0927-435-5517 or 044-308-5871 sageasianlanguagebulacan@gmail.com

Grammar In Constructing Basic Japanese Conversation

Most people find Japanese sentence structure to be difficult and confusing.

This is completely understandable considering how fundamentally different it is to other languages, but the truth is that Japanese grammar is actually incredibly logical – it just needs to be looked at from the right angle.

Usually, the basic structure of Japanese sentences is considered to be SOV – subject-object-verb (eg. I subject sushi object eat verb). This description makes it easier to compare with English, for example, which follows an SVO structure, but the truth is, this comparison is mostly meaningless because the two languages function in completely different ways. The SOV label is also wrong sometimes, as it is not uncommon in Japanese to see sentences with the object appearing before the subject. No wonder it seems so confusing…

Instead of trying to fit a Japanese-shaped peg into an English-shaped hole, let’s start again.

Firstly, in English, the main pieces of a sentence go in a specific order. The person doing the action (the subject, eg. I) is first, followed by the word that describes the action (the verb, eg. eat), then the thing that the action is done to (the object, eg. sushi). In English, it is the word order that tells us who did what

Japanese sentences are structured around grammatical markers called ‘particles’. Each particle indicates how the word before it relates to other words in the sentence, usually to the verb. The verb appears last, but the order of the other words can vary because it is the particles, not word order, that tell us who did what.

For example, a basic sentence might have a topic (which is often the same as the subject) followed by the particle ‘wa’, then an object with the particle ‘wo’, and finally the verb. This basic word ordering is why Japanese is often considered an SOV language, but as long as the right particles are used with the right words, the actual order of the words can be changed.

In this article, I break it all down and show you exactly how Japanese sentences work, using plenty of examples and charts showing very clearly how Japanese sentences are structured. Every aspect of Japanese grammar fits within the structure outlined below.

Basic “desu” sentences

Let’s start by looking at basic sentences that use the special verb “desu” (pronounced “dess”), which is effectively equivalent to the English verb “be” (am, are, is).

Sentences using “desu” usually follow this basic structure:

[topic] wa … (something that describes the topic) … desu

Here are a few simple examples:

I am a person.

watashi wa hito desu.

わたし は ひと です。

This is a car.

kore wa kuruma desu.

これ は くるま です。

The car is red.

kuruma wa akai desu.

くるま は あか いです。

The first step to understanding this structure is knowing what “wa” is.

“Wa” is what is known as a particle. Particles are like markers that identify what role each word or phrase plays within a sentence.

The particle “wa” tells us that the word or phrase before it is the topic of that sentence.

The topic is basically the thing that is being talked about in that sentence, and usually appears near the beginning. In our examples above, the things that are being talked about are “I”, “this”, and “the car”, respectively, so the topics of these sentences in Japanese are “watashi”, kore” and “kuruma”.

The topic of a Japanese sentence is very similar to what other languages refer to as the subject. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing that does the action described by the main verb in the sentence. These are, in fact, slightly different concepts, but for now, we will treat them as being the same so as to keep things simple.

Particles like “wa” do not exist in English, but they are the backbone of Japanese grammar. We’ll look at particles in more detail soon.

These sentences also show us another important rule that applies to all Japanese sentences:

The main verb comes at the end of the sentence.

In all of the above examples, that verb is “desu”, which takes the form of “is” or “am” in the English translations. However, this rule also applies for other verbs, which we will look at shortly.

First, let’s take another look at the first two sentences above. Text with the same formatting has the same meaning.

I am a person.

watashi wa hito desu.

わたし は ひと です。

This is a car.

kore wa kuruma desu.

これ は くるま です。

irst of all, we can see that “wa” has no English equivalent. This is because its entire purpose is to show that “watashi” or “kore” is the topic of these sentences. That is, “wa” defines these words as the topic. In English, there is no need for a particle like “wa” because the subject of a sentence can be determined based on the word order. We’ll look at this more closely in the next section.

