August 27, 2023

Understanding が the “Subject Marker” in Japanese

What is the が Particle?

It's often called the "subject marker", but this is a better definition:

が marks the subject of the verb (or adjective) that follows.

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が really wouldn’t be all that confusing if it weren’t for the overlap with は, but let’s start with this simple definition: が marks the subject of the verb (or adjective) that follows.

Notice I didn't say, "The subject of the sentence."

For example:

Illustrating the function of が in this sentence

In English "I" is the subject (of the sentence). But in Japanese, が follows the subject of the verb or adjective.

Before we go farther, I should note we aren’t talking about the end-phrase conjunction が (but; however) on this page. You can learn about this here. We are talking about the “subject marker” が. 

 A Fuller Definition:

While I believe thinking of が as the subject of the following verb or adjective is a great starting point, the が adds nuance also. So, here's a fuller definition:

The particle が marks the subject of a verb or adjective within a specific clause. It often serves to introduce new information, add emphasis, or single out a specific item among several possibilities, and it helps to answer the “who” or “what” question related to the action (verb) or description (adjective).

In other words, が not only marks the subject of the clause, but it also often carries additional information or nuances.

Outline of the Functions of が

Before diving into more examples and detailed explanations, let's first outline the main characteristics of the particle が:

  • Marks the subject of a verb or adjective within a specific clause, which may not necessarily encompass the entire sentence. (We already touched on this.)
  • Often signifies new or more specific information, highlighting a particular focus. (は, on the other hand, is often information already known to the listener.)
  • May be used to emphasize one option and can explicitly exclude others, adding nuance to the statement.
  • Pairs with certain verb-like adjectives, such as き (to like), い (to dislike), しい (to want). In these cases, the が marks what would be the object in English. However, we can continue to consider this as marking the "subject" of the adjective, describing a quality that they possess (being liked, wanted, etc.) Remember the original rule: が marks the subject of the verb (or adjective) that follows.
  • Used with question words like だれが (who) or が (what), to form queries.

Before we tackle each of these points in more detail, let's first talk about... は and が.

は and が

The confusion sometimes arises from the similarity between が and は. Here's a comparison to clarify their distinct functions:

  • が follows the noun (or phrase) responsible for the action within a clause.
  • は, on the other hand, follows the noun (or phrase) that represents the overall topic or theme of the conversation. Also, it can replace が if the noun is both the subject and topic.

If our conversation's Topic is about the subject doing the action, the は wins out unless you want to emphasize the subject.

Illustrates how は is used over が when the word is both the topic and the subject

The Roles of は and が

Let's explore the different roles は and が have with an example sentence:


yesterday | は | snow | が | fell

It snowed yesterday.

In this example:

  • は marks the topic, which is "yesterday." It sets the context for the conversation, telling us that the action took place "yesterday." However, "yesterday" itself is not performing any action.
  • が, on the other hand, marks the noun (snow) that performed the action (fell). It identifies what specifically did the falling, which was the snow. Remember the original rule: が marks the subject of the verb (or adjective) that follows.

So, while は provides a broad context or theme for the conversation (not limited by the final period), it doesn't necessarily specify the doer of the action or the thing being described. "Yesterday" didn't do the "falling."

が pinpoints exactly what carried out the action, creating a clearer connection between the subject and the verb. In this way, が tells us that it was the snow that fell, within the context set by は, which is "yesterday."

Do you see how we can call は the "topic marker" and が the "subject marker" here?

Okay, let’s look at another example. This one is often cited by Japanese grammarians. This time, we aren’t dealing with an action but rather, a description of the subject (marked with が).


elephant | は | nose | が | long

Elephants have long noses.

This example has an adjective ((なが)い long) which describes not the elephant but the elephant’s nose. The “elephantは” is the overall topic. The “noseが” is the subject of “long.”

We are talking, in general, about the elephant. Specifically, we are talking about its nose which is long. Forget about the English definition of “subject” and remember the rule: が marks the subject of the verb (or adjective) that follows.

(はな)(なが)い as a phrase which is under the topic, ゾウは.

One other point that might help is, according to grammarians, は and が are totally different creatures.

  • が is a traditional particle like で, に, and から. It is called a "case-making particle" or 格助詞(かくじょし) in Japanese. It indicates the grammatical relationship between nouns and other elements in the sentence.
  • But は is a different beast. It is hybrid between a particle and an adverb. This is called 副助詞(ふくじょし) in Japanese. It is more like an adverb that modifies clauses to add nuance or emphasis. If this is the case, は is similar to words like こそ. 「わたしこそ」 (It is I...) or さえ (even) 「(かれ)さえ()らない」 (Even he doesn't know.)

This explains why you can use other particles with は but you can't with が. They are different types of particles.

  • わたしには - As for with me...
  • わたしにが X (Can't do this!)

Marks the subject of the immediate clause

When I was first learning Japanese, I was taught that が is the subject marker but has many exceptions. 

As we've discussed, a more accurate way to understand が is to recognize that it marks the subject of the specific clause it's in, rather than the subject of the entire sentence. This nuanced understanding helps clarify the role of が and reduces the perception of it as an exception-ridden rule.

