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The particle が and subject marking

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The particle が and subject marking

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Wed 11.22.2006 6:14 pm

It's pretty standard in grammar books and dictionaries to say that one of the functions of が is to mark the subject of a sentence. But something I keep seeing on these forums is that が *exclusively* marks subjects (and in a related sense, a subject *must* be marked by が). I disagree with this idea.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with taking a familiar word like "subject" and defining it in a way that does not match what we are used to in English. Japanese is not like English, and we wouldn't expect the grammar to be the same everywhere. However, if you are going to do this, you have to stick to that definition.

There are two basic possibilities:
1. We will use the term "subject" to refer to a noun phrase marked by が, regardless of its function in the meaning of the sentence.
2. We will use the term "subject" to mean basically what it means when we talk about English (i.e. the doer of an action, the thing being described by an adjective, etc.)

These two definitions are mutually exclusive. If you use definition #1, you cannot rely on definition #2 as well.

To illustrate with some examples:
1. 私がします。 This is an example where both #1 and #2 work fine. 私 is marked by が, and it is clearly the subject even from an English analysis.

2. 私はします。 Here we have what appears to be a subject, but it's not marked by が. Some would argue that this is a topic, rather than a subject, but a sentence's topic can also be its subject.

3. 英語が好きだ。 This is an example of a verb that does not involve control or volition. What appears to be the object of the verb from an English standpoint is marked with が. However, if we want to use definition #1 of "subject" from above, we have to say here that 英語 is the subject of the sentence. This has led some people to actually claim that 好き is a passive verb that means "to be liked", but 私が好きだ can mean either "I like [it]" or "[The person] likes me"; the attempt to use が as exclusively a subject marker obscures the dual meaning.

4. 私は英語が好きだ。 This sentence, viewed from English grammar, looks like 私 is the subject. However, if we are going to stick to #1 above, 英語 is the subject and 私 is the topic.

5. 私が英語が好きだ。 This sentence is grammatical, although it requires specific context to be something that a native speaker would say. It is not the normal way to just say "I like English." However, given that it is grammatical, we have to consider it (and if this is a relative or subordinate clause it is completely normal). The fact that there are two が-marked nouns would suggest, by definition #1 above, that this sentence has two subjects. However, the two words clearly have a different role in the sentence -- the first noun specifies who likes something, and the second noun specifies what they like. If they are both just "subjects", how do we know which one is which?

6. 先生が英語がお分かりになることを知っていましたか。 The reason why we can use the honorific verb in the relative clause is due to 先生. The normal explanation of this is that since the subject of the verb is someone that deserves respect, the verb can be made honorific. However, if we are going to use definition #1 of subject above, we have to find a different way to explain this sentence.

7.#太郎ちゃんが鈴木先生がお好きだからいつも先生の授業で集中します。 (assume that taroo is a child who you would not use honorific language with). This sounds strange because the noun that controls the honorification of 好き is 太郎, not 鈴木先生. But if they are both subjects due to being marked by が, how do we explain this?

8. 太郎に花子が自分の妹よりよく分かる。 This sentence means "Taro understands Hanako better than his own sister." The 自分 cannot refer to 花子. How do we explain this? Once again, from English grammar it looks like 太郎 is the subject, but by #1, 花子 must be the subject and I have no idea what to call 太郎 under this analysis.

9. 彼に分かる。 According to #1 this sentence has no subject, but it looks like 彼 is the subject -- this sentence means the same thing as 彼が分かる。

To sum up, there's nothing wrong with using familiar words with new meanings when talking about the grammar of a foreign language. But there are a few things you have to do if you're going to do this:
1. Make sure you are consistent in usage -- i.e. if a subject is defined as being marked by が, you can't also use it to mean someone who does an action.
2. Explain what you mean; if you tell a learner "が always marks the subject" without explaining what you mean by that, they're just going to assume that "subject" here means what it means in English grammar.
3. Make sure the explanation works for many sentences, not just a few simple ones.
Last edited by Yudan Taiteki on Fri 11.24.2006 12:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby paul_b » Wed 11.22.2006 6:36 pm

