Sentence-final particle

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Sentence-final particles, including modal particles,[1] interactional particles,[2] etc., are minimal lexemes (words) that occur at the end of a sentence and that do not carry referential meaning, but may relate to linguistic modality, register or other pragmatic effects. Sentence-final particles are common in the Chinese languages, including particles such as Mandarin le 了, ne 呢, ba 吧, ou 哦, a 啊, la 啦, ya 呀, and ma 嗎/吗, and Cantonese lo 囉 and ge 嘅. These particles act as qualifiers of the clause or sentence they end. Sentence-final particles are also present in Japanese[3] and many East Asian languages, such as Thai, and especially in languages that have undergone heavy Sino-Tibetan influence, such as the Monguor languages.

Structure and uses[edit]

Yuen Ren Chao has described sentence-final particles as "phrase suffixes": just as a word suffix is in construction with the word preceding it, a sentence-final particle or phrase suffix is "in construction with a preceding phrase or sentence, though phonetically closely attached to the syllable immediately preceding it".[4] According to Chao, the sentence-final particle is phonetically close to the last word before it, but syntactically it is equidistant from every word in the whole predicate.

While sentence-final particles usually do not carry meaning themselves or denote anything explicit, they may be derived from words that do carry meaning when they occur in other contexts and serve different functions.[5]

A major use of sentence-final particles in Mandarin Chinese specifically is thought to be as a signal of the speaker's attitude, the intended force of the statement to which the particle is attached, and "how the utterance is to be taken by the hearer."[1] For example, the addition of a particle may soften the tone of a question that might sound presumptuous or inappropriate without the particle. As such, sentence-final particles in this sense often perform an interpersonal function, rather than a grammatical one. Nevertheless, there are cases in which sentence-final particles do perform grammatical functions, such as Mandarin ma 嗎/吗, the "question particle," which changes the grammatical mood of a sentence to interrogative. Likewise, even though sentence-final particles can usually be omitted from a sentence without making the sentence ungrammatical or changing its meaning,[1] some particles do contain information critical to the interpretation of an utterance's meaning, such as Mandarin le 了.[5]



In Mandarin Chinese, there are many sentence-final particles that are used in formal as well as colloquial speech. Some common examples are shown below.

Symbol Pinyin English Meaning
le modal particle intensifying preceding clause / completed action marker
ne question particle for subjects already mentioned
ba modal particle indicating polite suggestion / ...right? / ...OK?
ó oh
a modal particle ending sentence, showing affirmation, approval, or consent
la sentence-final particle, contraction of "了啊" / follows after each item in a list of examples
ya "softening" particle used in questions; may also be used like 啊 after a vowel, expressing surprise or doubt
嗎/吗 ma question tag / not for open-ended questions


In Japanese, there are many sentence-final particles that are used in formal as well as colloquial speech. Some examples include:

  • か: question. It turns a declarative sentence into a question.
  • よ: assertive. It means that you are asserting what preceded the particle as information you are confident in. However, it is also used to "soften" the tone of a imperative sentence
  • ね: agreement. Used when the speaker wants to verify or otherwise show agreement with the listener.
  • っけ: doubt. Used when one is unsure of something. For example, 昨日だったっけ? (kinou datta kke), "Was it yesterday?". Often used when talking to oneself.
  • な: emotion. Used when one wants to express a personal feeling, often wishful or explanation-seeking, behind his or her words. For example, 寿司を食べたいなぁ (sushi wo tabetai naa), "I want to eat sushi (so badly right now!)". A softer version of ね. Carries a somewhat masculine tone, but not limited to any particular gender.
  • さ: casualness. Used repetitively when describing something at length to the listener. Equivalent to the word "like" or "you know" in casual English conversation.


English also has some words and phrases that act somewhat like sentence final particles, but primarily only in colloquial speech. However, there are others, called tag questions, which are less colloquial and can be used for any situation. All are generally discourse particles rather than modal particles. For example:

  • "man" in "Don't do it, man."
  • "right" in "The blue one, right?"
  • "no" in "You want to go, no?" (slightly archaic)
  • "don't you" in "You want to, don't you?"
  • "are they" in "They're not hurt, are they?"
  • "aren't they" in "They're here, aren't they?"
  • "is it" in "The plate isn't broken, is it?"
  • "isn't it" in "The plane is here, isn't it?"

All but the first are tag questions. Notice how when the main sentence is affirmative, the tag question is negative, and vice versa.[6]


In the same way that certain words and phrases are used as sentence final particles above in the section on English (as discourse particles), some Spanish words and phrases can be used this way as well; once again, these are usually called tag questions. For example:

  • "verdad" (right) in "Te gustan los libros, ¿verdad?" (You (informal) like books, right?)
  • "no" (no) in "Le toca pasar la aspiradora, ¿no?" (It's your (formal) turn to vacuum, no?)
  • "no es verdad" (isn't that right) in "Eres de Perú, ¿no es verdad?" (You're (informal) from Peru, isn't that right?)

Note that in Spanish, the question marks are placed around the tag question, and not around the entire sentence (although English only uses the single final question mark, it is implied that the entire sentence, and not just the tag, is the question).[7]


  1. ^ a b c Lin, Huey Hannah (2005). Contextualizing Linguistic Politeness in Chinese. The Ohio State University. 
  2. ^ Morita, Emi (2005). Negotiation of Contingent Talk:The Japanese interactional particles ne and sa'. John Benjamins. 
  3. ^ Fox, Barbara (2007), Principles shaping grammatical practices: an exploration., Discourse Studies 9, p. 303 
  4. ^ Chao, Yuen Ren (1968). A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 149. ISBN 0-520-00219-9. 
  5. ^ a b Li, Charles; and Sandra Thompson (1981). Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 238. ISBN 978-0-520-06610-6. 
  6. ^ Page is about Spanish, but mentions tag questions in English
  7. ^

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