When to use が instead of は

Hey guys, this is my first post here, nice to meet you all!:raising_hand_man: One of my recent example sentences was お金が十円足りないんです。(I am 10 yen short). Can someone explain to me why the が particle was used as opposed to the は particle? And would it be wrong to use は in this case? Thanks!

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Welcome to the site!

It wouldn’t be wrong to use は, but it would change the nuance. One way to think of が vs. は is “new information” versus “something we’re already talking about.”

The most basic usage of が has the nuance of “I’m mentioning something that hasn’t been part of the conversation yet.”

The most basic usage of は has the nuance of “I’m mentioning something you should already kind of be aware of in some respect.”

So, with that sentence, either one would be fine in isolation, but which you would use in an actual conversation would depend on the flow of it up to that point. There’s no particular reason to choose one or the other in something like this kind of example sentence though.

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So if, for example, someone like a cashier was asking me to pay for something が would be more suitable but if I were talking to my friend who knows I’m short on money then は would be more suitable right?

Yeah, I can imagine conversations where those differences would be suitable.

To be fair, in real life, you probably wouldn’t need to say お金 with が or は if you were talking to the cashier… if you’re standing at the register, it’s obvious what 十円足りないんです means.

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Thank you! This really helped me :smiley:

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The only real answer to this timeless debate.

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Recommended watching (with subtitles on):

Recommended reading:

Something worth knowing (which I believe is covered in the first Cure Dolly video above): が is used to mark the subject, which is the one either doing an action (in a verb sentence) or having a property (in an adjective sentence).

Every sentence has a subject (marked by が), but it’s not always spoken. Often it can be left out because it’s known from context. (This happens in English, too, although not in nearly as many situations as in Japanese.)

は is never used to mark the subject. However, it’s possible the topic (marked by は) happens to be the same as the subject (marked by が). When this is the case, there’s no need to state the subject (marked by が), because it will be clear from context.

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I’m starting a new comment to keep this separate from my resources comment above.

Here, the お(かね) is the subject. The subject will always be either doing an action (verb) or having a property (adjective). In this sentence, there is an adjective, ()りない, meaning “insufficient” or “not enough”. And this adjective is modified by 十円(じゅうえん), so it’s “10 yen not enough” or “short by ten yen”.

I agree with @Leebo that the お(かね) portion can be left out because it’ll be known from context. However, if you were going to “use は in place of が”, you’ll want to know what’s really taking place.

Removing お(かね)が does not remove the subject. It’s still the money that is short. You can say 「十円(じゅうえん)()りない」, and the subject will be known from context. The listener won’t think your pet cat is not enough by ten yen, or your garden is ten yen insufficient, or your childhood memories are lacking by ten yen. Leaving the が-marked subject out of a sentence does not remove the subject, it simply doesn’t speak it.

Thus, you are not really using が or は in place of one another, although my high school Japanese class textbook sure made it sound that’s what was happening. Textbooks that make them sound interchangeable are probably top contributors to confusion in learning these two very different particles that have very different purposes and uses. I know my text book had me confused for nearly two decades.

Since が always exists (even if unspoken), using は is not removing the subject. The subject is still there, just unspoken, but known from context. Using は adds to the sentence without taking anything away. What is setting the topic with お(かね)は adding to the sentence? What is the context where you need to specify you are talking about money?

I recommend paying attention to sentences you see (especially in native material) and asking, “What is the が-marked subject in this sentence? Is it spoken? Is it unspoken?” And then when you see は, ask yourself again,“What is the が-marked subject? What word is marked by は? In the context of this sentence, would the listener misunderstand the speaker if the は-marked topic was unspoken?”

Consider you’re at the zoo with a friend, chatting about animals. Your friend says:

「ぞうは(はな)(なが)い。」

He’s talking about ぞう, the elephant. But the subject is noses, which he is attributing the property of “long”. “As for the elephants, (their) noses are long.”

Then you say:

(くび )(なが)い。」

Your friend looks at you funny. You just told him the elephants’ necks are long. That’s because you’re on a different topic (another animal), but you didn’t actually verbally change the topic. Your friend isn’t a mind reader, and thus has no idea that you are talking about the giraffe now.

「キリンは(くび )(なが)い。」

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Wow I never really thought of が as being a necessary particle but just unspoken, I always thought は had the same effect so I was always confused. The videos were also explained really well. Thank you this really helped! :smiley:

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Tofugu blog highly recommends this longish (40 min) youtube video:

I liked it a lot, and it has funny example sentences.

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The Cure Dolly videos have excellent explanations but are impossible to listen to without subtitles on. The voice has been so over-processed that it sounds unnatural and grating.

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I find them easier to listen to if they’re sped up.

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I’m not even sure anymore if the voice really is over-processed from a normal input or if her mic us just a literal potato and she is trying to fix it as much as she can.

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I figured the voice was completely synthesized, like your basic text-to-speech or Vocaloid.

Dogen

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This has been a grammar point that has haunted my dreams ever since I started studying Japanese and one that continues to do so. However, it’s gotten easier over time to know when to use は or が. Here’s some things I’ve come to learn about が specifically:

  • First is grammatical reasons. が is always used in certain grammatical situations. For instance it’s always after question words like 何. Another good example would be you always use が instead of は when using either ある or いる. Another use would be to mark the the thing being talked about in 好き, 嫌い, 上手, or 下手 sentences.There are more grammatical uses Than just these three, but listing them all would take too long.

  • Second is the one that is the hardest for me and one of the questions you asked. Some one here on WaniKani clarified the “introduced new information into the conversation” bit for me.
    The biggest question for me though was what qualifies as new. The best way I can describe it is by using the example that I was given. If you and your conversation partner were talking about a stray dog nearby and you both could see it, you would use は because it is observable and obvious to both of you what you’re talking about. If you were the only one to see the dog you could point it out by using が because your conversation partner hasn’t seen it yet and is this new information. If you didn’t use が in this situation it would be confusing. It would be like if suddenly you said “Oh, it’s running towards us“ when your conversation partner has no idea what your talking about. But if you said, “Oh, there’s a dog is running towards us” it would make more sense. And another thing to add is that once the information is added to the conversation, you use は for that information from then on. Even into later conversations if it was clear what you were talking about. Like if you and your conversation partner saw that stray dog a lot, you wouldn’t have to keep introducing it over and over. And lastly on this subject, there’s universal information. This is stuff that you never have to use が on because everyone is familiar with it. Things that are common among all people are things like the sun, the moon, or the sky. There also could be certain social norms that everyone would know about as well.

  • が is always present in every sentence. However, it’s not always “visible.” が sometimes puts on the mask of は in the situation that the information being talked about is already know to both people talking. は does double duty of both marking the subject of the sentence and the topic of the sentence. This is why you hear some people say that は and が are interchangeable. Someone on here posted a Cure Dolly video that made me realize this as well, so I’d recommend watching her video on the subject.

Sorry if this seemed a little long winded. が is not a simple subject for English speakers. Good luck on your studies!

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I recently listened to the black metal-ambient album from Burzum and when you speed it up to 2x it sounds like a reggaeton album :rofl:

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let me give you an example without explanation (Leebo did that already).

むかしむかし、あるところに、おじいさん_が_いました。
おじいさん_は_こころやさしいひとでした。

… Wait… What?

In Korean が is either 이 or 가. Then は is 은 or 는. Image Japanese… with about double the amount of particles. :crazy_face:

Stage 6: Japanese looks fun

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*Waits to learn Chinese has its own version of が vs は.*

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