In this article, we’ll be going over a relatively simple particle that has a couple of straightforward uses, with a minor exception.

Useful Vocabulary

  • ナイフ・ Knife
  • パン・Bread
  • 切る(きる)・To cut
  • バス・Bus
  • タクシー・Taxi/Cab
  • カメラ・ Camera
  • 写真・Picture/Photo
  • 取る・To take
  • 空港(くうこう)・ Airport
  • 飛行機(ひこうき)・ Airplane
  • コーヒー・ Coffee
  • 買う(かう)・To buy
  • コンサート・Concert

Meaning 1: Showing Instrumentation.

で can be used to show how, or by what means, a verb is carried out. This is analogous to the instrumental case that appears in certain Indo-European languages like Russian. For native speakers of English, it is similar to saying “with” or “by”. For example:

  • ナイフパンを切る (Cut the bread with a knife)
  • バス学校に行く (Go to school by bus)
  • ペン作文を書く(Write an essay with a pen)
  • カメラ写真を撮る (Take a picture with a camera)
  • タクシー空港に行く(Go to the airport by cab)

While the English translation changes slightly for some of the sentences (i.e. using “by” vs “with”), the takeaway in Japanese is that で indicates the means by which an action is carried out. It points out what is used to carry out an action.

Meaning 2: Showing an action’s location

Earlier we learned that the location of a person or thing can be indicated using the particle に. For example:

空港飛行機がある – There are planes at the airport.

However, に can only be used to show location when we are simply talking about something existing in a certain location. If we instead are talking about the location where an action takes place, we have to instead use で.

For example:

  • 空港コーヒーを買う(To buy coffee at the airport)
  • 本を読む(To read a book at home)

Since verbs like “to read” or “to buy” describe actions, the location in which they take must be marked with and NOT に.

So compare the difference:

  • 公園に猫がいる (“To exist” is not an action. It is a state of being. The location should use に)
  • 学校で作文を書く(書く is an action, and so the location should use で)

Exception ー Using で With ある

Marking the location of the verb ある can sometimes take で instead of に when it’s being used to describe an event that is taking place, such as a concert or a convention. This is because these events are large-scale “actions”

For example, compare the two different usages of ある below:

  • 机の上ペンある (There’s a pen on the desk )
  • 東京コンサートある (There’s a concert in Tokyo)

The first example uses に because we are simply describing the existence of the pen on the desk, and no action is taking place. The second example uses で because a concert is an “event” and an event is a type of “action”.

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