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So I've had a feeling for a while regarding particle order, which I haven't managed to find much of anything to either confirm or deny in any of the learning resources I've tried, and I'm hoping someone here can tell me whether it's actually true or I'm just imagining things.

It is generally taught that the order of particles in Japanese sentences is (usually) grammatically not that important (there are conventions, of course, and different placement may result in slightly different emphasis, but the overall meaning is still the same even if you, for example, change whether the を part or the に part comes first or second, etc). However, I have had the impression for a while now that that may be not entirely true of は (the topic particle)?

Specifically, to borrow a math/CS term, it feels to me like は has a slightly lower "operator precedence" than most of the others, which is part of why it commonly comes first. For example (off the top of my head, so it might not be the best one):

  • 人は公園で歩いている -- "The person is walking in the park" (The topic is "the person" and the action is "walking in the park")
  • 公園で人は歩いている -- "In the park, the person is walking" (The topic is "the person (in the context of being in the park)" and the action is "walking")

(I know that "in the park, the person" might actually usually be said differently (公園では, etc), but my point is that even without that the placement of 公園で before a later は changes a bit (the feel, at least, of) what it applies to)

That is, it seems to me that if other particles, such as で or に are put before は, they can end up essentially modifying the topic, instead of the sentence as a whole, so effectively, は can sometimes have a grouping/partitioning effect on things that come before it (not always, but sometimes), which isn't true of other particles.

In most cases, the effect is not really substantial (it often ends up coming out with the same meaning in the end), but in some cases it seems like it could potentially change the nuance of things noticeably, so I'm curious. Am I completely off base with this? Does は actually work differently than other particles in this regard?

Edit: So my example above was bad in a few ways, I guess. Here's one I came across recently, though I'm not sure it exemplifies what I'm talking about quite as strongly:

この近所にコンビニはありますか?

It seems to me that the normal way to phrase this would be 「コンビニはこの近所にありますか」 ("As for convenience stores, is there one in this neighborhood?"), but by placing 「この近所に」 in front of 「コンビニは」, this has an effect of essentially making it feel more like "As for convenience stores in this neighborhood, is there one?" (that is, "in this neighborhood" becomes more tightly associated with "convenience stores" and essentially serves to help refine the scope of the topic). In this particular case, one could argue that the two questions end up asking essentially the same thing, but I suspect that wouldn't always be the case in all sentences, which is why I'm curious about this sort of thing.

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First of all, 人は公園で歩いている sounds unnatural. To match the English translation, you should say その人は公園歩いている. See this for this を.

Second, despite your observation, その人は公園を歩いている and 公園をその人は歩いている have the same basic meaning, although the latter is a little unusual and thus sounds like 公園 is emphasized. In both sentences, 公園を adverbially modifies 歩いている, not (その)人. As a basic rule, ~を/~で on its own cannot modify a noun in the first place. See: using の with と,で, から, まで

If you want to say "The person in the park is walking", it's 公園にいる人は歩いている in Japanese.

In conclusion, I was not able to get what you mean by "grouping". If you have a better example that explains your problem, I'll take a look again.

