~はいる? particle は usage

Hello everyone,

I was studying japanese grammar and I found this example sentence in the textbook 「おどろいたことに、答えを知っている人はいませんでした」. Anybody could explain why the particle は is used in this sentence? I usually see the construction~がいる being used in this kind of sentence.

Thanks for any help!

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It’s a matter of putting the emphasis to the left or to the right of the particle. は marks the topic and puts the “most relevant/new information” to the right of it, が marks the grammatical subject and puts the “most relevant information” to the left of it, basically.

To put it in very stunted English:
答えを知っている人はいませんでした: on the topic of people who knew the answer, there weren’t any
答えを知っている人がいませんでした: on the topic of things that weren’t there, there weren’t any people who knew the answer.

Which one is more natural depends on the context, but looking at this sentence on its own は definitely feels more natural - if feels strange to put the emphasis here on いませんでした because there’s no real reason that would be the “context” of the sentence, so to speak. On the other hand, “introducing” the concept of people who know an answer as the “context” for new information, and then specifying that new information to be that there weren’t any makes sense.

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honestly, and not to be rude, but i just feel the explanation of the ‘emphasis on either side of the particle’ is objectively wrong. It’s right in some cases in that the particle adds emphasis on the subject or the second clause, but that’s not the only distinction between ga and ha. I highly reccomend watching Cure Dolly’s video on ha vs ga, she explains it very very well.

video 1: Wa vs Ga particle: the REAL secret. Japanese the textbooks don't tell you. - YouTube
video 2: GA and WA Particles- Advanced/Intermediate secrets. Cure Dolly's Japanese Master Class - YouTube
video 3: WA and GA: the Deeper Secrets! The yin-yang structure of Japanese | Lesson 61 - YouTube

I reccomend watching all 3, and also, might I add, reccomend using her channel for any grammar consolidation or questions you may have because her explanations are far clearer than anything in a textbook or on any other youtube channel.

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I’ve already linked Cure Dolly’s video in another comment, but i’ll just try to sum up her main point with this comment. Still reccomend watching the video though. Basically the thing is that the wa particle is a non logical TOPIC marker, meaning that it can be put on the end of any noun, at any time, and all it does is indicate to the reader or listener the topic of the conversation. It DOES NOT alter the grammar of the sentence in any way (hence the name ‘non logical’). The noun indicated by wa doesn’t have to be the subject or object - it can be whateever.
Another EXTREMELY important thing to note is that every sentence, every single sentence has the ga particle in it. You may not see it, but it will be hidden. For example, in your sentence, the ga particle, which can replace the wa particle, is in fact already there, marking the noun ‘hito’. It’s just that you are unable to see it there, but it is in fact there, as the subject of the sentence is ‘hito’.
So now, with those two misconceptions about ga and wa particles cleared, you can see that hito. the subject of the sentence has a hidden ga particle on it, which indicated that it is the subject that is doing the verb (in this case - not existing). And the ga particle has been replaced by wa simply to indicate to you, the reader, that the person who doesnt know the answer, is the topic (what they want to talk about).

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person/people is the main topic right?

the は is simply saying that surprisingly there weren’t people who didnt know the answer.

the people/person are not doing the action.

that is what I understand.

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You’re absolutely right that it’s not the only distinction between wa and ga, but I think it’s the most relevant one here. Going into all the possible nuances and reasons for using one over the other is a bit much as a simple answer to a simple question, especially since not everything is relevant to the case presented.

I can’t personally stand Cure Dolly (it’s the voice… just can’t listen to it, no matter how good the content may be), but I can wholeheartedly recommend the explanation translated by our very own @Jonapedia:

I think the confusion around the emphasis explanation comes from what “emphasis” means in this sense. It’s not emphasis in the same sense as when you’d use bold text or extra stress in English, for instance - it’s just emphasis in terms of “this is the (more) important part of the sentence in terms of what I’m actually trying to convey”.

Small caveat: in many (I’d almost say nearly all, but I’m not sure about that) cases where it’s not the subject or object, you won’t see は on its own, but rather combined with another particle (には, とは, では, etc.) - but in the case of が or を, は (much like も) will essentially replace the case particle instead of being attached to it.

That’s actually a pretty important thing to realise about particles in general - they always mark some property of a word or clause, but that won’t always be the grammatical case of it. And that is indeed one important distinction: が is a case-marking particle, while は is not a case-marking particle, but can sometimes take on the role of one (が or を specifically).

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Aye, well said.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the notion of the zero-が:

  • It’s a framework to support the initial supposition that every grammatically correct sentence must include a subject and a verb. I think it’s a decent model but, like all models, it’s not completely comprehensive because language is messy. :wink:

  • As a framework for understanding, it’s geared towards English speakers since Japanese is a much more implicit language.

It think you’ll find that you eventually outgrow the framework as you gain a more intuitive understanding.

