Confused about the は particle

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This confuses me a bit. Are they simply saying that you don’t need a subject to form a sentence? Are they just explaining the obvious, and I´m overthinking it? What confuses me the most is “topic phrase”.

The way I read it is, a phrase marked by は can be a subject or not be a subject. That’s all.

It’s a natural consequence of this that, for instance, in the second sentence, it’s possible to have a sentence with は that also contains no explicitly mentioned subject, just an omitted subject that is understood by context. But they didn’t say anything about being able to omit subjects specifically. You can just see it happening in the example.

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I would check out Cure Dolly’s videos on the matter. Before you get too deep into は, you might want to make sure you know about が and understand the core basics of a Japanese sentence:

Her video on は is the third one of her series and it’s here: Lesson 3: WA-particle secrets schools

IMO, she has explained は and が the best out of anyone I’ve seen. Also,I dont mind her voice but if you do find her voice a little annoying, she does have accurate subtitles in her videos.

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I agree with @Leebo’s analysis.

は marks the “topic” of conversation, but that may or may not be the “subject” of the sentence.

For the example sentences given:

  1. メアリーさんは二年生です。
    “Mary is a second-year student” / “Mary is a sophomore”
    Here “Mary” (メアリーさん) is both the topic and the subject.
  2. 私の専攻は日本語です。
    “My major is Japanese” / “My major is the Japanese language”
    Here “my major” (私の専攻) is both the topic and the subject.
  3. メアリーさん、週末はたいてい何をしますか。
    “Mary, what do you usually do on the weekend?”
    Here, “weekend” (週末) is the topic (as marked by は), but the subject is “what.”
  4. 今日は京都に行きます。
    “(I’m) going to Kyoto today”
    Here, “today” (今日) is the topic (as marked by は), but the subject is not stated (and so assumed to be “I”).

I hope that helps a bit.

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I look at the example sentences a wee bit differently.

First, I consider the purpose of the particles as:

  • は: marks the topic
  • が: marks the subject
  • を: marks the (direct) object

For the sentences:

「メアリーさんは二年生です。」

  • は marks メアリーさん as the topic.
  • が is omitted. Based on context, we can determine メアリーさん to be the subject (the noun being defined as 二年生), but it could be possible for this sentence to exist with a different subject.
  • Example of a different subject: “Bob, Mary, and Carol all have children who are third-year students, don’t they?” “Bob and Carol do. メアリーさんは二年生です。”

「私の専攻は日本語です。」

  • は marks 私の専攻 as the topic.
  • が is omitted. Based on context, we can determine 私の専攻 to be the subject (the noun being defined as 日本語).

「メアリーさん、週末はたいてい何をしますか。」

  • は marks 週末 as the topic.
  • が is omitted. Based on context, we can determine メアリーさん to be the subject (the do-er of the verb します).
  • を marks 何 as the object of the verb します.

「今日は京都に行きます。」

  • は marks 今日 as the topic.
  • が is omitted. Based on context, we can determine the subject. The speaker could be stating where they are going, or they could be answer a question on where Hiro-san is going today (after talking about where Hiro-san went yesterday, and where he went the day before.)
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If you can get your hands on Jay Rubin’s ‘Making Sense of Japanese.’ There’s a section on ‘wa’ and ‘ga’ which I consider to be the best and most concise, one-stop wa/ga explainer I’ve ever come across (just try to get past the romaji). Highly recommended!

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That’s a better analysis for these sentences, but I did not want to get into が, especially when it was not present in any of the example sentences. Also because が does not always mark the “subject” from an English translation perspective which can add confusion.

For example, in the sentence「メアリーさんは、本が好きです。」“Mary likes books” the “topic” and “subject” are both Mary (marked by は) in the English translation. Though one could argue that a more literal translation “As for Mary, books are likeable” would have books as the subject.

Tofugu has a pretty good article on が here that helped clear up that confusion for me (see the section on が with “Objects”).

And you’re right, I messed up analyzing this one. Question form always throws me off. “Mary” would be the subject.

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This added-confusion messed me up for a long time, as the sources I had for learning Japanese portrayed Japanese grammar from an English translation perspective. =( So that’s why I lean a bit heavily on “here’s what the Japanese grammar is doing”.

Hopefully @JesperHH is able to make sense of all of our replies! (We haven’t even touched on what it means that Japanese topic-prominent language, nor on the topic-comment structure…)

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Subject can be omitted (and often is omitted) in Japanese. Which is completely different from English and many other languages. Subject is often derived from context, so there could be multiple “correct” translation of single sentence. You need to provide the whole bunch of sentences, a paragraph, to be more sure of particular translation.
This sentence:
今日(きょう)京都(きょうと)()きます。
does not have subject in Japanese. From context, it is assumed that the speaker talks about themselves - about them going to Kyoto today.

Topic phrase is 今日(きょう)は - typical literal translation is “As for today”.

So literal sentence translation would be:
As for today, (I) will go to Kyoto.

Imagine it like texting - when texting we often skip full sentence structure. In Japanese, this is language norm.

All the best! I’m also using Genki as main source of grammar. Often I find their explanations not satisfactory, and I’m either trying other resources for clarification, or just ignoring cryptic bits during this initial pass of grammar.

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To expand on this, in English we often replace subjects with a pronoun, whereas Japanese drops the subject completely.

For example, we wouldn’t say, “I found a stray cat. I brought the stray cat home with me, and I poured a bowl of milk for the stray cat to drink.” Instead, we would say “I found a stray cat. I brought it home with me, and I poured a bowl of milk for it to drink.”

There are instances where we drop the subject in English, but it’s very casual, and less common. I think it’s mostly when answering questions. “Where did you go today?” “The store.”

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The cat is an object here, though. With a subject it would be something like this:

“Mary found a stray cat. Mary brought the stray cat home with Mary, and Mary poured a bowl of milk for the stray cat to drink.”
vs
“Mary found a stray cat. She brought the stray cat home with her, and she poured a bowl of milk for the stray cat to drink.”
vs Japanese
“Speaking of Mary, found stray cat. Brought stray cat home. Poured milk in bowl for stray cat.”

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You’re right; I wrote that part poorly. I should have written “known subjects and objects are replaced by pronouns in English”. I originally had a different sample sentence that replaced the subject with a pronoun, but I changed it before posting.

Yeah, the salient point is that once you have introduced something as a topic (or it’s clear from the context), you don’t need to keep repeating it.

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