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Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

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Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby Pkmn Trainer Abram » Mon 05.26.2008 11:06 am

I'm using an item from Pokemon Pearl as an example here. I'm using a list of vocab words and writing sentences with them for reinforcement.

"Waza mashin wa migini imasu"
The technique machine is to the right.

If I was merely declaring that the technique machince(waza mashin) was to the right(migini), would I use wa in that context or ga?
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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Mon 05.26.2008 11:40 am

Impossible to say without any context. Either one would work depending on what comes before or after -- issues of wa vs. ga can rarely be decided on the basis of a single, out-of-context sentence. It's sort of like asking about "a pencil" vs. "the pencil" in English -- if all you have is "A/the pencil is on the table", it's impossible to say which one would be correct.

(BTW, imasu vs. arimasu is something you might want to look at as well.)
Last edited by Yudan Taiteki on Mon 05.26.2008 11:49 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby Pkmn Trainer Abram » Mon 05.26.2008 11:49 am

Oh right, since it's an inanimate object, "Imasu" would be inappropriate. I knew I did something wrong with that but could not put my finger on it.
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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby furrykef » Wed 06.11.2008 2:55 am

Well, let's not stop here. Let's explore the issue a bit.

A good rule of thumb to start with is that, for the subject, は is a lot like "the", and が is a lot like "a/an":

猫はテーブルの上にいます。
The cat is on the table. The speaker, and probably the listener, is already familiar with the cat in question.

猫がテーブルの上にいます。
A cat is on the table. The speaker has probably never seen this cat before and assumes the listener has not either. On the other hand, if the speaker has reason to believe it belongs to the listener, one would say "wa", just as one would say "the" in English.

So I would guess that, in your sentence, one would probably use "wa".

However, naturally, it wouldn't be a rule of thumb if it didn't have exceptions:
テーブルの上には何がありますか。
猫がいます。
What's on the table?
A cat is. / The cat is.

Here, whether or not either party is familiar with the cat, "ga" is the only option, because the topic is "on top of the table". You're not changing the topic by answering the question. (The "full" sentence would be テーブルの上には猫がいます, but we omit the first part because it's redundant.) The thing that is the answer to "What is...?", "Who is...?", "Where is...?", etc. will never take "wa".

Disclaimer: I'm still a beginning student, so my advice should be taken with a small grain of salt. However, I do feel that I have a fairly good grasp of this issue, or I wouldn't be talking about it like this. But my all means correct me if I'm wrong. :)

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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby spin13 » Wed 06.11.2008 6:00 am

furrykef wrote:A good rule of thumb to start with is that, for the subject, は is a lot like "the", and が is a lot like "a/an":


I wouldn't liken anything in Japanese to the definite and indefinite articles of English. In fact, I think you're doing yourself a disservice by equating the fundamentals of two vastly different languages, and to others as well by posting this flawed viewpoint in public. The biggest stumbling block of many language learners is truly understanding and accepting that these languages are not the same.

Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark said it best when they compared first language acquisition to second language acquisition:
...[first language learners] do not have one language already, so they cannot get muddled by it, and they appreciate, without thinking, something that is fundamental to the nature of all languages: they are not translations of other languages; they are direct 'translations' of reality, of things, feelings, ideas, actions, of human experience.


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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby furrykef » Wed 06.11.2008 1:29 pm

spin13 wrote:I wouldn't liken anything in Japanese to the definite and indefinite articles of English. In fact, I think you're doing yourself a disservice by equating the fundamentals of two vastly different languages, and to others as well by posting this flawed viewpoint in public.


Mm, that's rather a harsh critique.

In this context, articles and the choice between wa/ga serve largely the same function: distinguishing old vs. new information. I find that the distinction is a lot less mysterious and scary when a simple, if not perfect, grammatical analogy is found. So I'm not convinced that the analogy is all that flawed. Also, I did provide a counterexample to show that this "wa = the" idea is far from the real truth. It's just, as I said, a rule of thumb... something to go on in the absence of other information.

spin13 wrote:The biggest stumbling block of many language learners is truly understanding and accepting that these languages are not the same.


I'd have thought that the sheer number of things in Japanese that are fundamentally different from English would clue anybody in that they're not the same. In fact, it was exploring the Japanese language in 2003 that showed me how fundamentally different language can be, and I had exposed myself to only a fraction of the language's grammar.

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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Wed 06.11.2008 3:15 pm

furrykef wrote:
spin13 wrote:I wouldn't liken anything in Japanese to the definite and indefinite articles of English. In fact, I think you're doing yourself a disservice by equating the fundamentals of two vastly different languages, and to others as well by posting this flawed viewpoint in public.


