Alright, I know that Japanese does have punctuation. There’s rules on how to use it all (commas are especially tricky). But the thing about sentence ending particles in Japanese is that there is no real way to translate them into English. They give a certain feel that is generally expressed in English with punctuation marks.
Punctuation is pretty tricky in English too. Nowadays, there’s even a drastic difference between punctuation rules in formal and informal writing (just compare a scholarly article with a tweet).
So today I’m just going to go over some basics with how to use sentence ending particles in Japanese so you can better express your ideas. I’m going to break it down into the most common ones, and add a few that you may hear but may want to be careful about using. Particles are a big part of gendered speech (as in, how men talk vs. how women talk), so I’ll go over a bit of that as well.
Just remember, I’m not going to cover all of the sentence ending particles in this article. You’ll probably hear more, and once you start listening to other dialects, it’ll get even crazier. We’re going to keep it simple today.
Let’s start with the easiest one to translate. The particle “ka” is used to express that the sentence is a question. It’s the same as the English question mark. This particle can be used by anyone, and it’s probably the most common way to ask a question.
An interesting thing about “ka” is that when it is written, you can write it with or without a question mark in Japanese. They both have the same meaning. So if you want to ask “How are you?” and you use the Japanese sentence “O-genki desu ka?” you can write it as “お元気ですか？” or “お元気ですか。” Even with the period, the sentence still becomes a question because of the use of “ka.”
In English, we mark spoken sentences as questions by raising our tone at the end. You don’t really need to do that in Japanese, because the particles are a spoken signal that the sentence is a question.
There are a few variations on “ka,” so let’s talk about those.
No (の): This one is generally used by women in informal speech. I personally use this one a lot because I think it sounds a bit softer. For example, if you want to ask your friend if they are going somewhere, you could ask them “Iku no?” (行くの？).
With sentence ending particles, it seems like there are a few unspoken rules (I mean, maybe they’re hard rules. But I didn’t learn about them except through listening to people). With this particle, it seems like it isn’t used with long “o” sounds. So if you wanted to say “Should we go?” you wouldn’t be able to say “Ikou no?” because it sounds weird. With the long “o” sounds, I would say “ka” instead (“Ikou ka?”).
A lot of these particles have limitations on when you use them. So keep an ear out when you listen to Japanese to help you learn what sounds right.
Dai/Kai (だい/かい): Alright, I’m going to be honest about these two. I don’t really know how to use them. I know that they are masculine (which is why I never bothered), and I know that I hear them in anime more than real life. When you come across words that seem more common in anime than normal conversations, I would ask that you be cautious. I’m sure there are people who use these ones (they are probably male, and speaking informally), and if you want to work them into your conversation, I’m not going to stop you.
No Particle: You can also ask questions without any particles. I’ve found that this is a bit more common in informal speech, but I’ve heard it in formal speech as well. We can use our earlier example from the “no” section to demonstrate this. You can say “Iku no?” or “Iku ka?” and they both work. But you can also just say “Iku?” and with the right tone, it becomes a question. In formal speech, sentences can become questions by putting the right emphasis on the “su” at the end of “masu” or “desu.” Usually that syllable isn’t fully pronounced. But you can turn “Ikimasu” into a question by emphasizing the “su” at the end. This is easier to hear than explain in writing, so keep an ear out for instances like this.
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This particle is one of my favorites. It’s just really fun to say “yo” at the end of sentences. The main purpose of “yo” is to mark the sentence as new information for the listener. There isn’t English punctuation for this (though sometimes an exclamation mark will work), but it can roughly translate as “I am informing you.”
Some sentences with “yo” could appropriately be translated with an exclamation mark. If someone is about to cross the street, but you see a car coming, you could shout “Abunai yo!” (危ないよ！), and that could be translated as “Watch out!”
However, “yo” isn’t always the same as an exclamation mark. You could say to someone “Iku yo” (行くよ。) and you wouldn’t give that sentence an exclamation mark. Instead, the sentence could mean something like “Yeah, I’m going,” depending on the context. The “yo” implies that this is new information for the listener. They may have asked if you are going somewhere, or maybe what you plan on doing. Either way, they don’t know, and you do.
I could only think of two variations on this, but let’s look at those real quick.
Zo (ぞ): This one is really common, and I hear it all the time. It’s very masculine, so I don’t use it myself, but it’s a good one for you guys to know. This one is less about new information for the listener, and more about adding emphasis to whatever you were saying. However, it can be used to mark new information as well, so I kept it in this section.
