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What Feels Right

There are things in every language that only native people seem to know.

In English, the biggest example is the definite vs. indefinite particle.

In Japanese, it’s “wa” vs. “ga”.

In both cases, there are rules to follow and you can get there with some thought most of the time, but the difference between a native speaker and one who doesn’t have as great a command of the language is that what is right feels right.

I could tell you whether “a” or “the” or neither is appropriate simply by whether it feels awkward to say or not.  And a native Japanese speaker could tell me whether “wa” or “ga” is appropriate for the same reason.  My sensei has said several times, “ga” fits better here – but then she struggles to say why.  It just feels right to her.

I think we all know this.  The question I have is this:

What is the quality of these things that makes it feel right or wrong?

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I’ve thought about the ga/wa dichotomy for embarrassingly long (over a decade) and don’t think I have mastered it yet, though I feel I am gradually honing my intuition regarding this cryptic duo.

I feel that in cases like wa/ga and a/the, the grammar rules of usage have evolved so that they don’t fit into a simple set of rules. But they aren’t random, and they aren’t magic.

The way I see it, there are two ways to learn grammar. First, the natural way which is where your mind just figures it out. This is easy if you are young and living that language, but hard otherwise. Second is learning by a series of rules, or rough guidance, plus a horde of examples. I feel this latter does gradually tune your intuition, but it may take years or longer.

I have a request––if you have cases like this were someone says “ga” or “wa” is better but can’t explain why, let me know and I will do my best to think, research, and ask others to figure out why, and will make a post about it.

I think it’s important that we don’t defer things like this to unlearnable magic, otherwise we will never be able to hone our “intuition”.


To answer your question more directly, I would say when a “a” or “the” just doesn’t “feel right”, it is because the pattern-matching part of our brain is telling is we are breaking with a pattern that was built up implicitly (subconsciously) over many years of experience. (:

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