Mm, that's rather a harsh critique.

In this context, articles and the choice between wa/ga serve largely the same function: distinguishing old vs. new information. I find that the distinction is a lot less mysterious and scary when a simple, if not perfect, grammatical analogy is found. So I'm not convinced that the analogy is all that flawed. Also, I did provide a counterexample to show that this "wa = the" idea is far from the real truth. It's just, as I said, a rule of thumb... something to go on in the absence of other information.


That explanation works for a certain subset of sentences, but even as a beginner general rule it's not that great, since there are a number of simple sentences that don't work with the a/the explanation:
すしは好きじゃない。
田中さんが今日の先生です。
日本は人が多い。
ゾウは鼻が長い。
お飲み物は?
あしたはどうですか?

I think rather than trying to equate は to "the", it's better to just say that は indicates (1) some sort of known information that is being introduced as a topic, and/or (2) contrast with something else. This definition may take a little more getting used to than "は = 'the'" but it will lead to a deeper understanding of the language in the end. Sometimes learners have a tough time discarding things that they learn early -- there's a concept called "fossilization"; basically, once you learn to do something in a language, it is very difficult to change your habits. It's much easier to learn things correctly off the bat.

There's a rule of thumb in pedagogy called the "80% rule" -- the idea is that it's impossible to explain 100% of the use of all native speakers, so it's good enough if you can come up with a rule that explains 80% of the uses. Less than that and the rule is going to have too many exceptions, more than that and the rule will become wordy and complicated.

But the main reason I didn't respond to the original poster is that I tend to be reluctant to type out detailed, general explanations of basic grammatical points for people who are not using a textbook. Why reinvent the wheel?
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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby Inori_Shougo » Tue 06.17.2008 10:52 pm

Well im not so sure of this, but it helped me out so here it is.
A long time ago mi sensei told my class that there is an easy way to know when to use GA and when to use WA, and i will explain it with an example:

If you ar talking of one thing and only in that thing you should use GA:

Example: Tanaka-san GA takaidesu (Tanaka is tall)...or, Ano hana GA motto kireidesu (That flower is beautiful).
As you can see in example 1 you are talking of Tanaka-san and ONLY of Tanaka-san, the same is for example 2.

Now if you are talkin in general you should/can use WA:

Example: Doubutsutachi wa kawai dewa arimasen (animals are not cute[i think they are n.n] )
As you can see in example 3 you are talking of animals in general, not ducks, not lions, just all animals in general.

I repeat, im not sure if this is correct, if its not please tell me xD.
I hope this helps n.n
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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby Wakannai » Wed 06.18.2008 1:03 am

Inori_Shougo wrote:
Example: Doubutsutachi wa kawai dewa arimasen (animals are not cute[i think they are n.n] )
As you can see in example 3 you are talking of animals in general, not ducks, not lions, just all animals in general.

I repeat, im not sure if this is correct, if its not please tell me xD.
I hope this helps n.n


Why did you add tachi to doubutsu? Now I'm thinking of pandas running around with pink parasols and surfing the internet at the local internet cafe.

Alright, right or wrong I'll say this because it works for me. Wa isolates. Whether wa is being used in the "as for" sense or it is being used to contrast, it divides from the previous topic but not too far so it still relates. This isolation is to show a relationship with the previous topic. Imagine a pie, then cut it in the usual way, take a piece and slide it out a few inches so that a third person might still collectively refer to the piece and the rest of the pie as "the pie". That is what wa does, it isolates, but not so much that it becomes unrelated to the previous topic. Now that we have isolated that piece of pie, we can identify how it relates to the rest of the pie either by identifying similarities or differences.

ga does not isolate, it binds. More specifically, it binds to the current topic without reference to the previous topic. Where wa is relative, ga is specific. It may add or subtract values or qualities, but it doesn't compare.
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Re: Should I use wa or ga in this situation?

Postby Hyperworm » Wed 06.18.2008 1:28 am

The best explanation I have ever read of wa and ga was in the book "Making Sense of Japanese" by Jay Rubin. It's basically what Yudan Taiteki-san said above, except he talks about it for about fifteen pages (with lots of example situations). :P
"Wa always performs its double function; it distinguishes known topics from other topics, and it signals you to look for the important information that is about to be imparted in the coming discussion [...] throwing the emphasis on in the sentence to what really matters."
(whereas "ga" puts emphasis on the subject.)

I also think you're definitely doing yourself a disservice if you try to think up sentences and analyze them for whether they'd be better with "wa" or "ga", unless you also think up a story for the sentences, giving yourself a context in which they are uttered. Wa and ga are all about context.
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