Secondly, since “hito” means “person” and “kuruma” means “car”, we can see that there is no Japanese equivalent of “a”.

The articles “a”, “an” and “the” do not exist in Japanese.

What this means is that the sentences, “This is a car”, and, “This is the car”, would both be, “kore wa kuruma desu”. There is no differentiation.

This makes things simpler in some ways, but can be hard to get used if you’ve spent your entire life speaking English or similar languages, as not having these words can sometimes make a sentence feel incomplete. Without them, it can be hard to know if someone is referring to a specific car, or just any car. There are other ways to specify which car is being talked about, but in many cases, this is implied purely by context. This is something you will get used to over time.

We now know three very important rules relating to Japanese sentence structure:

The particle “wa” identifies the topic of a sentence
The verb comes at the end of the sentence
The articles “a”, “an” and “the” do not exist in Japanese
These rules apply to everything, so using the first two in particular, we can adapt our sentence structure model from earlier to this:

[topic] wa … (other information) … [verb]

When the verb is “desu”, the ‘other information’ can just be a noun (kore wa kuruma desu) or adjective (kuruma wa akai desu). In fact, the last thing immediately before “desu” should be either a noun or an adjective.

For verbs other than “desu”, however, basically everything in the ‘other information’ section needs to be accompanied by a particle.

How particles work
The main thing that differentiates Japanese from most other languages is its use of particles. We’ve already seen the particle “wa”, but there are many more particles, and a proper understanding of what they are and how to use them will make the Japanese language much easier to decipher.

As stated earlier:

Particles are like markers that tell us the role each word plays in a sentence.

In any language, a combination of words only makes sense if the role of each word is clear. The biggest difference between Japanese and English (and many other languages) is how these roles are defined.

First, let’s understand what is meant by ‘the role each word plays in a sentence’.

In English, for the main elements in a sentence, this role is determined by word order. Here’s a very basic example:

Taro saw Noriko.

This sentence has three words: Taro, saw and Noriko. The central word in any sentence, in both English and Japanese, is the main verb, which in this case is “saw”. The other words in a sentence always relate to the main verb, either directly or indirectly, so every sentence must have a main verb.

To figure out what the role of each of the other words is, we look at the word order:

“Taro” comes before “saw”, which tells us that Taro is the one that saw something.
“Noriko” comes after “saw”, which tells us that Noriko is the thing that was seen.
If we change the order and put “Noriko” first, we end up with the sentence:

Noriko saw Taro.

This has an entirely different meaning because changing the word order changes the role that each word plays, which in turn, changes the overall meaning of the sentence.

Japanese is different. In Japanese, particles determine the role of each word in a sentence.

Given that the Japanese word for “saw” is “mimashita”, we would normally write the above sentence as:

Taro saw Noriko.

Tarō wa Noriko wo mimashita.

たろう は のりこ を みました。


This sentence has two particles:

“wa”, which tells us who we are talking about
“wo”, which tells us what they saw
In more general terms:

wa defines the ‘topic’ of a sentence, which is usually the person or thing that performed the main action being described
wo, pronounced “o”, defines to whom or to what that action was done, which is known as the ‘object’ of the verb
Importantly, particles define the role of the word that comes before them. In the above example:

The word before “wa” is “Tarō”, so we know that Taro is the person who performed the act of seeing.
The word before “wo” is “Noriko”, so we know that Noriko is the ‘thing’ that was seen.
If we put this all together, it means: Taro saw Noriko.

Because of particles like these, word order is not as important as it is in English. In Japanese, we can actually change the order of the words without changing the fundamental meaning of the sentence, as long as the same particles are paired with the same words. Both of the following mean effectively the same thing:

Tarō wa Noriko wo mimashita.

たろう は のりこ を みました


Noriko wo Tarō wa mimashita.

のりこ を たろう は みました


Translate »