Take the following sentence:

この映画を知しらない人はいないと言っても過言ではない。

It’s actually a bit of a pain to identify all the zero-が uses here. :wink:

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Your explanation of wa replacing ga was certainly far better than mine, i think the idea of it being a case marking particle and getting replaced is the perfect way to put it. But honestly i still don’t really understand the whole concept of ga and wa emphasising the part of the sentence before or after it, it just doesn’t work well in my head.
And honestly, i hate the cure dolly voice too, but i just watch all the videos on 2x with subtitles so i try not to listen as much and just read instead lol

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Which isn’t even really the case in English, either - but it’s certainly far less common to omit either the subject or the verb than it is in Japanese.

That’s fair. In the end it’s all just an approximation anyway, relating it to English, which is inherently going to be flawed and potentially confusing. As much as we try to relate the two because it gives us something to reason about, Japanese grammar isn’t English grammar, and even the concepts of cases, verbs, adjectives, etc. as we know them in English fall apart at some point.

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i disagree honestly. I might be missing something obvious but as far as i see it, the zero ga concept is flawless. Take your sentence for example: there will be three subjects. the first ga would be the ‘people’, then the second ga would go on the person saying the entire sentence so that would be you or me or a general person depending on context, and the third ga would be before ‘exaggeration’ and it would be on the rest of the sentence. so the sentence is “if I/you/he said that there is not any one who doesn’t know this movie, it would not be an exaggeration”, with the italics representing the nouns with the ga, and the ‘it’ referring to the entire sentence before it.

Please correct me if i’m wrong anywhere :+1:

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It’s true that zero-が is just a model, even Cure Dolly said it is, but it is a very useful model.
This model wasn’t made only because the English language always requires a subject, but because in reality there always is a subject involved even if it’s not mentioned. There’s always something doing an action, or something being something.

Even if it’s hard to explicitly identify the subject in complex sentences, there has to be one for the sentence to make sense.

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Yes, as far as I have seen so far, the zero ga, albeit just a model, does indeed always exist, and always work, just because every sentence has to have a subject no matter the language.

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Emphasis might be a weird word for it. Think of it as marking what question your asking or answering.

What is けいすけ doing?
けいすけは運転しています

Who is dring?
圭介が運転します

Just imagine yourself saying the sentence “I’m driving” in response to the question “Who’s driving?” vs in answer to the question “What are you doing?” (If you’re not a native English speaker, this example may be worthless). In English, we use “prosody” to cover the difference in emphasis created pragmatically (not semantically) by は and が.
In Linguistics, this is sometimes called the difference between conveying P1 vs P2 data I believe. That is, data that frames our discourse vs data that introduces new information.

Feel free to correct me, but this seems like a good explanation of what is sometimes the “emphasis” meanings behind は and が.

One additional note about は and が, is that while は may not carry the semantic meaning of contrast, it often is pragmatically used that way, that is, は also serves to show a contrast with the speaker’s expectations in this case (in the original sentence).

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perfect explanation. Another thing that helps me is when translating the wa particle, to translate is ‘as for’. so in this case, keisuke wa untenshiteiru = as for keisuke, he is driving. Which adds up perfectly to the example where you answer what are you doing with wa because in a conversation: What are you doing? - As for me, im driving. Whereas if you ask Who’s driving? “- As for me, im driving” doesnt make sense at all, so in that case you use ga. Thanks for explanation, and yea, i dont really think ‘emphasis’ is the right word

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I agree that “emphasis” isn’t the right word, but I think it helps people pick the right particle 90% of the time, so it’s a good tool.

It helps to think of using は in が with respect to “what question” you are answering (even if no question was specifically asked).

Another example could be, “Which phone is Noriko’s?”
これがのりこのです
I use が because the word これ answers the question, and it conveys new and significant information.

But if you find Noriko’s phone left on the table at the cafe, and want to say, “this is Noriko’s” you are answering the question “what have I found?” rather than “which one is it?”
You need to say
これはのりこのです
I use は because のりこの (in this instance Norko’s [phone]) answers the question.

This is not a semantic meaning of は and が, but it is how they are used pragmatically, which means it’s essential for us to understand to use them ‘natively’.

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This is super super helpful :slight_smile: can’t say im a stranger to the distinction between these two particles, but this is more clear than anything else I’ve read. :slight_smile:

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If the OP doesn’t care about all the linguistics theory crafting and just wants a rule of thumb, は appears frequently in negative sentences.

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No you’re not wrong but …

That may be so, but one thing I’ve learned is that there are no absolutes. :wink:

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The sentence we’re looking at is

My response to this would be quite simply… what comes before the zero-が for いない? That’s the one zero-が you didn’t identify. If all we’re trying to answer is ‘what’s the subject?’, then yes, the answer is easy: it’s the sort of people we’ve just mentioned. However, if we stick strictly to the formalism of the model as it’s commonly presented, we’re obliged to insert the subject like so:

この映画を知しらない人はこの映画を知しらない人がいないと言っても過言ではない。

This raises a few problems. The first is of course that the sentence becomes much longer than it initially was for the purpose of conveying the same idea. It’s unwieldy. However, there’s more: rigidly applying this formalism interferes with natural Japanese parsing. In a normal, natural Japanese sentence, the appearance of another agent in the sentence would raise the possibility that that agent is the subject of the next verb in the sentence (i.e. AはBが[verb] typically suggests that B does [verb]). That’s not the case though, as you pointed out in your analysis of the sentence: 言っても is likely performed by the speaker or by some other person. Additionally, AはBが[verb] typically suggests that B is a subset or characteristic of A. That’s not always the case, of course, but since Bが[verb] provides information about A in a natural Japanese sentence of this form, it’s the norm. That sort of parsing is nigh impossible in this sentence. In essence, this sort of ambiguity, unwieldiness and confusion is the exact reason we frequently use pronouns in English and other European languages, and the reason Japanese doesn’t explicitly include the zero-が element systematically.

