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:
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.