The particle が has a property that implies that, of all items from some group, the sentences applies exclusively to the noun before it. For example, in a room of people from different countries, saying 「私がアメリカ人です」 would imply that you are the only American in the room.

However, it is also possible to use a more neutral が without this meaning. For example, 「雨が降る」 is neutral and isn't comparing the rain to anything.

So how do you know when the particle が carries this exclusive-definition and when it doesn't?

  • Here is the most succinct correct explanation I know. It's 39 pages and requires some linguistics background, but it's really, really good: lel.ed.ac.uk/~heycock/papers/topic-draft.pdf. Completely nails it. I don't know how to compress it into an answer. – Darius Jahandarie May 15 '15 at 2:17
  • As a side note, there are some "common answers" to this question, like "it depends whether the predicate is permanent or not" or "it depends if the information is new or not", but none of these are alone an answer. – Darius Jahandarie May 15 '15 at 2:20

Warning... this answer presents things differently from the more complex and accurate model, which can be found here: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~heycock/papers/topic-draft.pdf

I can't think of how to summarize the model in that paper to fit in an answer, so instead I'm going to present a different model (mostly from my intuition, so do take it with a grain of salt) which works for a more limited number of sentences, but I think lines up result-wise with the model in that paper.

Taking a basic XがY clause...

The determiners of the semantics of が are:

  1. whether Y is temporary or permanent,*
  2. whether X is new or old information,
  3. whether the clause is embedded or not

Temporary Predicates

When you have a temporary predicate, the neutral reading of が becomes possible.

"Rain is falling."

"The weather is cold."

"A cow is eating grass."

(Note: all of these can be made exhaustive by placing stress on the が-marked argument.)

However, if the が-marked argument is already in discourse, then you would mark it by は.

「雨はどう?」「雨はまだ降っている。」 (You could, and normally would just drop 雨は entirely, but it's okay to have it, and necessary if you say some other stuff before answering the question. Using 雨が would sound weird, as if you aren't responding to the question but just making a statement.)

「今日の天気は寒いねー。」 (Using が would be exhaustive here)

「あの牛は草を食べている。」 (Using が would be exhaustive here)

There are some things which are in discourse by construction, such as 私, or things marked by その, あの, 今日の etc. -- so if they are accompanied by が the only way to read them is as exhaustive reading despite the possibility introduced by a temporary predicate.

Permanent Predicates

When you have a permanent predicate, it is necessarily the exhaustive reading of 「が」:




So you instead mark these things with は to get a neutral reading.

Subordinate Clauses

What I've said so far holds true at the top level of the sentence. However, in (most) subordinate clauses, the only reading available for は is the contrasitive reading, so instead things fall back to が (regardless of temporary/permanent or old/new distinctions):


[*] These are called "stage-level predicate" and "individual-level predicate" in the literature.

  • 2
    [1]. Concerning "There are some things which are in discourse by construction, such as 私, or things marked by その, あの, etc. -- it's impossible to have a neutral reading of those things", in that case, you can express the neutral usage with zero particle. Examples of 私 are possible in questions, where 私 is not in discourse of opponent's context, such as infamous Kuchi-sake-onna's question "私、きれい?". Question of neutral sentences doesn't take が. – user4092 May 15 '15 at 10:46
  • 2
    [2]. Concerning 今日の天気は寒いね, you wrote "You could use が here depending on whether you want it to feel like you're bringing up the weather" ,and in that case, the sentence must be 今日(は)天気が寒いね, in stead of 今日の天気が…. If you add some determinater (a word like この その or 今日の in this case) to the subject, it must be with zero particle. i.e. 今日の天気、さむいね。 However, you can say 今日の天気が… for the purpose of the exaustive usage. – user4092 May 15 '15 at 10:46

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