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I am really despairing. Recently, I was forwarded a link by my Japanese colleague. It is about the proper use of "は" and "が".

https://www.alc.co.jp/jpn/article/faq/03/19.html

What is stated here, turns my world upside down. According to the link, the proper usage of "は" and "が" heavily depends on whether these are used in a verbal clause (動詞文) or in an adjective (形容詞文) respectively noun clause (名詞文) .

1) Noun Clause (名詞文)

佐藤さんは社長です。

Talking about Satou-san, he is a company president. (Maybe, Tanaka-san is a soccer player.)

佐藤さんが社長です。

Talking about the company president, it is Satou-san. (and not Tanaka-san)

2) Adjective Clause (形容詞文)

佐藤さんはやさしい。

Talking about Satou-san, he is a kind person. (Maybe, Tanaka-san is sporty.)

佐藤さんがやさしい。

You want to know, who is kind? It is Satou-san. (and not e.g. somebody else of this group)

3) Verbal Clause (動詞文) ????Contrary to my assumptions????

佐藤さんが来た。

Talking about Satou-san, he a came. (Maybe, Tanaka-san is still on the way.) ????

佐藤さんは来た。

The person who came is Satou-san. (and not e.g. Tanaka-san) ????

Hopefully, there is a misinterpretation from my side. Maybe, someone can give a comment on what is stated in the link above.

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    It seems that you are only confused about the verbal clause part. The link that you provided is pretty good. Suggest you check here as well. Including Mr. Tanaka is a little confusing. – BJCUAI Feb 12 '18 at 3:52
  • Hello, Thank you very much. It is really important for me to understand this and I think somehow, I understood it. Let me briefly confirm this. Despite to my initial understanding, the sentence "佐藤さんが来た" emphasizes the fact that Satou-san already came (and he is no longer on the road). In contrast to this "佐藤さんは来た" rather means that Satou-san came (and other persons might be still on the road). Is my understanding correct? – Kenny Feb 12 '18 at 10:35
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    Whether or not other people have arrived has no direct relationship to the fact that Satou-san has arrived. There could be an implied relationship, as exemplified in Ben Roffey's answer, but this cannot be known without relevant context. This is by no means a literal distinction, but it might be considered semantically similar to the difference between making the simple statement 'Bill's here' vs. drawing attention to the fact that 'Bill has made it'. – BJCUAI Feb 12 '18 at 17:38
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I don't think the actual distinction here is between noun/adjective/verbal clauses. It's easy to think of verbal clauses that behave in exactly the same way as the noun and adjective clauses listed, eg.

佐藤さんはワインを飲んでいます。
佐藤さんは毎日映画を見ます。

In these cases, は is the neutral choice, and rephrasing them to use が would indicate a specific question being answered ("who is drinking wine?" or "who watches movies every day?") in the same way as the noun and adjective clauses mentioned.

The reason why 佐藤さんが来た behaves differently is because when talking about someone arriving, they're usually not yet a natural topic of conversation. It's unlikely that two speakers happened to feel like discussing Satou-san and, as an extension of that conversation, decided to mention that he just arrived. More likely is that Satou-san just arrived, and this is why he is suddenly brought up. As such, が is generally used in this sentence, because one of the main functions of が is to introduce new information.

Incidentally, if two speakers were talking about Satou-san and decided to mention that he arrived as part of that discussion, using は would be perfectly natural, eg. 「佐藤さんっていつも来るのが遅いよね。」「あ、佐藤さんは今来たみたいだよ?」 In fact, in a case like this, using が would be strange, because it would imply that the subject has changed even though it has not.

Also, in your question you seem to assume that changing the が to a は in 佐藤さんが来た has the same effect as changing the は to a が in the given noun/adjective clauses, but this is not the case at all. When using が instead of は in (for instance) 佐藤さんが社長です, this emphasises "It is Satou-san who is the president.", as if to answer the question "Who is the president?"

But when using は instead of が in 佐藤さんは来た, this does not mean "It is Satou-san who came", and cannot answer the question "Who was the person that came?" (In both of these cases, が would still be the correct choice.) Rather it means "Well, as for Satou-san, he came...", with an implied contrast to other possible topics (people who may not have come). This sentiment is always expressed using は, never が.

For instance, consider the following usages:

「お前は何で来なかったの?佐藤さんは来たよ!」
「お前は何でまだ社長になっていないの?佐藤さんはもう社長だよ!」

Regardless of what type of sentence we're dealing with, this kind of contrastive usage always requires は. The difference is that the 佐藤さんは社長だ uses は by default, so when seen in isolation it doesn't necessarily seem like a contrastive usage, whereas 佐藤さんは来た uses が by default, so there must be some other reason such as this contrastive usage to justify the use of は instead.

In other words, both 佐藤さんは来た and 佐藤さんが社長だ imply some kind of special emphasis, but this is only because they are both different from the default form you would expect from that sentence. The type of emphasis is completely different. Some types of emphasis require は, and others require が, and this overrides whatever the default usage would be.

  • Hello Ben, Thank you very much for your answer. Could it be that the link above is rather focusing on neutral statements - maybe related to to 現象文 - and the example "佐藤さんは来た" is an unfortunate choice? If you for instance say: "前述のモーターが優れた動的性能を発揮することが明らかになりました" (English: It became apparent that the motor that I just described has an excellent dynamic performance.), then one cannot use "前述のモーターは" instead of "前述のモーターが" even though it is clear about what motor one is talking about. Despite to this one has to use "は" when reconstructing the sentence like "前述のモーターは短距離走者のように素早いことが明らかになりました". – Kenny Feb 12 '18 at 23:18

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