Trying to wrap my head around this (wa/ga)


I chose this to match が - です structure and may have flubbed the Maria part as a consequence. But, like… What would 私はイッカクです mean here? I am a narwhal, or my favourite animal is the narwhal?

I’m sure that people have asked several wa/ga questions before, but in this case I’m wondering about potential usage cases that involve the ambiguity. (and to potentially help avoid wa usage that ruins something where the topic was actually supposed to be the subject but it didn’t come across as such due to improper wa/ga use, ex., if I really wanted to say I’m a narwhal here)

Or maybe this is so fringe that I’d have to have completely misunderstood something to even ask this question in the first place.

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Depends on the context.

は is a topic-marking particle. The easiest way to visualise its use for me is to stick to the “as for” translation.

私はイッカクです simply means “As for me, narwhal(s).”

If you say that in response to everyone talking in turn about their favourite animals, it means your favourite animal is a narwhal.

If you say it when everyone is ordering food at a restaurant, it means you’re trying to order narwhal for dinner.

If you say it out of the blue with no context whatsoever, “I am a narwhal” wouldn’t be outside the realm of possible meanings.

[something] は [bla ba bla] just means "as for [something] [bla bla bla]


Alright, thanks. Another question I have now is… How often does a situation where wa is attached to a desu/da but the desu/da isn’t pointing to the topic pop up in native material? And are there common examples of this, or is it actually an unnatural way of speaking to do that?

です / だ are copulas. I always thought that grammatically you’re meant to end a sentence with them if the sentences ends with a noun or な-adjective.

Happy to be corrected though

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I must admit that I don’t understand your question.

The copula (です、だ) never points at a topic. It’s simply a sentence ender. If you boil it down to the basics, a sentence will always end on an い-adjective, a verb, or the copula (keeping it simple, a pedant can point out words like よ, or how implied context sometimes lets a sentence dangle on other particles like と).

は will always mark the topic, which can be as simple as one word, or can be an entire clause that you then want to say something about.

It can be 私は or it can be “The army that came down from the mountains years ago and ransacked our entire village before burning it down” は「ほんやらら」 (I’m too lazy to translate that into semi-decent Japanese or to look through a book for an example of a long clause being turned into the topic of an even longer sentence. :sweat_smile: )

When I was reading through text books and Tae Kim’s guide, the whole は and が stuff was one big mystery. It felt a lot simpler when I went through the KawaJappa CureDolly youtube videos on the topic.


What I meant is, sentences where something is being said to be something else. Like, in the example, either “favourite animal is narwhal” or “I am narwhal.” Cases where [A]は[B]です would normally be [A] is [B] out of context, but in context is actually [C] is [B].

Amen to that. CureDolly’s videos on が made the distinction much easier for me to comprehend.


I’m not sure what you’re asking, but I’ve always thought of the structure to be:

[setting what you’re talking about] は [who the doer is] が [noun or adjective] です / だ

私は(私が)イギリス人です / だ

“I’m English”

To add some contrast, if the phrase were
It would be a non-sequitur “Maria’s favorite animal is dogs. I am a narwhal.”

In the same way 私は is a bit like “as for me,” 私が might be a bit like “I’m the one that…”
“Maria’s favorite animal is dogs. As for me, is narwhal” → “Maria’s favorite animal is dogs. Mine is narwhals.”
“Maria’s favorite animal is dogs. I’m the one that is narwhal” → “Maria’s favorite animal is dogs. I’m a narwhal.”

You can see from that how (especially from an English perspective,) は is a bit more flexible. It kind of stands apart from the “subject”/“object” paradigm we know from English, as the “topic.”
It’s perfectly natural in Japanese for it, like in your example, to not correspond with what would be the “subject” in the situation - it just depends on context. In this case, the context makes it obvious 私は is slotting in where マリアは just was a sentence ago.

Xは (basically anything)… Yは (something contrasting with that previous part) is I’d say a very common pattern, really no matter what kind of grammatical role X and Y would serve in English.
Like you could (hypothetically) say you like hamburgers but not hot dogs that way, or you could say Maria likes hamburgers but you don’t, or you could say a present was given to Alfred but not Beverly.
The は topic would be whichever of those things you’re focusing on. The が subject would be what’s needed to fill the role of the subject for the verb (and form) used.

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If I’m understanding your question, you want to know if it’s common for the meaning of a sentence to shift depending on context?

