Japanese particles: で (de) vs に (ni)

By | March 17, 2014

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.

  • ジョンは図書館で勉強をしています。
  • Jon is studying in the library.
  • サラは台所で料理をしています。
  • Sara is cooking in the kitchen.
  • 今晩、映画館で映画を観よう。
  • Tonight, lets watch a movie in the movie theater.

に, on the other hand, is used to express where something exists (living or nonliving).

  • 先生は教室にいます。
  • The teacher is in the classrom
  • 本は机の上にある。
  • The book is on the table.

に is also used to express a direction ‘to’ or target of an action.

  • 僕はモルモットにえさをあげた。
  • I gave food to the guinea pig.
  • 海に行かない?
  • 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.

  • ケーキがお店に売ってる。
  • ケーキがお店で売ってる。

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?

  • ここに事故があった。
  • ここで事故があった。

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:

  • 勤務中に事故があった。
  • An accident happened while I was working.   [Here に is used to indicate a specific point in time]
  • 友達に事故があった。
  • 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.

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5 thoughts on “Japanese particles: で (de) vs に (ni)

  1. 1994sunshine

    So…で focuses more on the action that is/was/will happen(ing), and に is used with the existence verbs (ある/いる) or to signify a temporal, spatial or intentional direction?

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Rather than saying it that way, I would put it like this: で is used to describe the place where an action is (actively) occurring, and に is used to describe the place where something (passively) exists.

      I recently finished making a mini quiz on で vs に, which I plan on publishing soon (:

  2. Jacqueline

    Hello! I have some question regarding に. You wrote that に can be used for something that exist. I went on to another website, http://www.sljfaq.org/afaq/de-ni.html, and there’s an example used that I can’t really understand.

    Kouen ni ahiru ga iru (公園にアヒルがいる), “There are some ducks in the park.”

    Why does it use が instead of に in that sentence? Can we replace the が with に and become 公園にアヒルにいる? Thank you.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Hi, thanks for the comment and for reading my blog!

      Generally, for sentences that express existence the general pattern is:

      [thing that exists] が  [location] に 「ある or いる」

      So “アヒルが公園にいる” would be correct. You can also switch the word order to get “公園にアヒルがいる” which is fundamentally the same meaning.

      Saying に。。。に。。。 for this case would be incorrect.

      Make sense?


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