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Grammar detail: difference between で and に

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JLPT:
difference between で and に
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The particles で and に can both be used as location and time indicators, and the difference between the two can sometimes be subtle.
For location, で is used to mark the location where an event occurred (ie, a focus on action). に is used to indicate object locations, destinations or directions (in the absence of a specific 'event'). For example:
  • がっこう
    べんきょう
    しました I studied at school
  • がっこう
    ほん
    がたくさんあります there are many books in school
For time, で indicates the (range of) time within which an action takes place, whereas に indicates the specific time when an action is performed. For example:
  • ほん
    を3
    じかん
    [お]わった I finished reading the book in three hours
  • ほん
    を3
    はじ
    めた I began reading the book at 3 o'clock
Just as with English, sometimes these particles are roughly equivalent. In many cases, both can be translated with the English 'in', and even in Japanese, there are situations where using either can work. However, the emphasis is usually subtly different.
The following are some more subtle examples. Here, in the second example, the wall is the location where the event of writing takes place:
Here, the different particles imply a different object of focus in the sentence:
  • れる I put it in by hand
  • れる I put it in my hand
In this pair, the first sentence simply describes when you will perform the action, whereas the second implies that you could do it now, but instead will perform it later:
  • あと
    でやります I will do it later
  • あと
    にします I will do it at a later time = I will put it off till later
In this example, the に implies that the room you rented is in Kyoto, whereas the で implies that the action of renting took place in Kyoto:
  • きょうと
    へや
    りた I rented a room in Kyoto
  • きょうと
    へや
    りた I rented a room (while I was) in Kyoto
In this example, the English word 'in' is used in both cases. However, both English and Japanese would use word order to indicate the different emphasis:
  • にほん
    こめ
    たか
    いです in Japan, rice is expensive
  • にほん
    たか
    こめ
    があります there is expensive rice in Japan
One example that is commonly confusing for learners is the use of に with
む. Although in English we might think of 'the act of living', in Japanese it is not an action but a state of affairs, and thus takes に:
  • とうきょう
    んでいます I live in Tokyo
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See also:
  • particle に - location marker
  • particle で - where an action takes place

Kanji used in this grammar

ガク   まな to learn   
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コウ    exam   
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ベン    exertion   
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キョウ   ゴウ   つよ strong   つよまる to get stronger   つよめる to strengthen   しいる to compel, to force   
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ホン   book   もと origin   
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ジ   とき time, occasion   
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カン   ケン   あいだ interval, between   ま space, room   
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ドク   トク   トウ   よ to read   
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シュウ   end   おわる to come to an end   おえる to bring to an end   
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シ   はじめる to begin, to start (something)   はじまる to begin, to commence   
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ヘキ   かべ wall   
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ショ   か to write   
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シュ   hand   て    た-    
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ニュウ   い to enter   はい to enter   いれる to put in   
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ゴ   コウ   のち    あと afterwards   うし behind   おくれる be late   
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キョウ   ケイ    capital   
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ト   ツ   みやこ capital city, metropolis   
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ブ   part
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オク   や roof   
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シャク   かりる to borrow   
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ニチ   ジツ   sun; day   ひ    -か    
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ベイ   マイ   こめ rice   
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コウ   expensive; high   たか    たか expensive, tall, high   たかまる to be elevated   たかめる to promote, heighten   
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ジュウ   す to live, to dwell   すまう to live (concept)   
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トウ   ひがし east   
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