed to, say, adults, or no one at all)

But, these are only examples and there will be other alternative ways to say the same thing.

Notes:

  1. This is one of those things that becomes clearer with practice.

  2. I have deliberately avoided mentioning the use が/は because there other very good answers to questions on this topic which is much wider (and more confusing) than your original question.

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