For some reason, this particle also seems to disagree with long “o” sounds, just like “no.” So while “Iku zo” sounds perfectly natural, “Ikou zo” doesn’t. This is another one to listen for. If you watch anything in Japanese with a guy in it though, you’ll hear it a lot.
Ze (ぜ): So this one is a lot like “zo,” but it kind of has a rougher feel to it. This has more of a “yankii” vibe to it. So if you wanna sound like a punk, go for it. Talking like a punk is fun. But don’t use it with your boss. This one also has no problem with long “o” sounds, so it’s alright to say things like “Ikou ze.”
Finally. The one you’ve been waiting for. If you’ve ever tried to look at anything remotely related to Japanese on the internet, you have probably seen the particle “ne.” And here I am to explain to you what it means. There are actually a couple of meanings.
The first is emphasis. “Zo” and “ze” kind of fit with this too. There’s not really an English way to translate this idea, because we put emphasis on our sentences through our tone. If you extend the “e” sound at the end, it can add even more emphasis. Sometimes, you can use this extended particle alone as an affirmative response to something. So if your friend is commenting on how cold it is and says, “Samui ne?” (寒いね？), you can reply with “Nee!” (ねえ！).
The other use of “ne” is to look for affirmation. This translates into something like “Don’t you think?” or “Right?” So with our example we’ve been using, if you say “Iku ne” the meaning would vary by context, but it could mean something like “You’re going, right?” or “You’ll go,” if you’re using “ne” for emphasis.
There are other meanings of “ne,” but it’s such a widely used particle that it’s hard to pin it down to solid meanings. It can also be used for questions or even just to be cute.
Na (な): This variation of “ne” tends to be more masculine, but I’ve definitely heard girls use it too. It works pretty much the exact same as “ne” when used for emphasis. It can even be extended to “naa” (なあ) to add more emphasis.
However, this can also be used as a negative particle. This probably comes from the word “nai,” and this would just be a shortened version of that. Adding this to the end of a verb usually gives the meaning of “Don’t….” or “You shouldn’t….” Like many meanings of these particles, this will be determined by your tone.
Wa (わ): This particle is only used by women and big burly men from the Kansai region that no one would dare to fight. It’s generally a more feminine way to add emphasis to your sentences, and like “no,” it sounds a bit softer.
Kansai is a weird place though. With weird Japanese. So if you go there, you might hear men use it when they speak their tough guy Japanese. It seems like that practice is spreading a bit (as Kansai dialect tends to do), so you may hear more men use “wa” in a more macho way.
I thought I would add this one in here because I think it’s super useful. This one isn’t as big as “ka,” “yo,” and “ne,” but it’s still good to know.
Adding “kana” to the end of your sentence in informal speech adds a level of uncertainty. It translates to something like “I think…” or “Probably,” which is really nice to be able to express. With our earlier example, you can say “Iku kana” (行くかな) which could mean “I think I’ll go,” or “I might go.” The “a” sound can also be extended to make it more uncertain.
“Kashira” (かしら) is a feminine version of this, though women can certainly use “kana.” “Kashira” is usually translated as “I wonder…” To me, it sounds a little fancier than “kana,” which is used almost exclusively in informal situations, while “kashira” was sometimes used when people around me were speaking politely.
Some Parting Particle Notes
Now that we’ve gone over several particles, I just wanted to leave you with a few more tips.
Combining Particles: These particles can all be used on their own, but a lot of them can be combined. The way particles are combined changes what they mean (though usually not much), and kind of seems to be based on speaking style. I’ve heard people use combinations like “yo ne” and “ka yo.” Just listen for things like this and pay attention to how they’re used. You can certainly get by without combining particles, but it will improve your Japanese if you listen for little things like this and learn how to use them.
Note on Masculine and Feminine Words: There were a lot of particles I pointed out were either masculine or feminine. This doesn’t actually limit whether or not you can use them. You just need to know that if you use another gender’s words, it may seem a little odd to the people you speak with. We all have our own speaking style, and if a guy wants to use “wa” and “kashira,” he can. If a girl wants to say “zo” that’s alright too. It’s just important to know that if you speak differently than is expected, it’s a big personality choice. As a foreigner, some Japanese people may think you are making a mistake too, so just keep these things in mind if you want to speak a certain way.
There Are More Particles: This is by no means an exclusive list. As I mentioned before, there are more sentence ending particles than this, especially when you start getting into dialects. When you hear new particles, use context to determine what they mean. Context can help you a lot in Japanese. And try out new particles if you want. They can be a fun way to add personality to your Japanese.