激しくどうでもいいです。

[Edit]Or to put it slightly more politely there are around half a dozen flaws in your position on which I could logically argue my point of view but you're being obsessive and I've better things to waste my time on.
Last edited by paul_b on Wed 11.22.2006 7:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby Infidel » Wed 11.22.2006 7:25 pm

I like 1.
なるほど。
さっぱりわからん。
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby flammable hippo » Wed 11.22.2006 8:03 pm

I gave up reading it at 7. I think you went just a wee bit overboard with this topic (or should I say subject :D)
Two muffins were baking in an oven. One turns to the other and says "sure is hot in here." The other replies "AH TALKING MUFFIN!"

二つのマフィンがオーブンで焼かれていた。片方のマフィンがもう一方のマフィンに向かって、"暑いね”と言った。すると、話しかけられたほうのマフィンは"アッ!喋るマフィンだ!”と驚いた。 :)
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Wed 11.22.2006 8:40 pm

It's not overboard at all if you're actually interested in the language. There's a reason why books do not define subject as being "something marked by が". The confusion over が and は results at least partly from people's attempts to explain it.

I guess I don't care that much -- if you want to keep misleading people by telling them that 英語 is the subject of 英語が分かる or that 私 is not the subject of 私はします then go ahead, but it's kind of sad to see.
Last edited by Yudan Taiteki on Wed 11.22.2006 8:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby flammable hippo » Wed 11.22.2006 9:03 pm

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
It's not overboard at all if you're actually interested in the language. There's a reason why books do not define subject as being "something marked by が". The confusion over が and は results at least partly from people's attempts to explain it.

I guess I don't care that much -- if you want to keep misleading people by telling them that 英語 is the subject of 英語が分かる then go ahead, but it's kind of sad to see.


You know, I'm very into the language and I still think its kind of overboard. And some books do a pretty good job at explaining how to use it (Genki) whether it be used to mark the subject of the sentence or whatever. Actually I think your post just adds to the confusion rather than actually solving the issue.

And I remember reading that 分かる literally means "to be understandable" so the sentence 僕は日本語が分かります literally means "As for me, Japanese is understandable" and thus Japanese could be considered the subject of the sentence and that is why it uses the particle が and not を. Same thing goes for verb/adjectives like 好きです and 嫌いです. When you say "僕は __ が 好きです" you are literally saying "As for me, __ is favorable. Since 好きな means favorite. So once again, the thing that is being described by 好き is technically a subject. This concept also applies to others as well such as 上手, 下手, ぺらぺら, etc. And of course you could have sentences like 僕が好きです where this would either mean I like... or (Someone) likes me. (Lit-Someone, I am favorable.) These just require context. Also, you can even replace が with は in a lot of these such as in the following "すしは好きですが、うなぎはきらいです. I'm assuming this is possible because these are technically subjects and not objects of the sentence (although は can be used to replace を too in some sentences-テレビは見ません).

And there are just some instances where the subject must be marked by が and not は such as when answering a question or asking a question (だれが来ましたかー山田さんが来ました。) or when the subject is part of a larger clause that is being used to qualify a noun (友だちが飼っている犬ですーThe dog that my friend is raising).

So が is actually most of the time used to mark some sort of subject. It just sometimes takes some effort to figure out why something is going to be considered a subject and not just an object or something else.
Last edited by flammable hippo on Wed 11.22.2006 9:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Two muffins were baking in an oven. One turns to the other and says "sure is hot in here." The other replies "AH TALKING MUFFIN!"

二つのマフィンがオーブンで焼かれていた。片方のマフィンがもう一方のマフィンに向かって、"暑いね”と言った。すると、話しかけられたほうのマフィンは"アッ!喋るマフィンだ!”と驚いた。 :)
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Wed 11.22.2006 9:17 pm

You know, I'm very into the language and I still think its kind of overboard. And some books do a pretty good job at explaining how to use it (Genki) whether it be used to mark the subject of the sentence or whatever. Actually I think your post just adds to the confusion rather than actually solving the issue.


