Just drop it: Let’s talk particles

Particles falling out of the sky

If you have started your Japanese language journey, you have probably heard of something called ‘particles’.  They are everywhere in Japanese. Well, except for when they aren’t.

That’s right, you just worked so hard to learn all those weird little markers, but some of them can just disappear in causal conversation! It seems that they just vanish without rhyme or reason, but that’s not quite true. Particles actually drop in a consistent fashion. But to explain when, you need to know their meaning.

To start, let’s cover some of the more frequent particles:

Particle English Meaning Linguistic Function Japanese Sentence Translation
ha(は) Topic Marker 人間 watashi wa ningen I am human
o(を) Object Marker コーヒー飲む koohii o nomu I drink coffee
ni(に) to Locative 図書館行く toshokan ni iku I go to the library
de(で) by Manner 行く kuruma de iku I go by car
to(と) with/and Conjunction 友達行く tomodachi to iku I go with my friends

You might have noticed that some of the particles don’t have anything written for “English Meaning”. That’s because only a few of the particles have any semantic meaning. Semantic meaning essentially means that a word has a concrete meaning that it adds to the sentence. A good way to test for this for particles is to see if it has an English equivalent; “to” means “with”, and it shows up in the English translation “I go with my friends.” What does “o” mean? There is nothing in the English translation that might give point towards its meaning. The short answer is there is no actual meaning, it just serves a grammatical function. It says “the noun I am attached to is an object” and doesn’t have semantic meaning.

It is in the distinction between semantic meaning and grammatical function that we can define which particles are “droppable”.

A generalization we can make is that particles are only dropped if they they don’t add meaning to the sentence. Without “to” in the sentence “tomodachi to iku“, the sentence means “my friend goes” which is distinct from “I go with my friends.”

The idea behind this rule is that if something doesn’t add concrete meaning, then the meaning can be inferred by other linguistic cues. Object marker “o” shows which noun in the sentence is the object, but word order can do the same thing; the noun before the verb is usually the object.

Learning all the particles in Japanese is hard enough on its own, but a part of learning a language is understanding rules the usage of different words and grammar structures. Knowing when to drop particles will help you to sound more casual in informal settings – just don’t go dropping particles when talking to your boss!

Good luck and keep studying~

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