Particles に and で are grammar elements you’ll encounter in the early stages of your Japanese learning journey. Even though you learn them as a beginner, many learners mix them up even as they progress into intermediate and advanced levels of Japanese.
So why all this mix up? To put it simply, both particles are used to mark places or locations. Since both particles can be translated to the same English prepositions, such as "in," "on" and "at," separating their meanings can be confusing unless you understand their deeper meanings. For example, both 学校に and 学校で can mean "in school" or "at school," depending on the context. So, how should we decide which one to choose?
In this article, we'll introduce you to the basic concepts of these two particles, which will help you to determine which one is best for particular contexts of use.
- Concepts of に and で
- に or で For Location
- に and で For Location (In Similar Sentences)
- に and で For Time
Prerequisites: To get the most out of this article, you should already know hiragana and katakana. If you need to brush up, have a look at our Ultimate Hiragana Guide and Ultimate Katakana Guide. It would also be good if you're already familiar with particles に and で, and you’re ready to dive into the differences between them.
Concepts of に and で
Both に and で are extremely common, and their fundamental meanings are quite similar — specifying a place or location. But how they specify a place or location differs, and once you understand what they really do, it becomes fairly easy to select one over the other.
Pinning Down に
To put it simply, に defines the place or location where something or someone is, was, or will be. To help your understanding, imagine it this way: に is like a pin on a map. You can drop a pin on the location where something exists, or on a place that you want to go to.
So in some contexts, に is like a "You are Here" sign. It pins down where you currently are, or where something or someone is located.
- I’m at school.
- There is a gym in the school.
In these examples, に comes after the place 学校 (school), telling us where you are, or where the gym is located. In other contexts, に marks where something or someone will be. This is like dropping a pin on a destination on a map application.
- I will go to school.
In this sentence, に marks 学校 as your destination, not the location where you currently are.
So to sum it up, に has this fundamental meaning of pinning down a point of existence — where something is, was, or will be.
Selecting For Activity/Event で
Now, what about で? How does it define a place or location? Unlike the particle に that simply pinpoints the location, で selects the place where an activity or event is, was, or will be carried out. For example, if you add で after 学校 (school), as in 学校で, you have selected a place, and it can translate to "at school" or "in school," depending on the context.
And within this で-marked place, an activity or event occurs, like:
- I study at school.
- There is a charity event in school.
In these examples, で comes after the place 学校 (school) and tells us where you study, or where the charity event occurs. The second example is actually very similar to the earlier "there is a gym in the school" example, but here で is your choice because you are describing the place holding an event.
So that’s the fundamental differences between に and で! に indicates a simple location, whereas で marks out the area for an action. So far so good? Let’s take a look at some examples so you can consolidate your understanding. We’ll first check out this basic "location" use, and then explore the uses of に and で for time!
に or で For Location
First, imagine you come back home with an empty stomach and ask your parents if there is something to eat. They say:
- There is a pudding in the fridge.
Here, に is used because they are simply telling you where the pudding is located. They are not describing what’s happening in the fridge.
Now, let’s continue on with the same scenario. You love pudding and get excited, and so you head to the kitchen right away. To describe situation, you can say:
- I headed to the kitchen.
In this example, the location キッチン is marked by に because it’s the destination you headed to. You are not selecting キッチン as the place where something happened.
Okay, so you are there now! It’s time to eat the pudding. With a big smile on your face, you open the fridge door to an awful sight and let out a telling cry. Your parents ask you, "What happened?" And you answer:
- It looks like the cola exploded in the fridge.
In this sentence, で is used because you are describing what happened in the 冷蔵庫 (fridge). So, 冷蔵庫で defines where that explosion occurred, and doesn’t simply mark the point of existence. I hope the pudding was safe.
After cleaning up the fridge, you notice a magnet has fallen on the floor, so you grab it and put it back on the fridge door. To describe what you did, you can say:
- I put a magnet on the fridge door.
Like pinning up a picture on the wall, this に drops a pin on 冷蔵庫のドア, marking it as the destination or goal of the magnet’s attachment.
If you want to add more detail to the previous example, like "where" that happened, you can say:
- I put a magnet on the fridge door in the kitchen.
In this case, you mark キッチン with で because that’s the place where your action of "putting a magnet on the fridge door" occurred. To describe your action, 冷蔵庫のドア is still marked with に, because that’s still the destination of the magnet!
So far, so good? Let’s continue on the same scenario. Luckily, your pudding was intact and now finally it’s time for you to enjoy it. You find a comfy chair and take a seat:
- I sat down in the chair.
Here, に is used again because of the same reason as the previous example. 椅子に is marking the destination of your buttocks.
Just like that, に is used to mark something as the place where attachment to something else happens. And this remains the same even when you are describing what is going in the selected place. For example, to say "you are sitting in the chair," you would use に and say:
- I’m sitting in the chair.
Why? Let’s go back to the pin on the wall analogy. When you pin a picture on the wall, the pin holds the picture up while it remains on the wall. This に is like that pin. You drop a pin on 椅子 to "attach" yourself, and it remains with you during the attachment.
For this reason, you'll often see に used with verbs that indicate some kind of attachment or contact, such as 貼る (affix) or 付ける (attach). Like in the example above with 座っている (sitting), these verbs take the 〜ている form to indicate an ongoing state. It may be tempting to treat these as activities and choose particle で, but verbs of attachment (including abstract attachments like a butt to a chair) usually take particle に.