Perhaps. The purpose of the post was not to help beginners understand が but to work out the definition of が and subject with some of the other more advanced people -- partly I just want to understand the definitions people are using. While I definitely think it's good to provide a simple definition for beginners, the definition needs to also hold consistent for more complicated things in the language. Definitions that are simplified to the point of being incorrect can cause problems later for a person -- for instance, for a very long time I thought that anything that was an adjective in Japanese had to be either i- or na-, so I said thinks like 病気な人.

I also perhaps overestimated people's interest in this topic; studying linguistics and pedagogy all the time I sometimes forget that not everybody is interested in it.

And I remember reading that 分かる literally means "to be understandable" so the sentence 僕は日本語が分かります literally means "As for me, Japanese is understandable" and thus Japanese could be considered the subject of the sentence and that is why it uses the particle が and not を.


But then what about the cases where both the nouns are marked by が? I think the issue of が vs. を is more one of volition or control -- を is only used with verbs that involve volition or control. Since you have no direct control over whether or not you understand something, the object of 分かる is marked with が.

However, you do see を分かる used among native speakers, showing that there is overlap. My impression is that it's more of a continuum -- there are things that are clearly controllable and always use を (such as 食べる), there are things that are clearly not controllable and always use が (such as 違う or most adjectives), and then there are things that seem to involve some volition but at the same time are not directly controllable, and those can take either (such as 分かる or 好き).

Also, you can even replace が with は in a lot of these such as in the following "すしは好きですが、うなぎはきらいです. I'm assuming this is possible because these are technically subjects and not objects of the sentence (although は can be used to replace を too in some sentences-テレビは見ません).


The way I've seen it explained is that は can go after many particle, but if the particle is が or を it drops out and just leaves the は behind. I think Paul_B was saying this on the other thread when he was saying that は carried the meaning of が as well as its own meaning -- in other cases you get には or までは or things like that.

So が is actually most of the time used to mark some sort of subject. It just sometimes takes some effort to figure out why something is going to be considered a subject and not just an object or something else.


I agree that one of が's functions is to mark a subject. I just find it confusing when people try to extend that to say that が's only function (not counting the "but" usage) is to mark a subject, and then try to reinterpret everything else in Japanese grammar to fit that idea.
Last edited by Yudan Taiteki on Wed 11.22.2006 9:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby coco » Thu 11.23.2006 7:08 am

Yudan-Taitekiさんのおっしゃっていることが
「『が』をsubject maker としてだけ捉えると、そのうち混乱を来す」ということでしたら
その通りだと思います( 違っていたらすみません)。
そしてこのスレッドで「が」のいろいろな用法について説明できれば学習者のみなさんに役立つものになるだろうと思います。

もし、私の英文理解がまったくの見当外れでなければ、ですが
これを加えたらいかがでしょうか。

1)ビール飲みたい。--- 「ビールを飲みたい」と同義で使われる。
2)恵理(えり) は、よく気つく優しい子だ。
3)彼の言動に、腹の虫おさまらなかった。

keatさんの発言にもありましたが、日本語でいう「主語」は、かなり曖昧です。
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 11.23.2006 10:03 am

ええ、それもいい例文だと思います。ありがとうございます。
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby keatonatron » Thu 11.23.2006 1:23 pm

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
It's not overboard at all if you're actually interested in the language.


I chose to not waste my time trying to figure out how to explain it in English, and just worked on being able to understand は and が in Japanese. I feel I have an excellent control of the two, even though I can't always explain why.

Perhaps the problem is that fully understanding the proper uses requires experience, no substitutions allowed. You can try to explain the basics to new learners, but they'll only really understand by getting a feel for it by themselves. No amount of detailed explanations and rules will be adequate.
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 11.23.2006 1:56 pm

I agree with that to a certain extent -- you will never be able to understand something like は and が just by reading English explanations and never trying to use the structures of the language. But English explanations can speed to process of understanding, and I think that to the extent we use English explanations they should be accurate. Simplified is fine, but simplified to the point of inaccuracy is not.

