Ni vs De: How to choose between these two location-defining particles

Two of the first particles that you are likely to encounter when learning Japanese are “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」.

They are often confused with one another for a couple of fairly obvious reasons:

  • Both can be used to define a place or location
  • Both can be translated into English as “in”, “on” or “at”, depending on the situation

In most cases, however, the difference between these two particles is actually very simple. You just need a proper understanding of what they do.

In this article, I will use examples to show you the clear difference between “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」, and give you a few simple and practical rules you can apply to ensure you always choose the right one.

The difference between “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」

As with many other particles, we know that “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」 define the specific roles of the words (or phrases) directly before them in relation to the verb:

Japanese sentence structure

We also know that one of the uses of both “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」 is to state that the word or phrase before these particles is a location.

In simple terms, the difference between “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」 is this:

  • Ni defines the location where someone or something is
  • De defines the location where someone does something

Let’s look at some examples of each, starting with “ni”「に.

Yui is at the park

Yui is at the park

Yui is at the park.

yui wa kōen ni imasu.

ゆい は こうえん に います

ゆいは公園こうえんにいます

Here, we use “ni”「に」 because the main action being described here is “imasu”「います」, meaning “to be” or “is”, so the point of this sentence is to tell us where Yui is.

Yui is at the park

Contrast that with this sentence that uses “de”「で」:

Yui played at the park

Yui played at the park

Yui played at the park.

yui wa kōen de asobimashita.

ゆい は こうえん で あそびました

ゆいは公園こうえんあそびました

(Ignore for now that this is in the past tense, while our other sentence was in the present tense. That has no effect on the particles, and I’ll explain why I did this shortly.)

The main action in this case is “asobimashita”あそびました」, meaning “played”, so the point of this sentence is to tell us that Yui played. The inclusion of “kōen de”公園こうえんで」 tells us where that activity occurred.

Yui is playing at the park

Because of this, the verbs that we are likely to use in combination with these particles are usually different:

  • “Ni”「に」 is mostly used together with the verbs “imasu”「います」 and “arimasu”「あります」, which both mean “to be” or “is”
  • “De”「で」 is used together with verbs that describe an action, which is almost all other verbs

That covers most situations. To put it another way:

  • If the sentence describes where someone or something is, “ni”「に」 can be used to tell us where that someone or something is.
  • If the sentence describes somebody doing something, “de”「で」 can be used to tell us where they are doing it.
Just to be perfectly clear, it must be noted that…

Both of these particles have other uses that we are not concerned about here.

For example, “de”「で」 has another major use which is to define the means by which an action occurs, such as a mode of transport or a tool used to complete the action.

Similarly, “ni”「に」 has several other uses, one of which is to define the destination of an action involving movement.

We could call this destination a location as well, but hopefully it is clear that the actions that involve movement towards a destination, like “ikimasu”きます」 (go), “kimasu”ます」 (come) and “kaerimasu”かえります」 (return home), are distinctly different from actions that don’t directly involve such directional movement, such as “tabemasu”べます」 (eat), “mimasu”ます」 (watch) and “asobimasu”あそびます」 (play).

So, when we say “destination + ni”, this “ni”「に」 has a very different meaning to the location-defining one we are focused on in this article.

There can be some overlap here and there, but for this lesson, we are focused only on the uses of these particles that relate to a place or location where something is or occurs.

Here’s another example:

Haruki was at school until 5 o'clock

Haruki was at school until 5 o’clock

Haruki was at school until 5 o’clock.

haruki wa goji made gakkō ni imashita.

はるき は ごじ まで がっこう に いました

はるきは5時ごじまで学校がっこうにいました

Haruki studied at school until 5 o'clock

Haruki studied at school until 5 o’clock

Haruki studied at school until 5 o’clock.

haruki wa goji made gakkō de benkyō shimashita.

はるき は ごじ まで がっこう で べんきょう しました

はるきは5時ごじまで学校がっこう勉強べんきょうしました

Like our previous example, the difference here is quite clear. The first sentence tells us where Haruki was, while the second one tells us where Haruki did something.

Let’s try one more example.

I will be here until 2 o’clock.

(watashi wa)* niji made koko ni imasu.

(わたし は)* にじ まで ここ に います

(わたしは)* 2時にじまでここにいます

I will wait here until 2 o’clock.

(watashi wa)* niji made koko de machimasu.

(わたし は)* にじ まで ここ で まちます

(わたしは)* 2時にじまでここでちます

*In most situations where this might be said, it is obvious the person speaking is talking about themselves, hence “watashi wa”わたしは」 can be omitted.

Notice here that both sentences convey essentially the same thing. The person speaking is saying that they are going to stay right where they are until 2 o’clock. They will not go anywhere or do anything.

However, the particle to use changes depending on whether they choose a verb that describes simply “being”, or a verb that describes an actual action (even if the action itself involves doing nothing).

So, even for the same activity, how we describe it – either as something that is or something that is done – determines whether we should use “ni”「に」 or “de”「で」.

Different words that mean “is”

Unlike English, Japanese has three words that effectively mean “is” or “to be”.

