3.1 Japanese Word Order

In this module, you will learn four crucial features of Japanese word order. What are they? Let’s find out!

There are four crucial features of Japanese word order:

1. Verbs come last

2. Particles

3. Flexibility

4. Omission


Now, let’s take a closer look at each point in more detail.


1. Verbs come last

In Module 2.4, you learned the fundamental Japanese sentence pattern: ‘X は Y です’. You may have noticed that, unlike English, the copula verb です is placed at the end of the sentence. This is a major feature of Japanese word order: verbs come last.

Another important sentence pattern is Topic-Object-Verb (T-O-V). While you will explore this pattern in Module 6.1, it means that the topic of the sentence typically comes first, followed by the object, and then the verb. This differs from the Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O) word order that is common in English and other European languages.

In language, subjects are the doers of an action, while topics set the context of a sentence. In Japanese, subjects are often marked by the particle が (ga) and can be omitted if understood from context. Topics, marked by は (wa), provide the conversational focus but aren’t necessarily the performers of the action.

Here is an example of the T-O-V word order:


私 (Topic) + は + 日本語 (Object) + を + 話します (ます-form of Verb 話す)。

Watashi wa Nihongo o hanashi masu.

I speak Japanese.


In this sentence, each word serves a specific function:

Topic Topic Particle Object Object Particle Verb
Japanese 日本語 話します
Romaji Watashi wa Nihongo o hanashi masu
English I Japanese speak

In the sentence, 私 (watashi: I/me) serves as the topic, highlighted by the particle は (wa). This particle establishes the topic, framing the context of the sentence. Here, the sentence revolves around the action associated with ‘I,’ which is speaking Japanese. While the topic informs us about the context (who the sentence is about), the focus remains on the action (speaking Japanese) in relation to the topic (私).


2. Particles

Japanese particles play a significant role in determining word order in sentences. Unlike English, which has a fixed word order, Japanese relies on particles to establish the relationships between words, allowing for a more flexible word order.

Particles act as markers that indicate the grammatical function and relationship of a word within a sentence. By using different particles in different positions, Japanese speakers can modify the word order to emphasise certain elements or convey different levels of formality.

For example:

  • The particle は (wa) marks the topic of the sentence, and it comes after the topic word.
  • The particle を (o) is used to mark the direct object, and it follows the object of the verb.
  • Other kinds of particles, like に (ni), へ (e) and で (de), indicate the locations of actions and method or direction. You will learn these particles in more detail in Module 6.5 and Chapter 7.

3. Flexibility

In Japanese, word order is notably flexible, especially in conversational settings. This flexibility lets you adjust the sentence to emphasise particular elements.
For instance, placing the object at the start of a sentence highlights its importance. Here’s an example:


Nihongo o watashi wa hanashi masu.

The example sentence, 日本語を私は話します, positions the object 日本語 (Japanese language) at the beginning to emphasise that the speaker specifically talks about speaking Japanese. This word order in Japanese allows the object of the action to be highlighted.

This technique allows you to spotlight different parts of the sentence depending on what you want to emphasise.

However, for those just starting out with Japanese, sticking to the standard sentence order is advisable until you’re more comfortable with the nuances that rearranging the sentence structure can imply.


4. Omission

It is also important to note that Japanese allows for the omission of certain elements in sentence construction. This includes the omission of the topic of a sentence, assuming it is understood from the context.

For example, you might have noticed in the dialogues of self-introductions that instead of repeating the topic 私は (watashi wa) in subsequent sentences, you can omit it. The listener can easily infer from the context that you are still referring to yourself.

In informal conversations, it’s common to leave out particles like は (wa) and を (o) for brevity and ease, making sentences more casual.

For example, the sentence 私は日本語を話します could be simplified to 私日本語話します, removing the particles but keeping the meaning intact. This makes the speech sound more direct and casual, a style often used among close friends or in relaxed settings.

Beginners, though, might find it easier to stick to the standard structure until they’re more comfortable with these nuances.


Exercise 1






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Japanese Introductory 1 Copyright © 2024 by Iori Hamada is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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