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Consider these sentences:

  • だれ{が・に}これが出来るか

  • だれ{が・に}日本語が分からないか

When both が and に are acceptable, what is their difference in meaning and practical usage?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

This is a great question, and one of which I'm not sure I fully understand the nuances. But here goes:

What I learned in my first Japanese class was the は/が for basic things like this:

  • あの人は日本語がわかる → That guy understands Japanese.
  • 友達は子供が3人います → My friend has 3 children.
  • だれがこれが出来るか → Who can do this?

Then I heard some people start using and I was like WTH? But after hearing for a while, it seems to translate like "unto 〜" or "by 〜". It's not how we'd (at least most people, I'd imagine) naturally say it in English, so it seems a little strange.

  • あの人に日本語がわかる → "Japanese is understood by that guy," or "Japanese is understandable unto him."
  • 友達に子供が3人います → "3 children exist unto my friend," or "My friend has 3 children (unto himself)."
  • だれにこれが出来るか? → For/To whom is it possible?

My understanding is that with the は/が the emphasis is more on the person/subject, whereas with the version, itseems to be more on the "other part" (Japanese being understood, 3 children, the thing able to be done) for lack of a better term.

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I think the other part of it is to avoid having two が-marked subjects in the same sentence... –  Zhen Lin Jan 25 '12 at 18:36
    
@Flaw: no, I'm almost certain it can because I specifically remember "This man had 2 daughters" being in an English newsletter I was translating into Japanese. I used , but after my Japanese friend looked it over, she corrected it to . Unless she made a mistake, or it's one of those things where everyone says it incorrectly but it's socially accepted anyway. –  istrasci Jan 26 '12 at 0:03
1  
These are sometimes called "dative constructions" or "dative subject constructions" (because the case marked by に is called the dative case, and some people interpret it as marking a subject in these constructions). –  snailboat Nov 3 '13 at 21:31

As for your question, both が and に are equally common for だれ{が・に}これが出来るか while が is more common for だれ{が・に}日本語が分からないか.

Because できる or わかる were originally intransitive verbs that meant 'appear' or 'split' respectively, they take a structure below.

私にこれができること = that this appears to me → that I can do this

私に日本語がわかること= that Japanese splits (itself) to me → that I can understand Japanese

(Since the likes of 私にこれが出来る is not a valid sentence without conditions, I use clauses instead)

However, as these verbs started to be used as a kind of transitive verbs, particle が started to be used as a marker for the agent of possible action. As a result, 私がこれができること or 私が日本語がわかること has been accepted.

When は is attatched to 私が, it changes to 私は and 私に changes to 私には. Through those manipulations, you can get sentences like 私はこれが出来る or 私にはこれが出来る.

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