は vs が question

I am a beginner who started learning Japanese seriously about 1-2 months ago. And I know it’s probably the most common beginner question, but I’m still confused about は vs が.
So I decided to try to figure it out by reading Tofugu’s post about it.

What I understood from the post (correct me if I’m wrong) is that が is used for the subject, for example:
こどもあそんでいます (A child is playing). Apparently this is done because “a child” is the one doing the “playing”. (It is the one doing the action.)

Also (if I understood correctly), は is used to mark what the topic of our sentence/conversation etc. is.

But my question is this. If you can use both は and が (and the sentence is grammatically correct), how do you know which one you use?

For example, in the sentence ジョン たべています (I’m not sure if this is correct, so tell me if it’s not), I used が because John was the one doing the action, “eating”.
But I know you could also say ジョンたべています, which would mean “as for John, he is eating.”

So how do you know which one to use? Do you use は when you want to talk about John, and you’re saying what he’s doing, and do you use が when you’re talking about who is eating? Or am I totally missing the point?

I would appreciate any answers. And sorry for the beginner question :laughing:

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At the most basic level, you would use が to introduce new information to a conversation. Once that thing has become the topic of discussion, it can be marked with は.

There is more to it than that, because both particles have other uses as well, but that is the most basic distinction.

You can kind of think of it like this… Will the listener already have some notion of what I’m referring to? If not, は might be jarring and unnatural. If the listener doesn’t know you’re going to talk about John and John isn’t visible, you’d probably be going with が.

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This book does a really good job clearing up any and all uses of particles. I am terrible with them, so it’s been a life saver.

It depends on what you want to express.

ジョン たべています

The sentence is about eating. John is eating (and not Mary).

ジョンたべています

The sentence is about John. John is eating (and not sleeping).

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I don’t know if I would call this an accurate explanation or interpretation of the sentences. At the very least it feels very misleading.

OP: Honestly I would forget about learning specific nuance differences right now or being able to use it yourself. I know you think its a “beginner” question, but actually knowing the difference is an advanced learner topic. Its “fundamental” but far from “easy” or “beginner”. If you can understand that both
ジョン たべています and ジョン たべています
mean “john is eating” and have some sort of difference that you’re not quite sure of yet then you’re perfectly fine for where you’re at. I hate to pull the “you’ll understand when you’re older” card that my mom always used, but you really will understand when you’ve been exposed to more language.

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I found this really useful and helpful.

I’ve heard from Japanese natives that clauses and sentences that end in a negative verb feel more natural when they include a は particle somewhere. They often cannot explain why it is that way.

Ex:
✕ コーヒーを飲みません。

〇 コーヒーは飲みません。

I understand the point you were making, but just for clarity, maybe something other than a ✕ would be better for the first sentence. It’s not ungrammatical or unacceptable.

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The thing you gave an X to has 4 times more results on Google and a natives claim is perfectly fine.

The native I just asked said は sounds like the 否定 is just a tad big stronger.

This is why I suggest just not fretting over it early on… It always seems like it just results in misunderstandings, oversimplifications, or more questions >_>

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Thanks! I am usually corrected for making statements like the above. You’re correct that it is not ungrammatical.

I should change it for a △ instead