So, が may mark the actual subject of the sentence as in:


yard | が | wide

The yard is large.

Here, “yard” is the subject of the sentence in both English and Japanese. Also note we are using an adjective here (wide). It’s the same concept, just with an adjective instead of a verb.

Or it could mark something else:


As for me, I | Japanese language | が | can; able to

I know Japanese.

Here, in English, the subject would be “I” which is marked with a は marker in Japanese.

However, 日本語(にほんご) is, in a sense, the “subject” of できる. It shows what できる can do.

While "I" is the topic, "Japanese language" is the subject of the ability indicated by 「できる」.

が marks the previous noun as the thing doing whatever comes next.

Here’s another example:


(As for me,) I didn't know John was there.

  • “I” is the overall topic. That’s what this conversation is all about.
  • ジョンがいた (John was there) is the subordinate clause under 私(わたし)は and therefore takes a が which pairs it with いた (existed).

が introducing new information, emphasizing, and excluding other options.

The following sentences are both correct but have a slight difference in meaning.



Both of those sentences mean “Yamada is Japanese.”

So, what’s the difference?

If this was said in response to the question, “Who here is Japanese?

Then が would be correct. Why? Because が makes Yamada the subject of 「日本人(にほんじん)です」 while also emphasizing that he (or she) is Japanese as opposed to others who may not be.

However, what if the question was “What kind of a person is Yamada?

Then you would want to make 山田(やまだ)さんは the topic of everything you are about to say. You might state he is Japanese and then go on to say he likes chocolate and late-night Netflix binge watching or whatever.

Here is an example where we introduce a cat with が but switch to は when the cat becomes the topic:


Yesterday, there was a cat (ga).


As for that cat (wa), it was brown (ga).

In the first sentence, the cat, as new information, is introduced with a が. It simply states a fact. The cat is the subject and answers the unspoken question, "What was there yesterday?"

But it is not the topic of the conversation yet. If anything, the "topic" is "yesterday." You are simply establishing the fact there was a cat.

In the second sentence, however, the cat is now being described and therefore, it is the topic of the conversation. It is the focus of what will be discussed.

Now that the cat is labeled as the topic, you don't have to keep mentioning the cat.

For example, this might be the next sentence:


(the cat) was cute.

が with Verb-like Adjectives


I like cats.
[or rather: As for me, I like cats.]

In Japanese, certain adjectives often take what would be considered the object in an English sentence and treat it as the subject of the adjective. These adjectives are usually related to emotion or desire. It is also used with potential verbs that show ability or possibility. Here are some examples:

  • (きら)い to dislike
    Example: (いぬ)(きら)いです I dislike dogs.
  • 上手(じょうず)  to be good at
    Example: (かれ)(うた)上手(じょうず)です  He is good at singing.
  • 下手(へた) to be bad at
    Example: (わたし)料理(りょうり)下手(へた)です  I am bad at cooking.
  • 得意(とくい) to be strong at, to be proficient at
    Example: 彼女(かのじょ)数学(すうがく)得意(とくい)です She is strong at math.
  • 苦手(にがて) to be weak at
    Example: (わたし)はスポーツが苦手(にがて)です I am weak at sports.
  • 必要(ひつよう)  to need
    Example: お(かね)必要(ひつよう)です I need money.
  • ()しい  to want
    Example: この(ほん)()しい I want this book.

Again, in each of these examples, the word following the が particle is what would be considered the object if the sentence were translated directly into English. However, we aren’t talking about English! In Japanese, these words serve as the subject of the respective adjectives, describing a quality or condition they possess (being liked, disliked, needed, etc.).

が with 「ある」 and 「いる」

If you need a review of ある and いる, please click here.

  • ある shows existence of inanimate objects
  • いる shows existence of things that move on their own

And they have two purposes:

  • Both are used to simply say something exists
  • Both are used to say something exists in a particular location.

In the case where ある or いる indicates simple existence, は is often used.

But! In the case where ある or いる also indicates location, が is often used.

So, if I were to say:

Sentence 1:  (ねこ)います。

Sentence 2: (ねこ)います。

What would be the difference? It all depends on the context, but here are a few possibilities.

Sentence 1: が is used when showing location, so you may have just spotted a cat in the distance and are saying “There’s a cat (over there).” が is also used for new information or for emphasis.

Sentence 2: This sentence states a cat exists and implies this is in contrast to something else. For example, if someone asks you if you have a dog, you might say, “No but (ねこ)います.”

が with Question Words

Question words like (なに) (what), だれ (who), or どこ (where) usually take が.

Who ate the cake?

do you want?

Wrap up

Since が can mark the subject of a clause, there can actually be multiple “subjects” in a complex Japanese sentence. This may seem strange coming from an English mindset, but thinking of it as the subject of the verb or adjective will help simplify things.

  • が is the subject of a clause.
  • が is used with certain adjectives that show desire or emotion.
  • It is used with question words.
  • が is also used to emphasize, identify, or single out something specific among several possibilities.
  • は replaces が when the person or thing doing the action is also the topic of the conversation.

Keeping these things in mind should help straighten out some confusion. But as with any grammar matter, these sorts of things are best learned through examining example sentences.

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