So I'm new to learning Japanese, and as with most beginners I am trying to understand the difference between は and が. I came across this video on the difference that I found particularly helpful, but there was a special case not addressed in the video that I was curious about. I will summarize the video here as I understand it, as it is quite long and my question will not make sense if I don't. (I also understand that this is an incredibly complex topic -- no pun intended -- but you always have to start somewhere.)

In the first and most common type of sentence, there is a single subject, which may be marked with either particle. は is preferred, except in the following situations:

  1. When the subject is new information, e.g. 「ジョンは学生です」 (Roughly, "John is a student") vs. 「ジョンが学生です」 (Roughly, "The student is John"). This use is required with certain kinds of phrases, for example 誰 -- so「誰が寿司を買いましたか?」means "Who bought the sushi?", and this cannot be phrased as 「*誰は寿司を買いましたか?」.
  2. When the whole sentence is new information. Thus「田中さんは子犬を買いましたよ」just states that Tanaka bought a puppy in a factual sense, while「田中さんが子犬を買いましたよ」presents the sentence as being "news" is some way.
  3. When the subject is inanimate (this only applies to action verbs). So you would have「雨が降っている」but not (as far as I understand) 「*雨は降っている」.

In the second type of sentence, there is both a は phrase and a が phrase, which I will call the "subject" and "object" -- in quotes -- respectively (I understand that they are not actually a subject and object in Japanese, but they usually translate as such into English and I don't know any other name for them). For instance, we have

  • ジョンさんは鼻が大きい ("John has a big nose")
  • 田中さんは犬が好きだ ("Tanaka likes dogs")
  • 直美さんは日本語が話せます ("Naomi can speak Japanese").

In all these cases, the が could be replaced with a は, which would emphasize that thing as opposed to others e.g.

  • ジョンさんは鼻は大きい ("John has a big nose, but the rest of him is small")
  • 田中さんは犬は好きだ ("Tanaka likes dogs, but not other animals")
  • 直美さんは日本語は話せます ("Naomi can speak Japanese, but not other languages").

Now on to my actual question. I am curious here what happens in the second type of sentence when the "subject" falls under one of the special rules in the first type. For example, how would I translate the sentence "Who likes cats?" -- would it be

  • 誰が猫が好きですか? (Naively apply the "が for new information" rule)
  • 猫が好きな人誰ですか? (What Google Translate tells me)
  • 誰が猫が好きな人ですか? (Modification of previous)

or something else? Similarly, would "The house has large windows" be

  • 家は窓が大きい (Ignoring the "が for inanimates" rule above)
  • 家が窓が大きい (Same as previous but using the "が for inanimates" rule)
  • 家には大きい窓がある (From Google Translate -- edited from original post)
  • 家の窓は大きい (Just one phrase, ignoring the "が for inanimates" rule)
  • 家の窓が大きい (Same as above, with the "が for inanimates" rule)

or something else?

Finally, this is my first post on the Japanese Stack Exchange and on Stack Exchange in general, so if there's any issues with what I've posted or anything I could improve upon, I am more than happy to hear it!

  • In sentence #3, both sentences use が (雨が降っている) – Leebo Oct 14 '20 at 3:01
  • Fixed, thank you! – Daniel M Oct 14 '20 at 3:08
  • I haven't watched the whole video, but there is no such "inanimate" rule. Inanimate things are less likely to be topics, but they still can be, e.g. 今日の雨は強い "The rain is heavy today". – dainichi Feb 4 at 8:15
  • In the video, she says this only applies to action verbs, so not だ/です or adjectives; looking back I see that this applies to the "the house has large windows" example that I gave as well. Regardless, I would imagine that it's still a statistical tendency for action verbs as well (although possibly a stronger one). – Daniel M Feb 5 at 21:24


sounds like a direct translation from English. Your second phrasing of this sounds better, but i would word it more like


I’m not really sure what you’re going for in the second sentence about a house with large windows. maybe you could clarify a bit more.

But of those sentences 家には窓が大きい isn’t really grammatical.

I think you are trying to take the rules a bit too literally. They’re useful for initially building simple sentences. But as sentences get more complex and the nuances get more subtle it’s much more difficult to tease apart, except retrospectively, what’s going on.

  • I double checked the google translation and it was actually 「家には大きい窓がある」; that's been fixed in the original post. When I asked about "The house has large windows," I was mainly trying to see how I would express that some part of an inanimate object has a particular property (admittedly the example sentence I gave is a little odd in English too). – Daniel M Oct 14 '20 at 2:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.