Two of them are much the same, as they are what we are talking about here: “imasu”「います」 and “arimasu”「あります」.

These both mean “to be” or “is” in the sense of “something is somewhere”, for example, “The book is over there.” They describe existence. “Imasu”「います」 is used for people and animals, while “arimasu”「あります」 is used for inanimate objects (ie. mostly non-living things, plus a few living things like plants).

The third word meaning “to be” is “desu”「です」. This, however, is only used to mean “to be” or “is” in the sense of “something is equal to something else”, for example, “The book is heavy.” For everything you ever wanted to know about the word “desu”「です」, click here to read my detailed guide.

Possible Point of Confusion – The “~te imasu”「~ています」 form

In my examples earlier, the reason I used “imasu”「います」 in the present tense and “asobimashita”あそびました」 in the past tense was to make sure the focus was on the action those words described, not the form they take.

If we changed the “de”「で」 example to also describe where Yui is playing right now, it would look like this:

Yui is playing at the park

Yui is playing at the park

Yui is playing at the park.

yui wa kōen de asonde imasu.

ゆい は こうえん で あそんで います

ゆいは公園こうえんあそんでいます

As you can see, the verb “asobimasu”あそびます」 takes the form:

asonde imasu

あそんで います

あそんでいます

If you are not familiar with this verb form, this is the te-form of the verb “asobimasu”あそびます」, plus the word “imasu”「います」, and together they mean, “is playing”.

Now, if we compare this to the other sentence from earlier, the two look quite similar now:

Yui is at the park.

yui wa kōen ni imasu.

ゆい は こうえん います

ゆいは公園こうえんいます

Yui is playing at the park.

yui wa kōen de asonde imasu.

ゆい は こうえん で あそんで います

ゆいは公園こうえんあそんでいます

Both English versions include the word “is”, and both Japanese versions include the word “imasu”「います」. The only difference is whether or not there is another verb (playing / asondeあそんで) in addition to “is” / “imasu”「います」 , and of course the different particle in the case of Japanese.

Just to be absolutely clear, the fact that “imasu”「います」 is included in this sentence does not impact what particle we use.

The reason is because the main verb – the one that describes the action taking place – is still “asobimasu”あそびます」.

Our decision to use the particle “de”「で」 is not affected by the form that this main verb takes.

What matters is the nature of the action being described by the main verb. In this case, the sentence is describing the act of playing, so “de”「で」 is used to tell us where the “playing” is happening.

We should use “ni”「に」 to define the location only in sentences that describe an act of “being”.

Unusual verbs like sitting and standing

The words “suwarimasu”すわります」 and “tachimasu”ちます」, meaning “sit” and “stand”, respectively, are usually used with a location marked by the particle “ni”「に」. That seems inconsistent with what we have said so far, but it’s not.

The reason “ni”「に」 is used in these cases is because these verbs describe the instantaneous action of sitting or standing. Let’s use an example to demonstrate:

Yui sat on a chair.

yui wa isu ni suwarimashita

ゆい は いす に すわりました

ゆいは椅子いすすわりました

This sentence describes the instant where Yui went from a non-sitting position to a sitting position. The chair on which Yui sits is the destination of that action. So, the “ni”「に」 in this sentence:

Sit on a chair.

isu ni suwarimasu.

いす すわります。

椅子いすすわります。

… is similar to the “ni”「に」 in this sentence:

Go to the station.

eki ni ikimasu.

えき いきます。

えききます。

The chair is the destination or endpoint of the act of sitting, just like the station is the destination of the act of going. So, in our sentence structure diagram, it would look like this (notice what type of element “isu”椅子いす is):

Yui sat on a chair

Yui sat on a chair

But, what about if we change it to this:

Yui is sitting on a chair.

yui wa isu ni suwatte imasu.

ゆい は いす に すわって います

ゆいは椅子いすすわっています

Here, sitting appears to be a continuous action. Like earlier when Yui was playing, the action is ongoing, so how can we say that the chair is the destination or endpoint of that action? Isn’t it the location where the act of sitting is continuing to take place?

It certainly does look that way, but no.

Deep down, what this sentence is describing consists of two actions:

  1. Sitting on the chair (suwatteすわって)
  2. Being (imasuいます)

At some point in the past, Yui went from a standing position to a sitting position, and the destination of that action was the chair. Since doing that, they are now just “being”, as the “imasu”「います」 portion tells us, implying that she is remaining in that sitting position.

Conceptually, this is a little bit convoluted, but it does explain why the location associated with actions like “suwarimasu”すわります」 and “tachimasu”ちます」, as well as some others like “norimasu”ります」 (to ride), are defined using “ni”「に」 instead of “de”「で」, even when in the “~te imasu”「~ています」 form.

In practice, the main thing to remember is that there are a few verbs that work a little bit differently to what we might expect. The fact that “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」 both have several other uses confuses things further, but in the end, these oddities do not change the fundamental point that differentiates “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」 with regards to places or locations – ie. a place of being vs a place where something is done.

Other verbs that describe existence

(and therefore have their locations defined by “ni”「に」)

Aside from “imasu”「います」 and “arimasu”「あります」, there are a few other verbs that should have their location defined by the particle “ni”「に」. That is, there are other verbs that describe a state of existence.

