I wanted to say: there is a pen. Hence, I said


But my girlfriend said to me that one has to say:


But she can't explain to me why, and I don't understand.

Do you have an explanation?
Thanks in advance!

  • 1
    We usually say 「XXある(よ)」(は=topic particle) etc when replying to 「XXはある?」"Is there XX?", and 「XXある(よ)」(が=subject particle) when replying to 「何がある(の)?」"What's there?"
    – chocolate
    May 22, 2016 at 3:50
  • When it comes to understanding wa vs ga, I think it helps (at least in my own learning experience) to set aside existing notions from the framework of a subject-prominent language (such as English). Japanese is a topic-prominent language en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topic-prominent_language). The feature doesn't really exist in, say, English.
    – Cabbage
    Dec 30, 2020 at 14:42

2 Answers 2


I feel that the distinctions between は and が are one of the hardest parts to learn about the Japanese language, so I'll try to keep things mostly focused on this example.


Here "は” marks ”ペン" as a "topic", rather a "subject", but what that really translates into is a feeling of:

There is a pen (but there isn't a ....)

This is because that "は" also is commonly used to indicate that what follows it applies to the thing before the は, but not to something else which may or may not be directly stated.

Here is an example where the thing that doesn't apply is directly stated:


In fact は tends to be used more frequently with negative verbs (hence the は part of ではない). So if you are saying "the pen isn't there", this would be completely natural:


However, if there was a situation where someone was panicking and somebody asked them "What is wrong?" (どうしたの?), they could very well reply using が instead:


This is because が strongly emphasizes the subject, and is generally used when there was some uncertainty about a subject which is being clarified.

  • 1
    The reason why you use が (or save topicalization) in the last example is because it's a sentence of neutral description rather than emphasis by a sentence of exclusion. In short, you can't rephrase it as ないのはペンだよ.
    – user4092
    May 22, 2016 at 7:24

That would be 「ペンある。」 100% of the time.

「ペンある。」 (= "There is a pen.") is a statement about 'what is there' or 'what the speaker has just found at a particular location". It is not a statement that gives some kind of description about either pens in general or a particular pen.

If you desire to make a further statement about the pen after you have found it and said 「ペンある。」, you can use 「」 as in 「そのペンとても[長]{なが}い。」= "The pen is very long." and such .

「ペンある。」, as a stand-alone statement, sounds far more weird to us Japanese-speakers than you could probably imagine at this stage. You could look like you were trying a make a profound philosophical statement about pens in general. I call that the power of particles - "POP" for short. Learning Japanese means learning POP.

If you go outside of your house and find a dog right in front of you, you will say 「イヌいる。」. If you said 「イヌいる。」 instead, people would wonder if you were OK because you would look as if you were making a metaphysical statement about dogs and the universe outside of your front door on your way to Burger King.

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