I’ve been meaning to write about this topic ever since I first purchased the book 「日本語教科書の落とし穴」, which I first talked about over a year ago. (Wow, time does go fast!)
Chapter 9 in the book talks about a very interesting topic that I had never really thought about before: the empty particle or 「無助詞」 as it’s called in the book. Like every other chapter in the book, this chapter begins with a small dialogue between the teacher and a student that illustrates the problem.
Have a hunch where the problem lies? (The bold font is a clue.) The book makes a distinction between particles that are simply left out (primarily in spoken Japanese) with situations where you leave the particle out in order to avoid the nuances of particles. In the case of 「これを召し上がってください。」, because the 「を」 particle has a distinctive function of making 「これ」 into a direct object, the sentence has a very strong emphasis on eating 「これ」. The book describes the nuance as 「これだけを召し上がってください。ほかのものは食べないでください。」 In other words, it essentially sounds like, “Please eat this,” which sounds kind of desperate when you’re offering someone something to eat.
Ok, so you might think to try the topic particle instead: 「これは召し上がってください。」. But again, this doesn’t work because the 「は」 particle also has its own function of making 「これ」 into the topic of the conversation as if you were saying, “As for this, please eat it”. The book describes the nuance as 「ほかのものは食べなくてもよいけれども、これだけは何としても召し上がってください。」
The most natural thing to do in this case is to not use any particles so that you can talk about something without any of the nuances and meanings that go along with 「は」、「を」、and 「が」.
Here’s another example from the book.
Again, there is no suitable particle for 「コーヒー」 in this sentence if all you want to know is whether there is any coffee left. 「コーヒーはまだある？」 sounds like you want start a conversation about coffee and 「コーヒーがまだある？」 sounds like, “The coffee! There still some left?” Any time you want to call attention to something minor without making a conversation out of it is a good candidate for the empty particle. Situations such as realizing you’re out of cash at the cash register and asking your friend, “Hey, do you have money on you?” （お金、持っている？） or flipping through an album with someone and saying, “Hey, look at this.” （ねえ、これ、見て。） are good examples.
Another great example is when there is no strong relationship such as, 「誕生日、おめでとう」. You don’t want to say, 「誕生日はおめでとう」 (As for your birthday, congratulations) or 「誕生日がおめでとう」 (Your birthday is the thing that is congratulatory) because there’s nothing specific or particular about the birthday that you want to congratulate. You just want to say, “Hey it’s your birthday. Congratulations.” without any specific relation between the two.
Based on the context, if all the particles add a meaning or emphasis that you don’t want, you’re better off not having any particle at all.
Debunking yet another myth
Students often ask their Japanese teacher, “Sensei, I noticed that in real life people leave out particles a lot. Is that Ok to do?” Whereupon the teacher will always reply, “Yes grasshopper, people leave out particles sometimes but you are not ready for that yet. You should use particles every time because it is more proper and correct.”
Actually Sensei, you obviously haven’t thought enough about the empty particle because sometimes it is not correct to insert a particle. Ahhh, I love the sound of myth debunking in the morning.
It is interesting to think about the empty particle, and when you can and cannot use particles. But as I mentioned in the beginning, I didn’t even think about the empty particle until I read this book. Ultimately, omitting particles is something that naturally comes with conversation practice and doesn’t require deep analysis to get right. What it all boils down to in the end is getting a firm grasp on what each particles mean so that you know not to use them when they say something you don’t mean.