Particles in Japanese act like the "cement" of a structure, holding the major components together and serving as indicators for the words they follow or are stuck between. There are even times when they have their own meaning, usually as prepositions. They can be friendly at times and pesky at others, and some can even be omitted in familiar conversation.
This is a general guide for using the particles. I trust that it will serve nicely for daily conversation and writing, but I really must emphasize general here because of the many exceptions and surprises that do exist. In fact, there are some exceptions that defy all reason. While some particles more or less follow certain rules regarding use, others do not and must be learned "case by case" and remembered as such. I have spent hours with native speakers trying to get straight, logical answers concerning the strange behavior of some of the particles, but I often just get blank stares and the "case by case" answer. I will do my best to point these out, but it will be impossible to cover everything here.
One thing that is nice about Japanese is that it's not as "grammatically fussy" as English. If you happen to omit or make a mistake concerning particles, you won't sound as ridiculous or illiterate speaking this "broken Japanese" as you would if you did the same thing in English. (That's not meant to be an excuse; it's just to assure you that it's okay to make mistakes along the way.)
© Tim R. Matheson
8. Includer mo
10. Emphasizer yo
Wa and ga indicate subjects by coming after them. You could say that wa is the "standard" or main subject indicator. It indicates the general topic and, if anything, emphasizes what comes after it:
In this example, wa tells us that the topic of conversation is summers in Japan, and that the important thing about them is the fact that they are hot.
Here we are talking about Kimiko, and want her diligence concerning English studies to be made known.
Ga points to "active" subjects, emphasized subjects, and subjects within a larger topic:
In this one, wa tells us that we're talking about a job, and that it's a difficult one, and ga tells us that it's not just any job we're talking about, but the job that John does.
This one, which is a reply to someone's question, needs to point to Seiko as the person doing whatever, so ga is used. The thing she is doing is already known, so it needs no emphasis.
Ga is used with simple question subjects in many cases:
And ga is used to emphasize the answers to those questions:
...unless there's something still indefinite about it:
As you can see, it can get confusing. More than trying to remember set rules, I've found that memorizing "set phrases" is the safest way to go, even though it does take some time. Here's where learning "case by case" becomes necessary, because the particle used will sometimes change depending on what is being emphasized, as well as the verb tense and conjugation used.
Ga sometimes indicates "but":
Notice how the three ga's are used here:
Wa could replace the third ga here, but most native speakers in casual conversation would just omit the first or third ga, or even both of them.
As a strange particle quirk, subject indicator wa is always written using the hiragana for ha. For reference, see my hiragana table here.
You could call o a "limited use particle." Its only job is to show us what the direct object is:
However, ga is usually preferred when using the -tai ending:
Also, use ga, not o, before the verbs iru (to be present; to exist), iru (to need), aru, wakaru, dekiru, and the weird quasi-verb/adjectives suki, kirai and hoshii:
These can be very interesting. Some use the o- prefix only in some instances and not in others. For example, when talking about your own car or cars in general, you would never use the o- prefix. You will probably only hear it when salespeople or servicepeople are talking about the car you are going to buy or have bought from them. Some, like o-tenki and o-cha, are almost always used with this honorific prefix.
I might as well mention here that there is a verb conjugation that uses this honorific prefix. It's o- with Base 2, and has several endings. Here are examples of two:
These are very polite constructions. Can you sense the honor and respect oozing from them?
Although this particle is usually written o in romaji these days, in older documents it may be seen written wo. It's the same particle with the same role, but with an alternate spelling in romaji. You may also hear some Japanese pronounce it more like wo than o.
Ni shows us what the indirect object is — who or what an action is directed to:
Ni is also a preposition which indicates destinations, places, dates and times:
Ni, not o, is used with the verbs noru (to ride) and noboru (to climb):
Ni is often combined with wa to show that something exists or is included in the subject:
While not as flexible as ni, e is sometimes used in place of it to emphasize a destination:
As another strange particle quirk, destination indicator e is always written using the hiragana for he. For reference, see my hiragana table here.
Particle de is a preposition that shows us where an action takes place:
Some exceptions are: Use ni when the verb shows attachment to an object or place, and o when the action passes a place or intentionally covers a wide area:
De is used for "among":
De also indicates a method:
De is sometimes used before ii to say that something is good or sufficient as it is:
De is sometimes combined with wa to show that something is done within the subject:
This one also has many roles in Japanese grammar. It shows possession:
It can sometimes replace ga, and is used especially in clauses that modify a noun:
It comes after some adjectives:
It makes informal questions:
And it is also used between prepositions and nouns to make the noun the object of the preposition. Compare the following sentences:
Note: Ni is not used with no in this way.
These work like "and" in English. Use to to include only what is actually mentioned, and ya to include other things which are not mentioned but may be relevant or supposed:
To also indicates quotes and thoughts, whether they are direct or indirect:
Some oddball adverbs use to optionally:
Sometimes to is used to mean "with":
Note: Issho (ni) means "together (with)" and is often used after to. Use it when there's a chance that to alone might not be clearly understood.
After verbs, to often means "if" or "when":
Forgive me for making up my own English, but "includer" just works perfectly here because mo includes things, the way "also" and "too" do in English. After subjects or objects, it replaces the wa, ga or o that would normally be there:
Note: The Japanese have many of their own abbreviations for English words, and sando is one that they often use for sandwich.
Mo is also used to emphasize "any," sometimes being combined with other particles:
Note: There are also elongated mou's that have totally different usages. One is used to mean "already," and another is used for whining about something:
By the way, mou is what Japanese cows say.
Ka makes questions, both plain and polite:
When it comes to making questions, there are both written and unwritten rules that will keep you wondering. While ka can be used in most instances, there are times when no is preferred. These can be interchangeable in some cases, but not in others. Both of them — no ka — are even used together sometimes.
Yo is usually used at the end of a short phrase or sentence, and it generally has two purposes: to emphasize an action or fact, or to brag about one:
Note: As in English, to correctly use the "brag" version you have to keep a straight, matter-of-fact, "no big deal" face.
The correct place for ne is at the end of a sentence, where it is used to check or request the agreement of the listener, like we use tag questions in English:
However, like "y'know" in English, too many people have the habit of grossly overusing ne. I've even heard speeches where it was put between almost every word. Be careful not to overdo it.
In the world of Japanese adjectives, there are "true" and "quasi" types. When a "quasi-adjective" modifies a noun in a straightforward manner, na comes after the adjective, and the noun comes after that:
Changing na to ni converts quasi-adjectives to adverbs:
See my Japanese Adjectives for more.
Na may sometimes be heard here and there in familiar situations as a substitute for ne. This is considered impolite at best, and should be avoided.