The matter of cases in which the subject is unclear has also been raised:

I think a good example of this is when the most probable subject is some sort of general situation, like

あの日は、みんなのかばんが消えてしまったことになった。

I think the closest English translation is

On that day, it ended up being that everyone’s bag [unfortunately] vanished.

I’d like to point out that this actually does already stretch the zero-が concept though, because this is an example of an ‘impersonal’ structure, which, as Oxford says, describes something

impersonal
[…]
3 Grammar (of a verb) used only with a formal subject (in English usually it) and expressing an action not attributable to a definite subject (as in it is snowing).

The subject doesn’t clearly exist in these cases. We just have a general feel that something is happening, and we can assign it to the overall circumstances. I’d like to suggest that this poses a challenge to the idea that every sentence needs a subject to make sense, because never mind in my example: Oxford’s example of ‘snowing’ provides us with a case in which a subject is honestly unnecessary, since only the phenomenon really matters, not the presence of a subject.

Nonetheless, I guess I can agree that we generally need a source of action or something to which an adjective can be applied for a sentence to make sense. A ‘subject’ is not always necessary, but something that performs an analogous function is something we tend to seek, even if it’s just a vague sense of something occurring somehow. In the case of snow, for example, we might just refer to the weather or the sky as that source. Still, we could argue that this source or point of focus is sometimes closer to a simple topic, without a need for it to actually perform the function of a subject. (Yes, topics and subjects often overlap, but we’ve also seen that’s not always the case.)

Just as a final example though, even if we assume a sentence always needs a subject or something analogous in order to make sense, if we’re looking at the zero-が model as a parsing technique, I’d like to highlight a whole series of sentences that breaks it. The book 枕草子 opens with a series of sentences describing the most beautiful aspects of the four seasons. The sentences themselves, however, look like this:

春は、あけぼの。
For spring, dawn.
[…]
夏は、夜。
For summer, night.
[…]
秋は、夕ぐれ。
For autumn, dusk.
[…]
冬は、つとめて。
For winter, early morning.

Just to be clear,「春は、あけぼの。」is literally how the book starts. There is no preceding sentence. Where do we insert the zero-が here? The typical analysis given by teachers of Classical Japanese to their students in Japan is that we’re meant to understand that each of the moments of the day identified by the author can be followed by a「がいい」. However, if we’re just considering the original structure of these sentences, none of this information is present, and the most we can do to render the sentences ‘complete’ is to add だ at the end of each one. Even so, we can’t just use the usual ‘take another element from the sentence and interpret it as the subject’ technique that often works with the zero-が model.

Again, this may not disprove the idea that every sentence needs a subject in order to make sense, but I think it should still give us pause because such sentences require quite a bit of additional interpretation in order to become ‘complete’ in the way we’re used to in English, with the subject for a hypothetical zero-が and the verb (and very honestly even all the rest of the predicate) needing to be invented based on context and yet they’re considered acceptable sentences in Japanese. By the way, these sentences still exist in modern Japanese, and aren’t just relics from classical works like 枕草子: a common structure for advertisement slogans is「AならB」, similar to a hypothetical ad in English that might go, ‘Computer? Windows.’ It’s still possible to seek out a subject and a verb/adjective here, sure, but there’s no simple way of applying the zero-が model in such cases.

This is also true for more common structures like といえば and 〜こと・ものだ (when used to indicate what’s important with regard to a certain thing, or general trends/habits):

  • 山といえば富士山だ can’t be parsed as 山といえば 山が 富士山だ, and whether Mount Fuji is in the predicate or acts as the subject depends entirely on how one chooses to interpret or translate the sentence
  • In 合格したかったら勉強することだ, the subject of だ is not clear, and cannot be simply resolved by treating what’s already present as a predicate into which a suitable zero-が can be inserted at the right place. In fact, the dictionary I’m using suggests that one interpret this 「〜ことだ」 as「〜ことが大事だ」, which is slightly different from the way one usually uses the zero-が model.

In essence, while I acknowledge that the zero-が model can be helpful, and I think it’s fine to use it or simply to look for a subject if it helps someone understand a sentence better, I think it’s sometimes more expedient to be aware of the relationships different particles or structures tend to imply. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I do tend to agree with this

given that the model can’t always be applied neatly (as we’ve just seen), and all rules and models tend to fade into the background once one has got a feel for how a language works independently of how it can be explained or interpreted using other languages.

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