However, this doesn't mean that all 〜ている form verbs call for particle に. When you're describing what’s going on in a selected area (and there's no sense of attachment), you don’t need に for its pinning down meaning. For example:
- I’m relaxing and doing nothing on the sofa.
Even though relaxing and doing nothing could barely be considered an activity, there is sill no sense of being pinned to the location. It's where you are doing nothing. So in this example, で selects the area when your activity of ダラダラする, or "being relaxed and doing nothing," takes place. Are you getting the hang of it?
に and で For Location (In Similar Sentences)
Sometimes, に and で can be used in sentences that otherwise look exactly the same, with the exact same verbs, but don’t fret! What に and で do still remains the same, and the meanings reflect that. For example, take a look at the following examples:
Both of these sentences are about Kanae writing a 手紙 (letter). However, the difference in particle choice between に and で has an effect on the meaning. In the first example using に, 机 (desk) is marked as the surface where the 手紙 (letter) is written. So the translation of the first sentence goes:
- Kanae wrote a letter on the desk.
In other words, she penned her words right onto the wood. (I hope she didn’t use a permanent marker.)
The second sentence uses で, so it’s marking 机 (desk) as the place where the activity of "Kanae writing a letter" takes place. So it means:
- Kanae wrote a letter at the desk.
Unlike the に-marked sentence, this one doesn’t suggest Kanae wrote a message directly onto the desk, it's simply telling us where she was when she wrote the letter.
However, the difference in particle choice does not always cause such a stark contrast in meaning. For example, to say "I planted flowers in the yard," you can use either particle:
- I planted flowers in the yard.
Here, each particle expresses a different focus. The particle に places focus on 庭 (yard) as the final destination where these flowers were planted. It may even emphasize being planted directly into the ground in the yard. The particle で on the other hand, marks 庭 (yard) as the venue in which the flower planting activity occurred. Perhaps you planted the flowers in pots and then gave them away as gifts, but still, the place that they were planted happened in the yard.
Let’s take a look at one more example. This one is a very common phrase to describe where you live. For example, to say you live in Tokyo, you can say:
- I live in Tokyo.
Although both に and で are possible, に is definitely the more common option. To state where you reside, you only need to place a "You are Here" sign on the map. Since に is almost always used, some textbooks or teachers may even state で as an incorrect use. However, if you want to take a more nuanced view of activity 住んでいる (living) and treat it like an activity, you could use で. For example, take a look at this Tweet:
昔は 東京に行って 最先端に 触れようという 考えがあった。だけどネットが 当たり 前になった今では、東京で住んだり 働くメリットっていうのは少なくなったと 思います。 食べ 物に 関しても、 都内よりは 地方の 食材の方が 新鮮で安くて 美味しいし😀
In the past, many Japanese people had the idea of going to Tokyo to immerse themselves in the experience of a cutting edge world. However, now that the internet has become commonplace, I think the advantages of living and working in Tokyo have diminished. Food in the countryside is fresher, cheaper, and tastier than in the city.
In this Tweet, the person uses で to mark 東京 as the place they are living. This で can be replaced with に, but the writer chose で to emphasize "living" as a dynamic activity, with Tokyo as the backdrop. In fact, this Tweet presents "living" with another activity, "working," and so it makes more sense to use で here because 東京 is the stage upon which "living" and "working" both occur.
に and で For Time
Okay, there is one more difference to talk about between に and で. Just like marking physical locations, the particles に and で can also mark points in time. In this case, に is straightforward. It can mark time regardless of whether it is in the past, present, or future. Imagine dropping a pin on a timeline rather than a map.
- School begins at 9 a.m.
In this sentence, に drops a pin on the 9 am slot on a timeline, marking exactly when school will begin.
Particle で, on the other hand, suggests a time limit, and refers to the end point of an activity or event. It’s like you’re selecting a certain range on a timeline, and an activity or event can occur only within the selected range. So if you are talking about the end point of timeline, に and で are actually interchangeable and don't change the meaning at all.
- School ends at 3 p.m.
Because the verb 終わる (finish) indicates that we're talking about an end point, で is possible here. However, if we talk about a starting point by using a verb like 始まる (begin), then で can sound a bit awkward since it emphasizes an end point.
- School begins at 9 a.m.
However, there are certain contextual reasons why you might choose で in this sentence. Since で implies the end point of something, you can use で to emphasize the end of whatever activity leads up to the new one that is beginning. For example, if you're trying to get your kid ready for online school but they are still playing video games, you can use で to present "school starting" as the end point of their gaming session:
- Are you still playing the game? The school begins at 9 a.m.!
In this case, 9 o’clock is the time when the school begins, but で indicates it’d also be an end point of the activity that came before. It can draw attention to the approaching time limit.
I hope this article helped to clear up any questions you might have had surrounding the particles に and で! To sum it up, に simply pins a location while で selects an area for an activity or event to occur. They can also mark time, but in this case で places emphasis on the end point of an activity or event. To study more about them, we have grammar pages for each particle, so check out the に page and で page as well.
Lastly, my coworkers, Kanae and Rachel recorded a podcast episode about に and で. Give it a listen to hear more examples and quizzes to review what you've learned in this article!