I this post I’d like to compare the two Japanese particles で and に, both which are used very frequently in everyday Japanese.
I’m not going to do a thorough treatment of either particle covering all possible uses (there are many for both), but I’ll summarize a few of the most common usages.
で is typically used to express where an action is taking place.
- Jon is studying in the library.
- Sara is cooking in the kitchen.
- Tonight, lets watch a movie in the movie theater.
に, on the other hand, is used to express where something exists (living or nonliving).
- The teacher is in the classrom
- The book is on the table.
に is also used to express a direction ‘to’ or target of an action.
- I gave food to the guinea pig.
- Do you want to go to the beach? (lit: “Won’t you go to the beach?”)
The interesting thing about these particles is that there are some times where either can be used, depending on what you want to emphasize.
Both of these sentences could be translated as “Cake is being sold at the store”, but the first one (with に）emphasizes more that the cake is residing at the store, and the second (with で) emphasizes that the store is the place where the action of ‘being sold’ is happening.
Google statistics show that the で in this case is more common (roughly twice as frequent), although both are equally correct.
Here is another example where either particle can be used:
- 彼はベッドに寝ています。 [Emphasizes the location he is at is the bed]
- 彼はベッドで寝ています。 [Emphasizes the place the action of ‘sleeping’ is being done is the bed]
What about if we wanted to say “There was an accident here” in Japanese? Which do you think is correct?
The answer is the で (the second sentence), because here the verb あった is referring to something which ‘happened’ (in the sense of ‘起こった’) rather than the accident was a physical object that was here.
However there are still times when you could use に with the phrase “事故があった”. Here are two such examples:
- An accident happened while I was working. [Here に is used to indicate a specific point in time]
- An accident happened to a friend. [Here に is used to specify the person who was impacted by the accident]
You can use a similar pattern whenever using 事（こと)＋ある, like ”ここでいい事があった”
Finally, are で and に ever used together, like “ここでに。。。”? Nope, there are no cases when they are used together. It’s always one of the other.