To be honest, while reading or watching things, I don’t encounter that many sentence that basically only using a brief 「A」は「B」です without any other frills. There is usually more to a sentence than that, which often makes things much clearer.

But a sentence out of context (especially a short one with the bare minimal in it) can quite easily seem like it’s saying AはBだ, while returning the context will make it clear that CはBだ is what is actually said. A pretty common question in the Quick or Short Grammar Questions thread is “What’s the context?”

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That’s a very elegant summation. :purple_heart:

While I understand grammar a lot better nowadays than I did two or even one year ago, I still flounder a lot with putting things into words. Or not knowing how to answer at all if there are esoteric follow-up questions, or references to how English grammar does [this or that]. :joy:

It’s definitely something that bleeds in over time :slight_smile:

I’d say it’s just the kind of thing that just happens so regularly (in more complicated real situations) that quickly you end up not noticing it. Like, usual to the point of being a bit invisible.

I’m echoing @Omun with that but I think that’s where the confusion came from - this specific situation doesn’t necessarily happen that often, it’s hard to say. But situations where the sentence might not be clear if you don’t know what came immediately before it are more-or-less always.

It’s the kind of thing where, like - if you know
was said in a vacuum, then it definitely means “I’m a narwhal.”

But if you know it wasn’t said in a vacuum, then it means “As for me, is narwhal” until and unless someone lets you know what that missing context was.
If it’s the start of a story and the next sentence is about swimming around the ocean, it definitely means “I’m a narwhal.”
If it’s like your example, it definitely means “my favorite animal is the narwhal”
If the next sentence is “it’s a funny name, I know” then it’s somebody with a silly name introducing themselves.

That kind of context filling in happens in English too (“He is a narwhal” in a vacuum means a hypothetical void person who happens to be male is a narwhal, or if it were preceded by “Bob’s a cool guy” then it definitely means Bob is a narwhal.), it just pretends it doesn’t to a greater extent. :slight_smile:
は, and Japanese in general, isn’t more vague than English, it’s just more overtly context-sensitive.

… so I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s totally understandable as a newcomer to see
XはYです and think of it as “X = Y” and then append to that “… but sometimes it’s not?” and try to figure out the deal with that!
And the deal is that it was never really about XはYです mapping to “X = Y” in the first place, and more about は setting aside a thing and highlighting that as a thing you want to talk about. It just happens that if you do that and say “I’M GONNA TALK ABOUT X NOW”, and then the next thing you say is “= Y,” we get what you mean.

Not sure any of that’s clear at all, but I hope it helps a little at least! :slight_smile:


は is like saying “speaking of …” and が is an indicator of something that’s doing something, or it’s the thing you’re talking about. But Japanese operates on this “topical field” and “specific thing in the field” way.
So here, が is indicating the thing that applies to は
The building’s windows are dirty.
This presents the general field as the building, and the window is designated specifically as the thing relating to it.

Actually the grammatical structure is

[A] が [B] です

As shown in 好きな動物が犬です : [liked animals]が [dog]です

Liked by whom ?
As マリアは set the topic, it is then evident that they are the animals liked by maria (“being liked to Maria” in Japanese perception).

It’s just that it is very common to have both topic and subject refer to the same thing; in such cases the subject isn’t said, as it will be ridiculously redundant to do so.
Hence the common structure [A]は [B]です
But は can mark as the topic literally anything;
you must not think in terms of “wa is attached to a desu/da” (I suppose by “is attached” you mean "is one part of the equality that です express).
The particle は is only about topic (or contrast, but that is some sort of topic too I think); that’s all. Then it is to your understanding of context to find out which grammatical role that topic may have in the following sentences (if any).

Apologies if this is just piling on unnecessary explanation, but on the off chance it might help out:

I think my biggest epiphany with は was that it’s not just an alternative to が. The two are often brought up together, but really は can “replace” any number of particles. For example:


With that sentence, you have three different places は could theoretically go:


In all of those sentences, the same fundamental action happens, but the focus and emphasis changes. Some might be kind of weird to say outside of the right context, but they’re all possible.

tl;dr は marks the topic of sentence, which often also happens to be the subject, but it doesn’t have to be. Also I agree with the people talking about CureDolly’s explanation, that’s absolutely where this epiphany happened, definitely recommend!


You can even (i think) make the ball the topic


or the throwing:


Just for fun, and so beginners can see that what comes before the は can indeed be very long; here is an attempt to put that thing in Japanese :

年数前に山からりてきて、うちの村を全部略奪りゃくだつして、った軍は …

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