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Grammar detail: 間 - あいだ vs ま

間 - あいだ vs ま
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is a very common kanji (in fact, the 21st most common in Japanese), and it is encountered very early in any Japanese course. Each of its four Joyo readings (カン, ケン, あいだ and ま) are all typically introduced relatively early on. The on yomi are typically introduced as part of the very common words
じかん
(time), and
にんげん
(human being). But what about the kun yomi, あいだ and ま? Both appear to have similar meanings, so when should you use one or the other?
The answer is that あいだ is typically used when describing a literal interval or space between things, whereas ま is used when the distinction is more figurative, in particular such as a period of time.
For example, in these sentences, the space / interval / room described has an actual physical presence:
たいよう
太陽
くも
あいだ
から
とつぜん
突然
あらわ
れた

The sun suddenly broke through the clouds.
その
かわ
りょうこく
両国
あいだ
なが
れている

The river flows between the two countries.
ぎょう
ぎょう
あいだ
もっと
けなさい

Leave more space between the lines.
In these examples, the interval described relates to time. The latter two use the common set phrase
く, which means literally 'to put an interval' - to insert a pause (in a conversation etc.):
20
せいき
世紀
こうしたことすべて
わった

In the course of the twentieth century all this changed.
その
きょうだい
兄弟
12
ねん
いて
まれた

The brothers were born twelve years apart.
かのじょ
彼女
ように
たばこ
煙草
つけた
As if to add a pause, she lit a cigarette.
Sometimes the distinction is a little less clear. When the context is a period of time *during* which something occurred, rather than an interval between things, あいだ would be appropriate.
なつやすみ
あいだ
あの
やま
のぼりたいです
I want to climb that mountain during the summer holidays.
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See also:
  • 間(あいだ)/ 間に(あいだに) - during

Kanji used in this grammar

カン   ケン   あいだ interval, between   ま space, room   
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1
ジ   とき time, occasion   
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1
ジン   ニン   ひと man   
1
チ   お to put   
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3
タ   タイ   ふと fat   ふと to get fat, to put on weight   
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3
ヨウ    positive, male, sun   
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3
ウン   くも cloud   
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4
トツ   つ to poke   
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3
ゼン   ネン    resemble   
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3
ゲン    present   あらわれる to appear   あらわ to show   
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3
セン   かわ river   
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1
リョウ    both   
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3
コク   くに country   
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1
ル   リュウ   ながれる to flow   なが to pour out, to flush    
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3
コウ   ギョウ   アン   ゆ    い to go   おこな to take place   
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1
クウ   から empty   あ to be empty   あける to empty, vacate   そら sky   
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2
セ   セイ   よ the world   
2
キ    chronicle   
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5
ヘン   unusual   かえる to alter, change   かわる to change   
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3
ケイ   キョウ   elder brother; brother   あに elder brother   
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2
ダイ   テイ   デ   おとうと younger brother   
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2
ネン   とし year   
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1
セイ   ショウ    life   なま raw   いかす to enliven   いきる to live   いける to arrange flowers   うまれる to be born   う to give birth to   き pure, undiluted   お to grow, to sprout   はえる to grow, to sprout   はやす to grow, cultivate   
1
ヒ   かれ he   
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3
ジョ   ニョ   ニョウ   woman; female   おんな woman   め woman   
1
エン   けむり smoke   けむ to smoke (chimney etc.)   けむ smoky   
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3
ソウ   くさ grass   
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3
カ   fire   ひ    ほ-    
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1
サン   やま mountain   
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1
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