Can someone explain to me how the contrastive は works? As I still don't get it. How exactly does it work? Is it derived from it's topical cousin? How does it modify the topic of discourse?

For example, I don't quite understand what the second supposedly contrasting は is actually doing in this sentence that the conjunctive が isn't already doing: 犬の鳴き声は聞こえるが、犬の姿は見えない。

It's from the Imabi post on the contrastive particle, yet it still doesn't really explain what's actually going on; thus, I'm just wondering if someone could help explain this to me.

  • 4
    "The dogs bark could be heard, but the dogs figure could not be seen": when you read this sentence in English you add emphasis to the word "figure" right? That's what the contrastive は is doing. At least, that's how I see it. Apr 29, 2017 at 22:05
  • I sorta get it, but does it effect the topic in any way? Or does it leave the original topic in tack and merely help describe it via contrast?
    – Tirous
    Apr 29, 2017 at 23:24

3 Answers 3


You shouldn't regard "topic" or "contrast" as a priori something accepted from the beginning. They are just grammar theories. Different people can explain は's function either with solely topic or with solely contrast.

Some call it "contrast" when you can find implication that something is different from something else, and others call secondary topics "contrastive は" and primary topics "topic".

What's sure about は is that it highlights the thing marked with it and separates it and lets it float around the rest of the clause.

As for your example, you can interpret it as "As for dog's bark, it's audible. But as for its figure, it's not visible".

Speaking of emphasis, you can put it on either 犬の姿は or 犬の姿が by stress in pronunciation. (If you emphasize contrast between voice and figure, it's better to omit 犬の from 犬の姿.)

If the sentence was 声は…犬の姿見えない (without が stressed*1), the latter sentence would be a sentence of neutral description in this case and the fact that you can't see them feels abrupt and your mind feels kind of renewed and occupied with it. In contrast, the original sentence feels like taking 犬の姿 as only one of agenda (without は stressed).

*1: In that case, it's interpreted as exhaustive listing が.

  • As a native speaker of English and a philosopher, I don't understand your use of "a priori" in the first sentence...
    – virmaior
    Apr 30, 2017 at 4:58
  • @virmaior そうですか…^^; なんていえばいいんだろ…
    – user4092
    Apr 30, 2017 at 9:11
  • どの意味を表したいによりますが、問題点は私はその英語使い方は分からないため、他の表現は出せない。まず、"a priori"は形容詞か副詞のように使う...
    – virmaior
    Apr 30, 2017 at 9:13
  • とりあえず直しました。ありがとうございます。
    – user4092
    Apr 30, 2017 at 9:15
  • Ahh, that works a lot better. I might say "foundational to the real use of は. Instead, they are just theories of grammar. Often the same real sentence can be described using either conception of は (contrast or topic)."という言い方... Maybe linguists use " a priori" that way, but for philosopher's it's a distinction between knowledge that can be derived from reason alone vs. from experience (per Kant).
    – virmaior
    Apr 30, 2017 at 9:16

To translate it simply and directly in English you could sort of phrase it like this:

As for the dog's bark, I can hear it, but as for it itself, I cannot see it.

The conjunctive が is like the "but" but the は is like the "as for...".

It sort of emphasizes "THIS thing is (such and such), but THIS thing is (so and so)."

Sometimes the second half isn't even needed.

If someone asked if you had a pencil, but you only had a pen, the conversation might go something like:


ボールペンはありますけど… "I have a pen...(but no pencil)"


Apart from the grammatical consideration, I'll show you how similar expressions sound for me.

  • 〇 (1) 犬の鳴き声は聞こえるが、犬の姿は見えない。
  • △ (2) 犬の鳴き声は聞こえるが、犬の姿が見えない。
  • 〇 (3) 犬の鳴き声は聞こえるが、犬の姿が見えないのはおかしい。
  • 〇((3)' 犬の鳴き声は聞こえるが、犬の姿が見えないことはおかしい。)
  • 〇 (4) 犬の鳴き声は聞こえるし、犬の姿も見える。
  • 〇 (4)' 犬の鳴き声は聞こえる、そして、犬の姿も見える。)
  • ✖ (5) 犬の鳴き声は聞こえるし、犬の姿は見える。
  • ✖((5)' 犬の鳴き声は聞こえる、そして、犬の姿は見える。)

The sentence (1) and (2) tell the same observed situation, but the situation is somewhat contradictory. (1) is more natural than (2) because in the sentence (1) the writer stresses the contradictory point by using は instead of が.

The sentence (2) is grammatically correct and informative but not natural because of lacking of writer's intention.

Though (3) has the same phrase (2) in it, it makes (2) a noun clause by using の and make this clause a topic by using は, so the sentence (3) becomes meaningful.

As for the sentence (4), も makes the sentence meaningful.

The sentence (5) is grammatically correct but not informative so it sounds dull.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .