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Learn Japanese Grammar! Nuances of the Particles に and で

September 4, 2009

One of the most difficult parts of learning Japanese is not learning colloquial phrases or expanding vocabulary, but perfecting the usage of small words. Although small words to non-native speakers might seem to be trivial, just look at how important the articles “a, an, and the” are in English. “A girlfriend” vs. “The Girlfriend” means something entirely different in English, although in Japanese there is no direct equivalent to describe this situation. Japanese speakers who are learning English explain to me all the time that they still don’t quite understand when to use “a,” vs. when to use “the.” Conversely, the Japanese particles (が、は、で、に、を、へ) continue to confuse both beginner and advanced students of the Japanese language.

In this entry we’ll try to explain the subtle differences and the correct usage of the articles でand に. Both articles show the location of where something is, or where an action takes place. So if you were going to say “I’m going to the store,” you’ll say 店に行きます(みせにいきます)This shows the direction of somewhere you’re going to, so に is used, and で is never used. Easy enough, but when is で used you ask? で is used when you’re already at a place, and an action is taking place. So for example now you’re at the store already, and you’re doing something in the store, in this case shopping “mise de kaimono wo shimasu: 店で買い物をします。(みせでかいものをします)Notice now we’re describing an action being done at the store, so you don’t use に, you’ll use で.

Easy enough, but wait there’s exceptions! If you’re already at the store and you’re doing something, sometimes you will use に. For example, “I’m at the store” 店にいます(みせにいます)In this case you’re actually not doing something in particular, you’re just there, you’re “being”. Verbs that describe “being” and not actions, will always use the particle に. In grammar world these verbs are referred to as intransitive verbs, and the verbs that describe action (shopping, running, eating) are transitive. When describing what you do, at a place, the transitive use で and the intransitive use に.

It’s already been stated that に emphasizes direction, if you’re going somewhere you would use this particle instead of で. But this can be taken one step further:

私は、マンハッタンにアパートを買います implies that “I will buy a apartment, which is in Manhattan.” Ni puts the sentence focus on location.

私は、マンハッタンでアパートを買います implies “In Manhattan I will buy a apartment.” With De, the focus of the sentence shifts to the event of buying, vs. just the location.

(Summary) To learn Japanese grammar, as seen from the above instances, it’s not as simple as translating to English. Both に and で mean “at,” but it depends on the focus of the sentence, for example if you’re emphasizing location then にwould be used, and if you’re emphasizing the action in the sentence then でwould be used.  It also depends on which type of verb is being used in Japanese, if it’s an action or transitive verb then で is used, intransitive uses に. When learning Japanese the English equivalent is useful, but without learning the nuance of how that piece of language is used, you haven’t learned anything.

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