I was speaking to a Japanese native the other day and instead of saying ケーキを食べたい he simply said ケーキ食べたい. When is it acceptable to exclude particles?
Particles are dropped in conversational and less formal speech. You’ll routinely see the dropping of は, が, を and, when it’s clear enough, even に. か is also dropped as a question marker in more casual speech and replaced with just a rising intonation.
The shorter the utterance is, as well, the more likely that particles seem to be dropped.
The exception would be when a particular particle is there for emphasis, and not merely to serve a basic grammatical role.
There’s a difference between what’s grammatically correct and what actually gets used in day-to-day conversation. The same thing happens in English: you’ve probably said something like “You okay?” instead of “Are you okay?” at some point in your life. Even though the first sentence is missing a verb and is strictly speaking not actually a complete sentence, it’s still pretty commonly used.
It’s kind of the same thing here. Leaving out the particle isn’t technically grammatically correct, but it happens anyway.
As people have said, it generally happens in casual speech, though in differing amounts depending on who is talking to whom, which region they’re from, their relationship, etc.
As a foreigner my advice to you would be: If in doubt, leave it in.
You’ll learn this nuance with time (I’m still just beginning to learn it). Definitely don’t imitate characters in movies or especially in anime as they often speak in very specific ways to strengthen their personality, that wouldn’t really be appropriate for ‘normal’ people. If you’re a Japanese learner, no native will ever get upset at you for sounding a bit stiff.
Since that wasn’t addressed above, I just want to add that it would be ケーキが食べたい not を
Here’s a random example:
That would be a stickler position on it, but it’s normal to hear を (in younger people’s speech anyway), and some say that the nuance is different.
Oh, I didn’t know that! I’ll look into that.
(It’s probably not what OP was going for, though )
Edit: oh! I found it. Makes sense.
So I see how the nuance is different. The same place did note that が sounded more natural to them.
I understand the first definition but this has defeated me
Something like “to use as a single word i-adjective”? How does that define 飲みたい?
Also, what exactly do the parenthesis in definitions mean?
So, the parenthesis are here to show how units of meaning are being parsed. 飲みたい is composed of two elements: the verb “stem” (connective form) 飲み and the auxiliary たい which express desire and also behaves like an adjective. (That’s basically what the first quoted line meant)
You thus have three elements total: 水, 飲み and たい, and you have to decide in which order you combine them. If you combine 水 and 飲み first, since you are dealing with a verb, you will use を to connect them. That’s the first option, which makes water drinking a single unit, that you want to do.
The second option (the one you quoted) is to first combine 飲み and たい, thus creating an adjective. In that case, you need to combine 水 with が. It’s water (not something else) that you’d like to drink.
I do not understand what you mean by that, but hopefully the clarification above helped
Ah I see, thanks. I’ve been trying to switch to using J-J resources more, but I haven’t found anything that describes what all the symbols mean.
I think I get it. The nuance is something really subtle like “I want to drink some water” vs “I want a drink of water”? Would anyone actually interpret the two as having different meanings (or nuances) in practice?
I’m probably misunderstanding the purpose of the thing you quoted. The definition for（水を飲み）＋たい reads like it describes what the phrase means, but the one for 水が＋（飲みたい）reads like it describes its grammatical function instead. Does that make sense?
This is just my own interpretation. More experienced folks please feel free to correct me anywhere I’m wrong.
If you think of ‘parenthesizing’ the language kind of like tweaking the ‘order of operations’ (in math, for example) in terms of meaning in English, then I think the difference is something like this:
- (( I want to drink ) some water ) vs.
- ( I want ( to drink some water ))
The first is focused on ‘wanting to drink’. “I really want to drink.” Oh, really? Well, what is it that you want to drink? “Eh, some water, I guess.”
The second is focused on ‘drinking water’. “Drinking water, drinking water, drinking water!” Umm, what about ‘drinking water’? “Oh. Yeah. It’s just something I want to do.”
Now, as for which of the two corresponds to を and which corresponds to が, I’m not as confident on. I think 水が＋（飲みたい） corresponds to (1) and （水を飲み）＋たい corresponds to (2), but I can also imagine it reversed, so I’m not really sure.
I’m probably using the wrong linguistic terminology here – I don’t know if you can really call the results い-adjectives – but here is my explanation attempt (it’s basically the same that @Naphthalene already wrote, but with bad attempts at directly translating it to English added):
Appending -たい to something turns it into an い-adjective, and it adds a meaning along the lines of “is wanted”. If you say you turn the verb “stem” 飲み into an adjective by appending -たい, resulting in the い-adjective 飲みたい, it means something like “is wanted to drink”. If you want to specify that “water” is the thing that you want to drink, you have to make it the subject by appending the subject marker が to 水. Therefore you get 水が(飲みたい)。 => 水が飲みたい。 “water (is wanted to drink)”
If instead you first create the phrase 水を飲み, you mark 水 with を as the direct object for the verb 飲み. Afterwards, you turn the whole phrase into an い-adjective by appending -たい. Therefore you get (水を飲み)たい => 水を飲みたい “(drinking water) is wanted”
If I’m understanding @Naphthalene’s post correctly,（水を飲み）＋たい is more focused on the action (lit. the action of drinking water is wanted), while 水が＋（飲みたい）is behaving like 水がすき, where water is the subject that is wanted to drink (something like “water has the attribute of wanting to be drunk by me”).
It definitely quacks like an い-adjectives so it passes the duck test (also Naphthalene’s resource literally says that it’s being used as an い-adjective in the second case).
I get how both phrases function grammatically, I’m just not convinced there’s much difference in nuance between “wanting the action of (drinking water)” and wanting water to drink in practice.
I guess what I’m asking is, is there a situation where a really pedantic person would use one and not the other?
 Some more thoughts:
- I guess a better analogue in English might be “I want to drink water” vs “I want water to drink” but I’m hesitant to transfer same nuance to Japanese…
- Is 水を飲みたい a bit more direct/casual, since you’re implicitly making yourself the subject?
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