To me, saying that が always marks the subject of the sentence is akin to saying that compound words are always read with on-yomi, and then explaining words like 金色 by saying that "iro" is actually an on-yomi in that word.
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby naki_mushi » Thu 11.23.2006 6:11 pm

Instead of trying to mark が with a single definition, we can try to think of all the が involved as "different" が s? You may have forgot that one element of a language can have more than a single definition. ;)
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby coco » Thu 11.23.2006 10:44 pm

●人物につく場合
恵理(えり) は、よく気がつく優しい子だ。
の文章から、「が」と「は」をちょっと考えてみました。
恵理[color=red]は優しい子だ。[/color]
これは恵理の性質を評価した一般的な文章になります。
話者がこの話題を初出として切り出すときには「は」で始まります。
恵理[color=red]が優しい子だ。[/color]
この文章は奇異に映りますが、
Yudan Taitekiさんが前から説明しているように
「理香と恵理と明美の中で、誰が一番優しい?」
という応答に対するものと考えれば、使われないことはありません。
この場合、別スレッドのShin1roさんの説明にあったように
「恵理が」は、「誰が」に対する応答として使われています。
flammable hippo-san の例、
(だれが来ましたかー山田さんが来ました。)
に相当する形です。
既出の話題/質問に対応した「が」である--と考えられるかもしれません。 

ところが自然現象などを浮キ場合を考えてみると、逆になりそうです。

●自然現象などにつく場合
(秋が深まり、山々の) 紅葉(こうよう)[color=red]が美しい。
咲いた。
出ている。[/color]
これらが一般的な阜サであるのに対して
紅葉[color=red]は美しい
咲いた。
出ている。[/color]
になると一般的な話としてではなく、話者にとってその現象が特別な感慨を伴っていると感じさせる阜サだと解釈されるように思います。この用法は文章の〆言葉などのような書き言葉としてはよく使われます。

これを会話として考えてみると

1)紅葉がきれいだね。
2)紅葉がきれいですね。
(「きれいな紅葉ですね」と同義ですが、これには「は」も「が」もありません。どういう解釈になるのでしょう)
は、話者が目にした風景を、感想を伴って阜サし、その現象を共に見ている(あるいはその現象を共有できる)聞き手に話した(に過ぎない)と受け取られるのに対し
3)紅葉はきれいです。
4)紅葉はきれいだね。 (←これは微妙なので保留)
になると、共時性がなくなり、一般化されている上、話の続きがありそうに思えるのです。(したがって相槌の打ち方に困惑しそうです :p)
3)などは、
「紅葉はきれいです。自然というのはなんと素晴らしいものなのでしょう」とか、
「紅葉はきれいです。それに比べて私たち人間はなんと醜いことでしょう」などのように、
話者の話がまだ続くと卵ェされます。
紅葉の話題は、話者が伝えたい内容の前置きに過ぎないように受け取れるのです。

同じ「が」であっても、違うんですよね。
これが「人物」につく場合と、それ以外のものになるかどうかはまだ未検証ですが、そういう分け方も、ひとつあるかもしれないと考えます。
この方向で検討を加えると動物例も必要になりますね。
すでに説明されていることでしたら、すみません。
Last edited by coco on Thu 11.23.2006 11:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Fri 11.24.2006 12:05 am

小説などの場合にも、「恵理が優しい子だ。」などの主人公を紹介する文章が出てくると思います。それは"new information ga"ということです。
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RE: The particle が and subject marking

Postby Sunken » Fri 11.24.2006 4:10 am

As I've never seen the double が sentences you list, I'm going to stick with the simplistic view that が marks the grammatical subject of the sentence/clause - for the time being. It's been a very good working theory in my experience.
Much of your trouble seems to me to stem from an unwillingness to accept that subject (grammatical) and topic (semantic) are not the same thing. It's topic, not subject, that determines things like 敬語 and what words like 自分 refer to - after all, many if not most Japanese utterances don't even have a grammatical subject.
BTW, I don't think anyone believes that "a subject *must* be marked by が". (は or nothing at all works very well) - it's only the reverse that's being claimed.
So for my part, I'll go on considering が as a subject marker (as well as subject emphasis, of course) until experience proves me wrong, but I'll keep an eye out for anomalies anyhow.
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