“Quick question; what is the difference between は and が?”
It’s a quick question, to be sure, but it doesn’t have a quick answer. Canned lines like “は is the topic particle” or “が is the subject marker” are rarely of any help; the English and Japanese notions of “subject” don’t map 1:1 to each other, and the concept of grammatical topic is unlikely to strike home intuitively for a native English speaker. These one-line explanations are perhaps useful to people who have studied linguistics formally, but as a fan of more naturalistic language learning processes I (personally) never find them to be helpful, and I have no interest in diving into theory in order to make sense of them.
My chosen strategy was to tolerate the ambiguity and just read until I had had enough exposure to the Japanese language that I was able to form a somewhat intuitive understanding of these two particles (plus one more which I feel is often overlooked despite serving a similar function). You can absolutely do this too, and in fact I would strongly recommend that rather than approaching the problem by trying to learn “when to use は vs が”, you instead pump the brakes on output and focus on getting exposure to a LOT of the language so you too can build up this intuition.
However, since I fully recognize that I’m probably a little weird for being comfortable with this kind of delayed gratification (and since the question above is just so, so common), I thought I’d try to put into words the simple one-line rules that I personally use to conceptualize these two (or three) tricky particles.Continue reading →