Every evening, we play the かたづけ怪獣 song, where they sing:

あらあら、大変 (x3)

Now I've been grappling with this language long enough that ‥ができないと sounds natural in this context, while ‥はできないと sounds off, but I couldn't put my finger on why. My wife, a native speaker, pondered this for a moment and then theorized that は would be a simple statement of fact:

If you can't clean up, the cleanup monster will come!

While が implies that, while there may be lots of things you can't do, surely you can at least clean up:

If you can't even clean up, the cleanup monster will come!

I buy the first half of that explanation, but the second seems fuzzy. Is she right, and is there a more general rule here?

  • Most はs, contrastive or non-contrastive, are not used in conditional clauses. Even for expressions like ではない, which is nearly always used with は, the は is also dropped before ~と, ~ば, ~なら, etc. An exception is じゃない; you don't change it to something like じないと. But you do say でないと or じゃないと.
    – Yang Muye
    Jun 10 '14 at 19:17
  • @YangMuye Some speakers don't feel じゃない has the force of は anymore and liken it to でない instead of ではない.
    – user1478
    Jun 10 '14 at 20:15
  • @YangMuye, sure, but the は-phrase can be hoisted from subject in the the conditional clause to topic of the whole sentence, i.e. かたづけは、できないと怪獣が出る, As for cleaning, if you can't do it, the monster appears.
    – dainichi
    Jun 10 '14 at 23:40

I think it's the opposite? が simply states the fact, while は would imply "at least". I'm a native speaker myself.

For example,

  -> I got the silver medal
  -> I got at least the silver medal (but not the gold medal)

  -> If I don't get the silver medal, I can't return
  -> If I don't even get the silver medal, I can't return
  • The most voted question in this site is on this topic. Both "は" and "が" have a function to make a subject look somewhat outstanding among others (contrastive は as in your example, and exhaustive-listing が). And both "は" and "が" act as a seemingly-simple subject marker (as in ポストは赤い and 太陽が昇る). So I really understand untrained native speakers like me or OP's wife cannot explain this easily...
    – naruto
    Jun 10 '14 at 16:02

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