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  • Unfortunately, I've run into a few (real) sentences in the past that suggested this to me but of course I can't remember any of them now when I need them.. sigh. I guess another way to ask this would be "are there times when placing other particles before the は portion serves to clarify/refine the topic specifically, rather than being a modifier for the full sentence / main verb?" – Foogod Jun 15 at 22:08
  • @Foogod There are of course sentences like 私の父は寝ている, 東京での生活は快適だ, この池で泳ぐのは禁止だ and so on. But で (without の) is always adverbial, and it cannot directly modify a noun. – naruto Jun 15 at 22:22
  • I think you're getting too hung up on the technical definition of "modify". I'm not asking whether で can modify a noun (I know it can't), what I'm asking is whether the implication or interpretation changes by changing the position of components to be before the topic (は) such that they conceptually become more tightly associated with the topic instead of the sentence as a whole. I did also just add another example to my question above, though I'm not sure whether it helps or not.. – Foogod Jun 15 at 22:41
  • @Foogod In この近所にコンビニはありますか, この近所 and コンビニ are not "grouped" or "associated" like "convenience stores in this neighborhood". この近所に is definitely linked to ありますか, not コンビニ. ("convenience stores in this neighborhood" is この近所コンビニ.) Since you know the rule, I wonder why you are seeing a weird link... – naruto Jun 15 at 22:57
  • To my English speaking brain it's hard to imagine how a part of the sentence can be emphasised and yet not be part of the topic. You say that if you put 公園を at the start of the sentence then it is emphasised. If I emphasise something, that suggests it's the part I most want to impress upon someone, i.e. the thing I want to talk about, i.e. the topic. The problem for me (and I'm guessing this is the OP's problem too) is how to distinguish the concepts of topic and emphasis. – user3856370 Jun 16 at 6:22
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From what I understand, the topic of the sentence is usually placed in the beginning of the sentence. In essence, the Japanese word order is: [topic] は [other information] [verb]. You can technically place the topic in the middle of the sentence instead of the beginning, and it's technically not grammatically incorrect, but it sounds pretty odd and it doesn't change the meaning or emphasis at all.

The topic in Japanese isn't strictly a solid sentence element to the same degree as something like a subject or an object. Instead, any sentence element outside of predicates (and with the て-form even that depends) can become a topic. If the element to become a topic happens to be a subject or an object, the respective particles が and を get dropped. If the element involves a particle like に, で or と, the は is affixed to the end of the other particle. The は tends to change the specific solid sentence element into a more amorphous topic that's just "floating around" (if that makes sense), so it tends to take emphasis away from whatever it's affixed to. That's a massive simplification of course, since there are other uses for は too, but this is a common one for it.

For example, let's examine the sentence 「アリスがケーキを食べている」, or "Alice is eating cake", where the emphasis is on Alice doing the cake-eating. Both 「アリスは、ケーキを食べている」 and 「ケーキは、アリスが食べている」are valid "topicalizations" of the sentence, with the former having more emphasis on the action of eating cake and the latter on Alice of all people eating the cake. Notice how by both changing the word order and changing what sentence element is made the topic is what adds some shift in emphasis; merely changing where the topic is in the sentence doesn't do that.

(Also, this isn't related to the subject at hand, but the location is generally marked with を when using the verb 歩く; in Japanese, the locations is though of as a thing that is walked, in the same vein as "walking the plank" in English.)

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  • That all seems to be generally true, yes, but doesn't seem to have anything to do with my actual question (whether meaning changes if other portions/particles are placed before the は portion in the sentence, instead of after it) – Foogod Jun 15 at 22:12
  • Ah. What I tried to say with my first paragraph was that no, the meaning does not change at all if you change the position of the topic, and you probably shouldn't change it either since it sounds weird. The rest was to say that if you want to change the word order in relation to は, you have to do this and that to get the change of emphasis. – Ranquil Jun 15 at 22:35
  • Ah, ok.. to be clear, I know my example above was not really very good, and I'm not asking this because I want to do this myself, I'm asking because I have encountered (in the past) various cases where Japanese speakers have placed other portions in front of the topic in the sentence instead of after it, and I want to clarify whether the feeling I have about how this changes the implication/nuance when people do do it is actually correct or not. – Foogod Jun 15 at 22:47
  • Okay, now I think I got what you mean! In general, the topic is the 1st element in a sentence. However, you can place a temporal noun or a broad location before the topic. This use isn't though of as shuffling the word order but the time or broad location just setting the scene kinda like the topic. In your example, both この近所に and コンビニは have little emphasis with most of it going to あります. The whole sentence sounds like it's said in a conversation about there being a lot of convenience stores around, and the speaker is asking: "So are there any convenience stores in this neighborhood?" – Ranquil Jun 15 at 23:54

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