HALP MEEE! Troubled using を or は?

Ok so I’m learning Japanese on Duolingo and I have trouble using をand は when talking about foods.

For example:

  1. 野菜を食べます (やさいをたべます)
  2. 野菜は食べません (やさいはたべません)

Am I just using を for ます? And は for ません? Pls help I am confusion…

Disclaimer: I’m learning too, so correct me if I’m wrong :slight_smile:

I think it’s the invisible (assumed) parts of a sentence that are tripping you up.
The complete sentence (never actually spoken like this) would could be
私は 私が 野菜を 食べます(ません)。
(topic subject (object of verb) verb)

The subject is very often left out, and the often the subject can be assumed to be the speaker. So both sentences could be correct. But the second one feels more like you’re changing the topic. Something like

(previous sentence: I eat hamburgers.) Vegetables [on the other hand], I don’t eat.

And in that case, the object was left out as redundant, since that was the topic.

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It’s less a change of topic and more the use of は as a contrastive marker. But yeah, the implied meaning is still “I don’t eat vegetables, but I do eat something else”.

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Here’s my take on it:

At its core, a sentence with an object will have three things: a subject, an action (verb), and an object. These are sometimes called logical parts of the sentence. The object is what the verb is being done to or using. The object is always marked with the particle を. The subject is marked by が, but may be unspoken if known from context. The subject tells us who is performing the action (verb).

In a sentence with 野菜(やさい)を, the object is 野菜(やさい) (vegetable). Since the action (verb) is ()べる (to eat, in its ます form), the first sentence says that the vegetable (object) is what is eaten (verb). We don’t know who is eating (there is no subject marked by が), but normally this is known from context.

The particle は is what is sometimes called non-logical. It doesn’t tell who is performing the action, what action is being performed, or what the action is being performed on. What it does is get some context for the sentence. If I’m talking about elephants and say their noses are long (はなが ながい, where the subject is “nose”), and my friend says their necks are long (くびが ながい, where the subject is “neck”), I’ll be confused. My friend needs to change the context of which animal they’re talking about, to the giraffe (きりん). This is done though は: 「きりんは くびが ながい。」

In your second sentence, 野菜(やさい)は is setting “vegetable” as the context the sentence is about. The unknown subject is “not eating” (because the verb is in a negative form), but we don’t know who isn’t eating (no subject is stated; normally would be known from context), and we do not know what they are eating (no object is stated).

Since you are setting the context to be about vegetables, it’s likely there was a preceding sentence about something other than vegetables (such as my friend’s comment about giraffes was preceded by something not about giraffes, a sentence about elephants). This is where you will sometimes see people refer to “the contrastive は”.

For an example, let’s say you’re talking about your pet. The subject is your pet. Because you’re talking about your pet, the subject (marked by が) doesn’t need to be spoken. It’s known from context. You might say:

  • 果物(くだもの)()べます。"(My pet) eats fruit."
  • 野菜(やさい)()べません。“As for vegetables, (my pet) does not eat.”

Note that in the first example, “eats fruit”, “fruit” is an object of “eat”.

In the second example, however, there is simply “not eat”. There is no “object” here. Vegetable is not the object. It is simply the context you’ve moved the conversation to.

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I highly recommend supplementing your learning with a resource outside of Duolingo for problems exactly like this. Duolingo doesn’t teach you the grammar structures behind the sentences it has you memorize.

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Do you have any recommendations for sites other than Duolingo?

Nothing that’s as gamified or easy. Maybe Tae Kim’s Guide, Maggie Sensei, or Japanese Ammo with Misa. Those are all free resources. Bunpro.jp is great for reviewing grammar concepts and has links to outside sources, but it’s a paid site. The best approach would be to get an actual textbook like Genki and work through it.

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I think the best “starting from zero” free resource is the Cure Dolly series. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLg9uYxuZf8x_A-vcqqyOFZu06WlhnypWj

Drawback: you have to endure the voice and the animation. But the content is solid.

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Don’t forget to mention, turn on subtitles.

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Hi, are you a native English speaker?

こんにちは!Yes, I am, why do you ask?

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