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I understand that は and が can be very different in meaning & emotion, and some structures require one of them. However, are there some cases where I can use either of them but the sentence remains (almost) the same in meaning & emotion?

(That is to say, given the same context, a native speaker would choose to use either of them to express the same idea.)

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  • This question is kind of difficult because there are many cases where both particles are interchangeable but you can still manage to come up with somewhat reason for the difference if you dare to, apart from if the speaker is really aware of it.
    – user4092
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 6:04

2 Answers 2

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This discussion is probably as old as learning japanese is, and as the comment mentioned, is pretty challenging to answer. You can find heaps and heaps of literature on the internet about the differences between these two particles.

I can't really think of a case where they don't change the meaning though. When は replaces が, it indicates a subject that is also known to the speaker, or a contrastive element, or indicates that the sentence is now about the topic instead of what follows. Let's try some examples to try to illustrate this:

私は知っている "I know"

私が知っている "I know"

At face value these sentences look the same. The が version makes it sound like the focus is on you, that is, you are the one who knows (likely, you are correcting someone).

The は version is more neutral because it simply establishes you as the topic, and 知っている is stating something about you.

When が appears for transitive adjectives like 好き, or ほしい, it marks the object that the adjective applies to. Specifically:

私は犬が好き

is natural. It simply says that I like dogs. However:

私が犬は好き

is... weird. It sounds like you like dogs, but not something else. This is because here, は marks a contrast with something unnamed. Transitive adjectives almost always mark the object with が for this reason.

The answer is... no. There's always a difference. When が is used to mark something in the main clause, it usually places emphasis on it, as in the first example. When は is used for transitive adjectives or inside relative clauses, or as a second は in a clause, it marks a contrastive element, so it is usually understood to mean "this, but not something else".

References: A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar

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Actually, yes.

In negative sentences は often replaces が or を. E.g.

読まない (hon wa yomanai) I don't read books.

好きじゃない (kare wa suki jya nai) I don't love/like him.

In these sentences, it would also be grammatically correct to use を and が respectfully, but many Japanese find は to be more natural. The rule of thumb is that there needs to be at least one は in negative sentences. If you add 私は at the beginning of the sentences above, the need for は is satisfied, therefore speakers are less compelled to use は instead of が or を. In negative sentences it may even follow particles like に or で to satisfy this condition.

英語では話したくないです. (eigo de wa hanashitakunai desu) I don't want to talk in English.

I hope this helps.

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