まえ (mae) vs まで (made): what’s the difference?

By | August 15, 2019

Words that sound similar can cause trouble for those learning a foreign language, especially if the words have similar meanings. In this post I want to go over the difference between the Japanese words ”mae” (written either as まえ or 前) and “made” (usually written as まで, but in rare cases as 迄), which are one such pair.

“Made” and “mae” both relate to the time before an action takes place, but their emphasis is different.

“Mae” refers very generally to a span of time before some action or event occurs. Let’s look at a simple example:

  • 食べる、手を洗ってください (taberu mae, te wo aratte kudasai)
  • Please wash your hands before eating.

The meaning here is pretty clear, though there is a nuance that isn’t spelled out. Even though “mae” refers generally to any time before an action, here the implication is “immediately before”. If you wanted to be explicit about that you could use the word 直前 (chokuzen), though that word isn’t used that often in everyday conversation.

“Made” on the other hand, is more concerned with the entire period of time up until an action takes place. For example,

  • 明日まで待ちましょう (ashita made machimashou)
  • Let’s wait until tomorrow.

“Made”, like “mae”, can be used after the dictionary form of a verb. But, as with the previous example, it usually emphasizes up until the point of time when that action occurs.

  • 友達が来るまで寝る (tomodachi ga kuru made neru)
  • I’ll sleep until my friend comes.

In both cases the action (“sleeping” or “waiting”) occurs continuously until the condition in question triggers.

“Made” is also used when talking about how much of a resource is required to achieve something, like time or money.

  • 東京までおいくらですか? (toukyou made oikura desu ka?)
  • How much does it cost (to go) to Tokyo? (literally: “How much does it cost until Tokyo?”)

In all of the above examples, replacing “made” with “mae” wouldn’t make too much sense. However, in a few cases you can actually use either word. For example,

  • 死ぬまでやっておきたい事。 (shinu made yatte okitai koto)
  • 死ぬまえやっておきたい事。 (shinu mae yatte okitai koto)
  • Thing(s) I want to do before I die.

While these both can be used, it turns out the “made” here is usually a better choice (I confirmed this with a native speaker). The reason is that using “mae” sounds like you know when you will die, when that is generally not the case. In contrast, in the first example sentence above (about watching hands) the time when you will eat is known.

Both “mae” and “made” can be used before points of time, but they have different meanings:

  • 5時まで仕事がある (goji made shigoto ga aru)
    • (I) have work until five.
  • 今,5時だからお店はまだ開いてる (ima, gojimae dakara omise wa aiteru)
    • Now it’s before 5 (o’clock) so the store(s) is/are open.

Another big difference between these words is that “mae” can be used to describe a relative position (“before”, “in front of”, etc.), whereas “made” cannot.

A final difference is that “made” is generally not used on its own, whereas “mae” can.

  • まで勉強していた (ima made benkyou shite ita)
    • I was studying until (right) now.
  • まえ、勉強していた (mae, benkyou shite ita)
    • I was studying before.

In the second sentence, “mae” essentially means “before now”, but saying “ima mae” would be incorrect.

What words do you think fit in the below sentences? (put your answers in the comments)

  • 寝る___お手洗いに行きたい
  • 遠くてそこ___は行けないよ
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3 thoughts on “まえ (mae) vs まで (made): what’s the difference?

  1. archemidiate

    Thank you for all your articles, they’re a great help to learners like myself.
    寝る前お手洗いに行きたい
    遠くてそこまでは行けないよ
    My attempt at translations (corrections welcome):
    I want to go to the washroom before bed.
    I wouldn’t go that far.

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Your answers are right.

      About your translations, the first one is good, but for the second one you didn’t quite capture the entire meaning. I would suggest:

      “It’s far and I can’t go there”

      There is an implied feel of “because” here so you could include that as well. This translation attempts that, and is more natural than the above:

      “I can’t go there because it’s so far”

      Reply
      1. archemidiate

        Brilliant, thank you for explaining the second sentence for me — I think I understand how to get the meaning better with that, now.

        Reply

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