First, some background. My question is kind of an extension of this previously-answered question about the difference between は and が. While I am fairly clear on the different usages of は as a contrastive marker or a thematic marker, the explanation given on the page linked above included an example of this sentence used by Susumu Kuno


in which the わたくしが知っている人(は) could be translated to something either along the lines of 'As for the people I know (they didn't come to the party)' or 'People I know didn't come to the party (but people I don't know did)'. Which translation is correct would depend on whether the は is used as a thematic marker (to refer back to people who were previously-mentioned), or whether it is used as a contrastive sentence (that doesn't directly refer to people who may have previously been mentioned).

Here's the main question: assuming that a sentence was used in the context of a conversation where は could be taken either way, such as a conversation containing the sentence above, how would a native Japanese speaker rephrase such a sentence so that the meaning of the phrase modified by は (e.g. 私が知っている人) is more obvious? This is a two-pronged question, since は would have to be rephrased differently depending on which of the two meanings was intended in this hypothetical situation.

My guess would be to use something like としては instead of は to rephrase a sentence if the phrase was meant to be contrastive, and maybe といえば instead of は if the phrase was thematic and referring to something previously mentioned. Whether those would be in any way correct or not, I am not sure what kind of rephrasing would be most 'natural' or 'elegant', so to speak.

  • This isn't 100% relevant to your question, but it is worth mentioning that 「は」 behaves slightly differently with a negative predicate, in that it can take a pretty non-contrastive reading where the non-negative predicate would take the contrastive reading: 「意味はない」 (by default non-contrastive; "there is no meaning"), 「意味はある」 (markedly contrastive; "there is a meaning, but..."). This difference is only so blatantly clear when the 「が」/「は」-marked thing is an object as opposed to a subject, but I think the way-of-thinking this forces you to adopt about 「は」 is relevant for your sentence as well. Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 4:04

2 Answers 2


The bad news-は we don't really have an effective way to distinguish them. The good news-は in fact you don't have to distinguish them.

The particle は's function could be loosely described as "singling out one thing you and I know as the current focus," that is, every usage theoretically carries contrastive overtones, as long as it has possible competitors in the context.

Following criteria generally explain when は loses contrastive reading if used without any advance context.

  • attached to subject, object, time or place the event take place, or possessor of what you intend to mention in the rheme part.
  • not attached to words which already have contrastive connotation.
    (all adjectival phrases stumble over this: わたくしが知っている人 "people I know" is premised on the existence of "people I don't know")
  • used as the outermost one in the sentence. (私 [今日は [テニスはしない] ])

and in the middle of passage, you also have to make sure:

  • having no valid opponent or counterpart in current context.
  • not a part or possession of something mentioned in current context or parent clause.

These things are not as complicated as it looks like, when you're actually taking part in a conversation. Nor is it likely you can easily overturn the interpretation within a sentence: manage the context instead. Perhaps you should rather pay attention to the distinction between は and が.

If you really need workarounds, you can certainly have some. But remember that none of them is cure-all, for there's no word can truly rephrase は.

When you want to have a word as theme without implying contrast:

  • use zero-postposition (無助詞) form


    In spoken language, you can use zero postposition form to thematize the preceding noun without side effects. The "zero postposition" is rendered as a brief pause (~ 1 mora) or a slightly prolonged final syllable, and usually transcribed in Japanese comma . This performs fairly well in oral communication, but is unusable in written language.
    (I replaced わたくし with わたし here, since the former is either too formal to use with this expression, or sounds too nerdy.)

  • use ですが, だが, だけ(れ)ど etc.


    They means "it's about..." or "when it comes to...", and could be used as workaround. They in turn have their own ambiguity, that with "though it is...".

and when you want to explicitly show the contrast:

  • put stress on the contrastive part, or the particle itself

    People I know didn't come to the party.

    You can make it clear that you intend to compare it with something, by emphasizing the contrastive part, as much we do in English. It has no steady graphical rendering, while sometimes written in following form, which is far less frequently used than English italics.


