Identifying the unknown

「が」 identifier particle

With the 「は」 topic particle, you have to know what you want to talk about ahead of time. Obviously this will not always be the case. For example, if you wanted to know what kind of food somebody liked, it would be impossible to ask if each kind was his/her favorite using the topic particle saying “as for this” and “as for that”. That is what the 「が」 particle is for: to identify or seek to identify an unknown.

  1. ピザ – pizza
  2. 好き 【す・き】 (na-adj) – likable
  3. どんな – what kind of
  • ピザは、好きですか?
    As for pizza, do (you) like it?
  • どんなピザ好きですか?
    What kind of pizza do (like)? (Among all possibilities)

You can sometimes restructure your sentence to mean the same thing with and without the 「が」 particle.

  1. 好き 【す・き】 (na-adj) – likable
  2. 食べ物 【た・べ・もの】 – food
  3. 何 【なに/なん】 – what
  • 好きな食べ物は、何ですか?
    As for food that (you) like, what is it?
  • 食べ物は、何好きですか?
    As for food, what is it that you like? (Among all possibilities)

However, while the topic particle can only bring up a general topic of conversation, the identifier particle plays a specific role in that it’s identifying a particular thing among other possibilities.

  1. 忙しい 【いそが・しい】 (i-adj) – busy
  • スミスさん、忙しい。
    As for Smith-san, busy.
  • スミスさん忙しい。
    Smith-san is the one that is busy.

Which teacher do you like the most?

  1. どの – which
  2. 一番 【いち・ばん】 – number 1; the best; the most
  3. かわいい (i-adj) – cute
  4. 二年生 【に・ねん・せい】 – second year; sophomore
  5. 来年 【らい・ねん】 – next year
  6. 楽しみ 【たの・しみ】 – something to look forward to
  7. なんで – why
  8. 授業 【じゅ・ぎょう】 – class
  9. 面白い 【おも・しろ・い】 – interesting
  10. 難しい 【むずか・しい】 – difficult

リー: ジョンさんは、どの先生一番好き?
ジョン: 田中先生好きだね。
リー: そうだね。かわいいよね。でも、二年生の先生だよね。
ジョン: 来年楽しみだ!
アリス: 私は、山本先生好きよ。
ジョン: え?なんで?
アリス: 授業面白くない?
ジョン: 面白くないよ!難しいよ!
アリス: そう?

Toggle Translations

Lee: As for John-san, which teacher do (you) like the most?
John: (I) like Tanaka-sensei.
Lee: That’s so, isn’t it? She is cute. But (she’s) second-year teacher.
John: Looking forward to next year!
Alice: As for me, I like Yamamoto-sensei, you know?
John: Huh? Why?
Alice: Isn’t (his) class interesting?
John: It’s not interesting! It’s difficult!
Alice: Is that so?

The one or thing that…

Though it doesn’t work all the time, a simple trick to easily distinguish 「が」 is to translate it as “the one or thing that…”. This way, it clearly illustrates the 「が」 particle as identifying a particular thing or person.

  1. 田中先生好き。
    Tanaka-sensei is the one that (I) like.
  2. 授業面白くない?
    Isn’t (his) class the thing that is interesting?
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