Confusion about は Particle


#1

Hi guys, I was learning 何月 vocab and it present this sentence:

学こうは何月にはじまりますか。

My translation was 'What month will school start?'
But WK translation was ‘What month do you start school?’

So I know that my mistake was due to thinking that は made 学こう main topic of sentence and since there is not previous context here, so 学こう is most likely subject of sentence too.

So my question is:

  1. Is my translation incorrect?
  2. In sentences without any established context how should one know if noun represented by は is not a subject of sentence?

#2

Your translation is not wrong. And WK’s might be slightly more like what English speakers say, depending on the person. I prefer translations that lean toward natural English over strictly following the Japanese word for word. I don’t think it has much to do with は in this case.


#3

And what about my understanding that in the absence of any established context, noun followed by は is both topic and subject of sentence. Is this correct?


#4

Yes it is. For instance, I believe you can have が more than one in a sentence, but you can only have one は, which automatically means the word with は particle is indeed the subject (and topic particle) of that sentence.


#5

The word with は attached doesn’t have to be the subject just because a word with が didn’t appear. The subject could be implied even in a one-shot example sentence. If there’s no extra context, you just don’t necessarily know if it’s the subject or not, but you can guess.

A sentence with no context like わたしはおちゃです probably does not mean “I am tea.” That’s not literally impossible, but your best guess is “I’ll have tea.”

Also, you can have a sentence like 私は昨日は昼食は取らなかったんです (source) when は is functioning as the contrast marker.


#6

No, it’s not. You can have a sentence without any established context, where は does not mark the subject. Easiest example off the top of my head would be 朝ごはんはもう食べている? which would translate to ‘Did you have breakfast already?’ and obviously not to something like ‘Did breakfast eat already?’. The topic is indeed the breakfast, but ‘you’ is the subject.

In general, with a question (like the one above) the assumed subject is the listener, with a statement the assumed subject is the speaker. That is, if there is no context that would imply otherwise or a subject marked in the sentence.


#7

thanks. that clarified a lot. :thinking:


#8

I had some trouble in the beginning with the same particle. This is because the Japanese language can easily ommit the subject in a sentence. Be careful though of sneaky exceptions.

While 今日は and 昨日は, both use the ~は particle, it does not necessarily mean “Today” and “Yesterday” are the topic of the conversation. This is a grammar point you’ll walk into sooner or later though. :stuck_out_tongue:


#9

If the verb is 始まります, wouldn’t that imply that the school is the subject, as opposed to “you”?


#10

Yes. And he did infer that.