  • use emphasis (cleft) construction

    It was people I know, that didn't come to the party.

  • use (の)方{ほう} in bisect situation


    When there are only two things mentioned, you can attach "the side" to tell you're referring the one side in contrast with the other.

Unfortunately, としては and といえば you suggested won't work as you expected. としては means "considering as ..." or "among those ...", which has nothing to do with the problem. といえば "speaking of ..." is expected to introduce some unrelated topics to hearer. (Maybe you meant was はといえば, which practically just emphasizes は, but this one still doesn't resolve the ambiguity.)


My suggestion is to keep using は and that is the most natural way that I can think of as a native Japanese speaker.

The description of は and が by Kuno (1973) is widely used. Kuno (1973) mentions は indicates the known information and が indicates the unknown information but it is actually similar to distinguish a/an and the in English for instance if English is your first language. When は is used, the speaker/writer believes that s/he shares the same information (theme/topic) with the listener/reader.

Moreover, they are two different kinds of particles. は is 係助詞{かかりじょし} or とりたて助詞{じょし} (focus particles) whereas が is 格助詞{かくじょし} (case particles) (Mikami, 1960; Saji, 1991; etc.). A case marker shows the relation with the predicate of the sentence and が marks the subject and indicates exhaustive and neutral description. A focus particle follows right after the case and shows the speaker's perspective to the event. Each focus particle has a different connotation. As for は, it marks the theme/topic of the sentence.


  1. 9時{じ}に花子{はなこ}が劇場{げきじょう}で歌{うた}う。

  2. 劇場{げきじょう}で花子{はなこ}が9時{じ}に歌{うた}う。

1 is the original sentence which means "Hanako will sing at the theatre at 9 o'clock" and the rest of sentences contains the は particle. Each sentence 2 and 3 have the time (9時{じ}) and the place (劇場{げきじょう}) as a theme/topic of the event, so they can be translated like "As for the time, it's 9 that/when Hanako will sing at the theatre" and "As for the place, it is the theatre where Hanako will sing at 9". The problem is when the subject is marked as a theme/topic of the event.

  1. *花子{はなこ}が9時{じ}に劇場{げきじょう}で歌{うた}う。

  2. 花子{はなこ}9時{じ}に劇場{げきじょう}で歌{うた}う。

*=ungrammatical sentence

Both sentence 4 and 5 mark the subject/doer (花子{はなこ}) as a theme/topic and mean "As for Hanako or the person, it is Hanako who will sing at the theatre at 9". Japanese language, however, phonetically avoid the combination with がは. Therefore, sentence 4 is considered as an ungrammatical sentence. は is not replaced the place but more likely が hides itself behind は.

Referring to the connotation of は, it just indicates the theme/topic of the event. Imagine the box with full of toys. If you pick the one up, the rest of toys will remain in the box. That creates two elements: the toy chosen and the rest left in the box. When は is used in a sentence, the case followed by は is focused on. Sentence 2, for example, the time "9時{じ} (9 o'clock)" is focused on but there is an implicit element which means the events except the one at "9時{じ} (9 o'clock)". So, because the speaker chooses the theme/topic by using は, s/he makes the contrasiveness implicitly or explicitly (eg. "山田{やまだ}来{く}るが、佐藤{さとう}来{こ}ない。(Yamada will come but Satō won't come").

As for the replacement of は of "わたくしが知{し}っている人{ひと}はパーティには来{き}ませんでした。た", you could replace with "に関{かん}して言えば", "については" or some other functional words but it doesn't really sounds natural to be honest. "としては" cannot be used. "として" is used to indicate the position, name or license to do or evaluate something (eg. "田中{たなか}さん医者{いしゃ}としてよりも小説家{しょうせつか}として有名{ゆうめい}だ。(As for Mr/Ms. Tanaka, s/he is not famous as a doctor but as a novelist)") and "としては" is composed with "として" + the focus particle は. "に関{かん}して言{い}えば" and "については" also contains the focus particle は ("に関{かん}して言{い}う" + は and "について" + は) anyway.

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