Particle Help: を versus が

Hello everybody.

I’m hitting that point in my studies where I’m having a really hard time deciding which particle to use in certain sentences. For reference, my grammar is around Genki Level 4 (so I’ve got a long way to go).

Lately, I’ve been mixing up when to use を or が.

Could someone explain why the particles are used the way they are in the following 2 sentences?

わたし中国語ちゅうごくごかりません。

I don’t understand Chinese.

Why is が used here instead of を. How would the meaning of the sentence change if I used を or would it just not make sense?

私は昨日きのう手紙てがみきませんでした。

Yesterday, I did not write a letter.

Same question… why is を used instead of が and how would the meaning change if I mixed them up?

Thank you in advance to whoever helps me tackle this problem!

I totally understand your pain with these, and I have just started getting the hang of these two particles. It can be confusing. My grammar is around your level so someone please correct if I’m wrong.

So for your first sentence you see が because it is using the Chinese language as an object, and not something you are acting upon. So the Chinese language is like an object that is not understood.

It would be を if you say 私は中国語を話しません because then you are saying you are unable to use the language for speaking, and in this case the Chinese language is a direct object that is used with what you cannot speak.

The second sentence is を because the letter is the direct object of the verb 書く and it is saying the writing is not done.

Hope this makes sense! I am kind of bad at explaining things

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@IgorTheGreat Actually, that helps a lot! Thank you for including the example sentence. I see how the two are different. I guess the trick here is to use が for things that are “unknown,” but it’s tricky because we don’t really think that way in English.

Does anyone else have other tips for differentiating when to use を or が?

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Simply put, it depends on if the verb is transitive or intransitive. Intransitive verbs only have a subject, marked by が. Transitive verbs have both a subject, marked by が, and an object, marked by を. Keep in mind that the subject or object may not be explicitly stated if it’s obvious from context. If you’re still not sure what transitive and intransitive mean, look that up real quick before reading the rest of my post.

Now to answer your specific questions.

分かる is an intransitive verb, unlike in English where “to understand” is often transitive. 分かる is more like saying something (the subject) is understandable. It’s just not natural to translate it that way in English. If you use を it would not be grammatically correct, though people would probably understand what you meant.

Here you use を for 手紙 because that is the object of the verb 書く. It is the thing you are writing. 私 is the subject, but it’s not mentioned because it’s obvious from context. Saying 私は私が would be redundant. Like in this sentence, the subject is often left out when it’s the same as the topic. Here you cannot replace を with が without changing the meaning completely. If you said 手紙が書きませんでした, you’re saying that the letter didn’t write (something unstated). While it’s surely true that a letter didn’t write anything, this obviously doesn’t make sense to say.

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Wow, thank you so much! This is really so helpful. I understand this concept much better now. I read up about transitive/intransitive verbs a bit and I feel like that will really help me with my learning as a whole too.

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With the important qualified exception of it’s a “motion verb” such as to say 家を出る or バスを降りる.

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Yeah, that raises the point of indirect objects. Intransitive verbs can have indirect objects, and that’s what 家 and バス are there.

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Igor, I want to clarify some things you said. が is the subject marker. It is used to identify for the listener the subject of the sentence. It is different from は because は indicates the topic of the sentence. は tells the listener the most important information up front, as in "Talking about __は、subjectが verbs(ed). In the sample sentence, it works like this: "Talking about 私 (I/me/myself), 中国語 (Chinese language) が (subject) わかりません。(not understand) This is something unique to Japanese. Whereas we would say I (subject) don’t understand (verb) Chinese (direct object), the Japanese think of it as "Speaking for myself, (は-topic) the Chinese language (が-subject) not understand. (negative intransitive verb). It takes some getting used to, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. Keep working at it.

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As for your point that が marks something not known or understood, you are probably referring to expression like dare ga だれが、meaning “who.” In these cases, が is used, as in others, to mark the subject of the sentence. だれがですか。“Who is it?”

Minna no nihongo, chapter 9

1. N が あります/ わかります and N が 好きです/ 嫌いです/ 上手です/ 下手です

The object of a transitive verb is marked with を. However, objects of the verbs あります and わかります are marked with が.

Such adjectives as すきです, きらいです, じょうずですand へたです require objects, and these are marked with が too. The verbs and adjectives whose objects are marked with が are those kinds that describe preference, ability, possession and the like.

わたしはイタリア料理が好きです。
I like Italian food.

わたしは日本語がわかります。
I understand Japanese.

わたしは車 (くるま) があります。
I have a car.

は can never be used to mark something that’s unknown to the listener. Question words like だれ, どこ, なに and so forth are by definition unknown, so they must always take が and never は, but it’s by no means limited to them.

If I want to, for example, bring up a specific cat which I haven’t previously mentioned in conversation, I can’t say ねこは, because my listener is going to follow up with “which cat?”. I have to first introduce it with が.

Is that how Minna no Nihongo explains it? I feel like that’s just going to confuse people by trying to shoehorn English transitive verbs into Japanese. ある and 分かる are both intransitive in Japanese, and thus don’t take objects. 好き, etc. are more akin to “likable” than the transitive English verb “to like”. In all of those example sentences, が marks the subject, not the object, based on Japanese grammar.

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が is used with ある、いる and わかる as my teacher told me. With some adjectives as上手、下手、好き and 嫌い if I am not mistaken.
i wanted to share the source as i an not that experienced…

が is used with those, as you said. I just find calling it an “object” to be misleading.

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Excellent addition, Belthazar.

Isn’t that just the difference between a direct and indirect object? Correct me if I’m wrong, but otherwise I don’t find it that confusing.

Wow this is actually really helpful as the difference between topic and subject has been something I have had issue with. Thanks!

Btw, I understand what you mean, it’s unique to japanese compared to English, but it can be interesting to know that this topic-prominent feature is pretty much common to all eat asian language. I like this article about it:
https://eastasiastudent.net/study/topic-prominent/

No.
In English, “I threw the ball at Sam,” ‘ball’ is a direct object and ‘Sam’ is an indirect object.
The direct object is directly affected, and the indirect object is tangentially affected.

In Japanese, direct objects are usually marked by を, and indirect objects are often marked by things like に. But not always. Unfortunately particle use isn’t that clear-cut.

In ボールを投げる, ‘ball’ is the direct object, marked by を. But as mentioned by Athomasm and Leebo, in バスを降りる etc を is marking an indirect object. “I got off the bus.” However, を mostly only marks indirect objects with verbs of motion.

The thing with ある, わかる, etc is that they’re intransitive verbs. Transitivity exists in English, but it’s something you don’t really have to think about very much necessarily. In Japanese, transitivity is very important and you need to learn it at some point.

So as sean said, わかる is more equivalent to “understandable.” So you wouldn’t say 私は日本語をわかる because that sounds a little like saying “I understandable Japanese.” Instead you would say 私は日本語がわかる, meaning that Japanese is understandable (for me). In this sentence, 日本語 is the subject. It’s not an object. わかる cannot take a direct object.

So like Sean said, the みんなの日本語 explanation just seems confusing. It will get you where you need to go in the short term to make sentences, but it’s probably going to cause a lot of confusion later on.

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Okay, I see. Ahh, Japanese particles are so complicated. I feel like I just need a lot more exposure to reading to really get this down. Anyway, thanks for the explanation!

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