I have come to the conclusion that to the beginner it is useful to equate the particle は with the article ‘the’ in English. Even more so for a Swedish speaker since the Swedish article is an ending.

A difference is that we say あなたは but not “the you”. However あなたは is short for an old あの方 and not a true pronoun. Similar ways of avoiding a true ‘thou’ were common in Sweden 50 years ago (and forced an article). English examples are rarer but we can say “the other side” instead of “they” when referring to another political party.

Thus I propose は as the definite form nominative case ending and が as the indefinite form nominative case ending.

On the whole I think that the distinction between Japanese postpositions and endings in Germanic languages is misleading. Why is の a postposition and ‘s an ending? Presently I see は, が, の and を as case endings and I would appreciate to see examples where it does not work out.

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    The resemblance of vs. and the vs. an is something that has been said over and over, so there should be a huge literature on that. The topic is not something as small as you can discuss on a single tread of a a non-academic Q and A site like this. And even if you want to touch a tiny aspect of it, there cannot be a discussion without concrete examples.
    – user458
    Oct 26, 2011 at 6:24
  • @sawa I think あなは is a typo of あなたは.
    – Lukman
    Oct 26, 2011 at 6:34
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    @Göte What works in one language might not work in another. I don't think we should force the construct of one language onto another.
    – Lukman
    Oct 26, 2011 at 6:39
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    @Lukman yes it is a typo Sorry. This is precicely my point. In many cases, the construct is the same in Swedish and Japanese but textbooks treat them as very different because they try to impose Latin influenced English grammar on the Japanese language and I do not think that this is helpful. Presently I see は, が, の and を as case endings and I would appreciate to see examples where it does not work out. Oct 26, 2011 at 7:14
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    In the spirit of collaboratively improving questions and answers, I took the liberty of removing your request for comments, which can be misleading in a structured Q&A site like this, striving to be different from a free-form bulletin board. I also tacked on the question you wrote in a comment to the end of the question body so a latecomer can understand what it's about at a glance. Please feel free to roll back the edit or make further edits.
    – ento
    Oct 26, 2011 at 18:15

3 Answers 3


You will be in a world of hurt if you get into habit of thinking は to be a nominative. It is not. が can be said to be a nominative. は is not a case: it is a topic particle. It works on any case, but it "overwrites" が (nominative) and を (accusative) case markers. It usually focuses something to set the topic of the utterance, or to establish contrast. Examples:


I(nom) have eaten.


I(nom,focus) have eaten.

Contast: Me, I've eaten. (But he's being slow.)

My story: Me? I've eaten. (After that, I took a quick coffee. Now I have to go to a meeting.)


[I've] bought bread(acc).


[I've] bought bread(acc,focus).

Contrast: Bread, I've bought. (I forgot the milk, though.)

Bread's story: I bought bread. (It was moldy. There was all this blue stuff on it. I tried to take it to the store, but they wouldn't give me my money back.)


[I've] given it to him(dat).


[I've] given it to him(dat,focus).

Contrast: I did give it to him. (She gets nothing.)


[I'll] eat there(loc).


[I'll] eat there(loc,focus). (That other place was not very delicious.)

Other than that, yes, は brings the "known entity" / "old topic" / "thema" meaning to the sentence, to contrast with "new info" / "rhema" that not having it usually means, in much the same way the "the" does in English when compared to "a". They are not equivalent by any means, but that aspect is there.

However, there's more meanings and usage to は than definite nominative. Don't do it, you're making yourself a disservice long-term.

  • Do you mean "overwrite" or "override"? Oct 29, 2011 at 21:12
  • If I understand English well enough (and tell me if I don't), override would mean that one's meaning replaces the other's, being somehow "stronger". However, in case of も and は vs. が and を, the meaning of both is retained, but the phonetic expression of が and を disappears. I figured "overwrite" is as good an explanation as any.
    – Amadan
    Oct 31, 2011 at 1:50
  • To me, "overwrite" only means physically writing something over something else, like with a pen or typewriter. Oct 31, 2011 at 7:52
  • As I said, I'm no more a native English speaker than a native Japanese speaker, so feel free to correct me. Although, I'm a programmer, so that's where my imagery regarding these two words mainly comes from. An overriden variable can't be accessed since it's shadowed by something else; while overwriting a variable just means changing its contents. No idea how non-programmers view them :)
    – Amadan
    Oct 31, 2011 at 8:42
  • Ah yes overriding has its own meaning again in OO. I won't edit it yet because I have a feeling there's a better word used for just this, also better than "replace" and "cancel out"... Oct 31, 2011 at 8:47

In addition to the other comments here, I must say that は and が are poor analogues of "the" and "a". I know how you got this idea because I once had it myself. But it doesn't work all that well.

Person A: ゴルフとテニスと、どちらが好きですか。
Person B: テニスが好きです。

In B's response, テニス takes が, which suggests (according to your model) that it's indefinite. Now let's look at the same conversation in English:

A: Which do you prefer, golf or tennis?
B: I prefer tennis.

Hmm. No article. What about Spanish?

A: ¿Cuál prefieres, el golf o el tenis?
B: Prefiero el tenis.

Here the response takes "el", a definite article. Thus が is not functioning like an indefinite article, or indeed an article at all; it is a different thing altogether that only sometimes resembles the use of articles in English.


Comments please.

JLU is about questions and answers, not theses and comments.

I have come to the conclusion that to the beginner it is useful to equate the particle は with the article ‘the’ in English

I came to the conclusion that it was a bad idea, for it forces you to think in another language (whether this other language is your mother tongue or not is irrelevant).

If your objective is to speak, then I think instead that it is useful to observe in what situations people use は, in what situations people use が, and to do the same without thinking.

If your objective is to study the language, then get linguistics right from the beginning.

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    Sorry to contradict but I think that " Presently I see は, が, の and を as case endings and I would appreciate to see examples where it does not work out." is a valid question Oct 26, 2011 at 8:08
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    @axioplase A beginner, who is trying to learn the difference between ga and wa, is unable to observe since he is not fluent enough in the language to understand what people are saying even if he were surrounded by Japanese. What the beginner needs is a framework from which to start. Similarities in thinking between the languages are helpful in explaining how they work. Oct 26, 2011 at 10:00
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    @KarlKnechtel: Some other case markers: ablative から, allative へ, instrumental and locative で, while に can be taken as dative, inessive, ergative or illative, I think. However: や、と are connective particles, not cases in their own right; さ and ね are mostly non-semantic, inserted for pragmatic reasons (and thus not cases); ばかり and だけ serve another function entirely. And then you get into clausal particles like かしら or ぜ, which no-one would even put forth as candidates for case markers. In fact there's a lot more non-case particles than case-marking ones.
    – Amadan
    Oct 26, 2011 at 15:40
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    @Axioplase I would say that "how do children learn?" is actually one of the least simple questions there is! ;) Oct 26, 2011 at 17:44
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    @GöteSvanholm If you want to compare languages, take up comparative linguistics. If you want to learn the language, empty your cup first ;)
    – Lukman
    Oct 27, 2011 at 7:48

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