So a normal way to say "Bob wants a burger" might be:

bobu-wa     hanbaaga-ga         hoshii
bob-TOPIC   burger-NOMINATIVE   is_wanted
as for Bob, a burger is wanted

[I'm only vaguely familiar with the standard conventions for grammatical glossing; feel free to edit that if you want.]

But wa is really just the topic marker.
Technically, it doesn't actually explicitly establish the grammatical role of bobu within the... hm, "predicate structure" of hoshii.

Is it possible to actually explicitly connect bobu to hoshii like that?
(Neverminding the question of a context where it would sound natural.)

Maybe something like this?:

bobu-ni     hanbaaga-ga         hoshii
bob-DATIVE  burger-NOMINATIVE   is_wanted
a burger is wanted by Bob

(Or maybe with a different order like:

hanbaaga-ga         bobu-ni     hoshii
burger-NOMINATIVE   bob-DATIVE  is_wanted

if that sounds better. Not the main point.)

Or maybe another way of asking this question:

If someone told you:

hanbaaga-ga         hoshii
burger-NOMINATIVE   is_wanted
a burger is wanted (by him)

They're assuming you understand from context who the implicit "wanter" is.
But if it's actually not clear, and you have to ask:

"*Who* wants a burger?"

then how do you do that?

(In a complete sentence!
Of course pragmatically you would prolly just use a fragment like "dare?" or something,
but there must be an implied complete sentence,

I assume this would be wrong:

dare-wa     hanbaaga-ga         hoshii      ka?
who-topic   burger-NOMINATIVE   is_wanted   QUESTION
as for who, a burger is wanted?

So how about this?:

dare-ni     hanbaaga-ga         hoshii      ka?
dare-DATIVE burger-NOMINATIVE   is_wanted   QUESTION
by who is a burger wanted?

(Or, again, flip the order:

hanbaaga-ga         dare-ni     hoshii      ka?
burger-NOMINATIVE   dare-DATIVE is_wanted   QUESTION
a burger is wanted by who?

if that sounds better.)

  • 2
    Japanese: Revised Edition (Iwasaki 2013), Chapter 6, "Argument structures", is a good overview of argument structure in Japanese. You'll probably find pages 104-108 and 120-125 interesting. – snailboat Jul 29 '15 at 3:20
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    @snailboat Bingo, "double nominative"! I was honestly feeling like, "Maybe I shouldn't bother trying to study Japanese -- obviously, it must have an internal logic like any other human language, but trying to figure it out from all the horribly written resources I've been able to find seems hopelessly frustrating". But skimming this book for not even a minute is enough to make me reconsider. Thanks for the extremely valuable recommendation! :D – Owen_R Jul 29 '15 at 4:15

Maybe the particle you chose, に (ni), is not quite right.

ボブにハンバーガーが欲しい (bobu-ni hanbaaga-ga hoshii) and ハンバーガーがボブに欲しい (hanbaaga-ga bobu-ni hoshii) would mean something like "(I) want a burger for Bob". It's I or someone else, not Bob, that is the implicit wanter, and the wanter likes to give the burger to Bob. Of course we usually don't say things like this often.

If you really like to avoid this topic marker, you can just use the transitive verb 欲する (hossuru), which grammatically resembles the English word want. ボブがハンバーガーを欲する (bobu-ga hanbaaga-wo hossuru) semantically means "Bob wants a burger", although this is uncommon and funny especially in conversations. (Perhaps this would feel like "Bob is in want of a burger")

As for your second question:

  • 誰がハンバーガーが欲しいか? (dare-ga hanbaaga-ga hosii ka?)
    Who wants a burger? (who is the wanter?)

(dare-wa is virtually never used, so I changed that part)

  • 誰にハンバーガーが欲しいか? (dare-ni hanbaaga-ga hosii ka?)
    ハンバーガーが誰に欲しいか? (hanbaaga-ga dare-ni hosii ka?)
    For whom do (you) want a burger? (assuming you want to give a burger to someone, to whom?)

Again it's you, or anyone inferred from the context, who is the implicit wanter in the latter example.

  • Hm, thanks... so, to make sure I've got this clear... {1 a speaker could say hanbaaga-ga hoshii -- that would be a normal way to say this for a speaker who's assuming that it's contextually obvious that Bob is that wanter} {2 but if the listener was actually unsure if the wanter was Bob, they would most likely ask dare?} {3 the implied full sentence behind that would be dare-wa hanbaaga-ga hosii ka?} {4 dare-ni hanbaaga-ga hosii ka? would mean "[FOR] Whom do (you) want a burger?"} {5 under the logic of 4, how would you then say "for whom does Bob want a burger?"?} – Owen_R Jul 29 '15 at 3:59
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    {1-4, Correct.}{5 Technically, ボブは誰にハンバーガーが欲しいか? (bobu-wa dare-ni hanbaaba-ga hosii ka?). I don't expect this exact sentence is used in ordinary conversations, though.} – naruto Jul 29 '15 at 4:22
  • Cool, thanks. Even if the sentence itself is unnatural, I find it useful for understanding the deeper logic. {6 Do you agree with @user4092 that you could also say dare-ga hanbaaga-ga hoshii? for "who (is it that) wants a burger"?} – Owen_R Jul 29 '15 at 4:28
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    "dare-[ga/wa] hanbaaga-ga hosii?"; both correct but there is a difference in nuance. I would say "dare-ga" form is far more common. I also think "dare-ga hanbaaga-wo hosii?" is also natural, but for now I can't find the explanation why wo is suddenly acceptable here. (At least this question is related) – naruto Jul 29 '15 at 4:44
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    {1-2, Sorry, let me retract what I've previously said. "dare-wa" is virtually never used except in some rare idioms. Edited my answer.}{3 Finally I found this question. So i-adjective hosii is from the transitive verb hossuru, and that's probably why X wo hosii is sometimes acceptable.} – naruto Jul 29 '15 at 8:19

In the first place, "hanbaaga-ga" as in "hanbaaga-ga hoshii" is not the subject. So it doesn't mean a burger is wanted.

Both the subject and the object of "hoshii" are indicated by ga, in other words, when you express "bobu-wa hanbaaga-ga hoshii" without any topicalized elements, it becomes "bobu-ga hanbaaga-ga hoshii". So, "who wants a burger" can be expressed as "dare-ga hanbaaga-ga hoshii?" or "hanbaaga-ga hoshii-no-wa dare desuka?".

  • Thanks to snailboat's book recommendation, I now understand that Japanese has a double nominative structure, so I think I get what you mean now about "not the subject", abstractly. Concretely, though, do you agree with @naruto that dare-wa hanbaaga-ga hoshii ka? would also be an option for asking "Who wants a burger? (who is the wanter?)"? – Owen_R Jul 29 '15 at 4:32

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