勉強

Is there such thing as a subjectless sentence?

tl;dr: You don’t have to explicitly specify the subject in a Japanese sentence. The subject is still there, implied. In fact, explicitly specifying the subject or topic yields a different emphasis.

When someone asks you:

図書館に行きますか。
としょかんにいきますか。
toshokan ni ikimasu ka.
Are you going to the library?

To say you are going to the library, you answer with:

はい、行きます。
はい、いきます。
hai, ikimasu.
Yes, I will go.

In that sentence, where is “I” in Japanese? Even without an explicit “I”, this is a perfectly acceptable response that means, “Yes, I will go.” because of context. In fact, this is even preferable over something more explicit:

はい、私は行きます。
はい、わたしはいきます。
Yes, I will go. (*)

As a matter of fact, it’s not quite the same because this puts on a different emphasis. This is an important issue to bring up because you often see 私は (わたしは / watashi wa) used explicitly in sample phrases in beginner textbooks, which doesn’t yield the same meaning as intended in real life. More on this later.

What is a subject?

Recall that the subject is a part of a sentence that contains the person or thing performing the action (or verb) in a sentence. This means the subject can be a word (“my sister”) or phrase (“my annoying sister” or even “my annoying sister who can’t take a hint”): My sister teased me. My annoying sister teased me. My annoying sister who can’t take a hint teased me.

But don’t think of the subject as a sequence of words! Visualize it in your head. That’s the subject. Whether you describe it in the original way (e.g., “my annoying sister”) or in a different way perhaps for emphasis (e.g., “my annoying sister who can’t take a hint”) or you refer to it in some form of shorthand like a pronoun (e.g., she/her), the subject is the person/place/thing, not the sequence of words.

How do we use the subject?

All of this alludes to how we can refer to the subject after establishing it. While I can repeat the same thing over and over again, it will be quite tiring. Isn’t it exhausing to read the following passage:

I can't believe it! My annoying sister who can't take a hint teased me. My annoying sister who can't take a hint embarassed me in front of all my friends. My annoying sister who can't take a hint is charming but my annoying sister who can't take a hint doesn't help me out in social situations at all.

Enter pronouns. The following passage is much more pleasant to read:

I can't believe it! My annoying sister who can't take a hint teased me. She embarassed me in front of all my friends. She's charming but she doesn't help me out in social situations at all.

But Japanese takes this further:

I can't believe it! My annoying sister who can't take a hint teased me. Embarassed me in front of all my friends. Charming but doesn't help me out in social situations at all.

It’s still comprehensible, right? It’s awkward to read because in English, the subject and predicate (verb) are required in a sentence. Nevertheless, you can still understand the passage even though there is no explicit subject in the later sentences.

In Japanese, the subject is “not required” in a sentence. (More accurately, the subject as a word or phrase is not required.) Nonetheless, the subject is still there: my annoying sister who can’t take a hint. You know from context that it’s her.

Not explicitly using a subject is the default

You may have been taught that a complete sentence in Japanese does not need a subject. This is true but there’s a better way to think about it. A complete sentence in Japanese does not require an explicit subject (word or phrase or pronoun), but the “subject” is still there.

The key thing to take away here is that it is completely normal and in fact it is a default to not use a subject. Adding an explicit subject could give a different meaning. What do I mean by that? Read on.

Does wa (は) and ga (が) achieve the same thing?

So you went to the library and came home. You’re asked the following:

図書館に行きました か。
としょかんにいきました か。
toshokan ni ikimashita ka.
Did you go to the library?

You may answer:

行きました。
いきました。
ikimashita.
I went.

Out of context, 行きました (いきました / ikimashita) could mean, I went, you went, he or she went, we went, they went. But because of this context, it means “I went”. You don’t need a subject or pronoun “I” because it’s clear from context. (Think back to the “my annoying sister who can’t take a hint” example if you still need to think about this.)

Remember, the default is to not use a pronoun.

In fact, this no-pronoun response is preferred over the other alternatives that will be mentioned below because being explict actually adds different meaning.

What wa (は) does

Using the wa particle doesn’t mean the same thing:

私は行きました。
わたしはいきました。
watashi wa ikimashita.
As for me, I *went*.

This more has the nuance of “I don’t know about those other guys, but as far as I am concerned, I went.”

In fact, the wa particle establishes the TOPIC, not the subject of the sentence.

In general, for the wa construction like in the example, the wa builds up suspense and places the focus on after the wa. The wa also distinguishes the topic from other implied potential topics.

What ga (が) does

Using the ga particle also means something different:

私が行きました。
わたしがいきました。
watashi ga ikimashita.
*I* went.

Think about what this answers:

だれが行きました か。
だれがいきました か。
dare ga ikimashita ka.
Who went?

So watashi ga ikimashita means “I went.” The next response is probably “Okay, okay, I get it…”. ga emphasizes whatever it marks before it (word, noun phrase).

Takeaway

You do not have to explicitly specify the subject in a Japanese sentence, but the subject is “still there”, implied. In fact, specifying the subject or topic yields a different meaning or emphasis when compared to not specifying the subject.

The default way of thinking should be to avoid pronouns and using an explicit subject as much as possible unless needed for clarity or establishing context.

In summary:

行きました。
いきました。
ikimashita.
I went.
私は行きました。
わたしはいきました。
watashi wa ikimashita.
As for me, I *went*.
私が行きました。
わたしがいきました。
watashi ga ikimashita.
*I* went.

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