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I started reading basic grammar of Japanese, and found this sentence:

ねこがすきです。
I like cats.

I thought が is the subject particle, so I supposed that ねこ would be the subject of the sentence. すき seems to mean "like". So I expected ねこがすきです to mean "Cats like me" rather than "I like cats"; however, it seems like "I like cats" is the correct meaning, as another example バナナが好きだ (I like bananas) in the mentioned dictionary entry also has the same structure.

I asked another learner and got this phrase (私は)猫が好き as the full version of ねこがすきです. However, this confuses me even further, because somehow I understand it as "Cats, I like" (and probably "Me, cats like"). And I think no matter how strange it means, it's still a perfectly fine sentence.

How should I understand these two following sentences? Which one means "I like cats" and which one means "Cats like me"?

  1. 私は猫が好き
  2. 猫は私が好き
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    「~は、私は好きです。」 「~は、私、好きよ。」も言いますよね。
    – user1016
    Jul 25, 2014 at 7:05
  • Note that in the first sentence, the は is replacing に, so if we don't use は we'd say 私に猫が好き. Then the second sentence if you already say explicitly "私が", then it could only mean "cat likes me." は states the topic of the sentence, and, topic as it is, it does not clearly specify its relationship with other components of the sentence, and you'd have to reply on context. Yes you can also say 私には猫が好き and that means the same thing. 私は猫が好き is literally "As for me, cats are liked" 私に猫が好き is literally "To me, cats are liked" 私には猫が好き is literally "As for to me, cats are liked"
    – dvx2718
    May 5 at 4:44

3 Answers 3

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Particles have multiple uses or meanings. が can be used to mark the subject. However 好き【すき】 is an adjective not a verb. In this case が marks the target of 好き【すき】 which is cats.

1) 私は猫が好き

2) 猫は私が好き

The pattern of these sentences is: Topic は target of adjective が adjective

  1. I(topic) like(adjective) cats(target of adjective).
  2. Cats(topic) like(adjective) me(target of adjective).
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    These are the default interpretations, and probably good enough since OP is a beginner. However, 1 can also mean "cats like me", and 2 can also mean "I like cats" (In the right context with the right prosody)
    – dainichi
    Jul 18, 2014 at 5:28
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It may help to understand the nature of: the は particle (topic marker), the nature of the が particle (subject marker), and the fact that 好き is an adjective, not a verb.

Japanese is what is known as a topic prominent language. In English, no distinction is made between the topic of a sentence and the subject. In Japanese, however, they serve two different purposes. Therefore in sentences such as "私は猫が好きです。", there is both a topic (me) and a subject (cats).

Think of the topic of a sentence as translating to "as for ____,", and everything that follows is simply a comment about the topic. So in the case of your example sentence, it translates more literally as follows:

私は猫が好きです。
As for me, cats are well-liked.

As Kyon Smith mentioned, 猫は私が好きです doesn't sound natural because 好き is generally understood to be the speaker's internal feelings and therefore it doesn't make sense to use it to describe someone or something else's feelings. But to help further demonstrate the function of はand が,

猫は私が好きです。
As for cats, I am well-liked (by them).

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Sentence 1) is easy — it clearly means "I like cats."

Sentence 2) is more difficult, and has already generated complicated discussions about grammar elsewhere on this site. It's an unusual-looking sentence, and it's certainly not a normal way of saying "Cats like me." It could mean "I like cats." and I think that this is the most natural interpretation.

The most important point is that most of the time, 好き is used for saying "I like..." and not for talking about what other people like. If you use 好き to mean "I like...", you can leave out the word for "I", because people will assume that you mean "I like...". On the other hand, if you want to say that someone else likes something, you have to use extra words and more complicated expressions, to make it clear that you don't mean "I like...".

For example, if you walk up to someone, with no other context, and say

好きだ!

it means, "I love you!" (or at least, I really like you). Also,

猫が好きだ。

猫は好きだ。

both means "I like cats." (There is a small difference between these two sentences, which is discussed in detail in other questions tagged wa-and-ga.)

If you want to say "Cats like me.", you could say:

私は猫に好かれる。

which uses a special passive verb 「好かれる」 instead of the normal 「好き」. I think this expression is a good choice. If you really want to use 「好き」, maybe you could also say:

猫はみんな私のことが好きみたいだ。

"All cats seem to like me." I added 「みたい」(seem to), 「みんな」(all) and 「のこと」(which indicates that I am the thing being liked) to try and make the sentence more natural, but I think it's still a little strange, because it makes it sound as if cats have human-like emotions.

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    好き or 嫌い are a really odd adjective. They are not an "emotional adjective" even though they refer to human emotion, which means they are free from grammatical restriction in expressing other people's inner thought in indicative mood. 幸せ is interesting too.
    – user4092
    Jul 20, 2014 at 7:13
  • @user4092 Do you mean that it's OK to say 「Aさんは猫が好きだ」 without using 「みたい」? Now I think about it, sometimes I have seen 好き used like that. Maybe I was too caution in adding みたい to my example.
    – Kyon Smith
    Jul 23, 2014 at 15:12

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