One obvious example is the word meaning “to exist”: “sonzai shimasu”存在そんざいします」. This word is much more useful as a noun (ie. sonzai存在そんざい = existence) than as a verb, but here it is in a sentence anyway:

In Japan, there exist various dialects

In Japan, there exist various dialects

In Japan, there are (exist) various dialects.

nihon ni iroiro na hōgen ga sonzai shimasu.

にほん に いろいろ な ほうげん が そんざい します

日本にほん色々いろいろ方言ほうげん存在そんざいします

This sentence clearly describes where something is, as opposed to where something is done. To make things even clearer, we could just substitute “arimasu”「あります」 in place of “sonzai shimasu”存在そんざいします」 and the meaning would be almost exactly the same:

In Japan, there are various dialects

In Japan, there are various dialects

In Japan, there are various dialects.

nihon ni iroirona hōgen ga arimasu.

にほん に いろいろな ほうげん が あります

日本にほん色々いろいろ方言ほうげんあります

Here’s an example using a less obvious existence-describing verb:

Yui lives in Sendai

Yui lives in Sendai

Yui lives in Sendai.

yui wa sendai ni sunde imasu.

ゆい は せんだい に すんで います

ゆいは仙台せんだいんでいます

Now, we could say that Sendai is the location where Yui performs the act of living, but using “de”「で」 here would be wrong.

The reason for this is because “sumimasu”みます」 is, inherently, a verb that describes a state of existence. Yui is not actively doing anything that makes her live in Sendai – it’s just the main place where she exists. Even if we changed this to another tense, for example, “sumimashita”みました」 (lived), it would still describe the main place where Yui used to exist.

This next example shows that there are also some words that describe a state of existence and should therefore have their location defined by “ni”「に」, but only in certain situations. Let’s take a look:

Yui has a house in Sendai

Yui has a house in Sendai

Yui has a house in Sendai.

yui wa sendai ni ie wo motte imasu.

ゆい は せんだい に いえ を もって います

ゆいは仙台せんだいいえっています

Why would this be “ni”「に」?

Because the verb “mochimasu”ちます」, in this case, describes ownership of something that exists in a fixed location. Again, Yui is not actively doing something right now that makes her “have” the house – it just exists somewhere in Sendai, and Yui happens to be the owner.

As such, in this case, “motte imasu”っています」 effectively describes a state of existence. The part, “ie wo motte imasu”いえっています」, could even be substituted for, “ie ga arimasu”いえがあります」, and the meaning would be essentially the same:

Yui has a house in Sendai

Yui has a house in Sendai

Yui has a house in Sendai.

yui wa sendai ni ie ga arimasu.

ゆい は せんだい に いえ が あります

ゆいは仙台せんだいいえあります

(For an explanation of how using “wa”「は」 and “ga”「が」 together in a sentence like this works, check out my article on the difference between “wa”「は」 and “ga”「が」.)

This is all despite the fact that most of the time, “mochimasu”ちます」 describes the act of having or holding something in a much more active way than mere existence. For most uses of “mochimasu”ちます」, the location where the object is being held should be marked by “de”「で」.

The takeaway here is that the nature of the action described by the verb is more important than the verb itself.

A few verbs always describe existence, most never do, and then there are a few that do so only sometimes. It’s a line so fine that in a few cases, you could use either “ni”「に」 or “de”「で」 and both could be considered correct, though they may differ slightly in nuance.

We could go even deeper into this, but like most things, the deeper you go, the trickier it gets, and the more we get stuck looking at things on a case-by-case basis.

Instead, just keep it simple, and don’t worry too much about the finer details. You have bigger fish to fry.

If the verb is one that clearly describes existence, like “arimasu”「あります」, “imasu”「います」, “sonzai shimasu”存在そんざいします」 or “sumimasu”みます」, remember to always define the location of the thing doing the “existing” with the particle “ni”「に」.

Otherwise, use “de”「で」, and most of the time it will be correct.

Translating “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」 into English

The last point I want to emphasise is that there is no consistent way to translate either of these particles into or from English. Both can be any of “in, “on” or “at”, and even some other prepositions in certain situations or combinations.

The reason there is no simple, direct translation is because of this:

  • The choice of Japanese particle depends on the nature of the action being described
  • The choice of English preposition depends on the nature of the physical relationship between the person and the location

As we know, we choose “ni”「に」 or “de”「で」 depending on if it is where something is, or if it is where an action is done.

In English, however, the nature of the action has zero influence. It doesn’t matter if the verb describes “being” or “doing”, we choose the preposition based on where the action is happening in relation to the location that is explicitly defined.

For example, we use “in” when we want to state that the action is contained within the area defined by the location phrase. That could be anything from a room (eg. “in the kitchen”) to a continent (eg. “in Asia”).

On the other hand, we might use “at” if the action occurs in the general vicinity of the specified location, for example, “He is at the door”. It doesn’t matter, however, if we change this to a include “doing” verb, such as, “He is standing at the door” – we still use “at”.

The point is, the nature of the action does not matter in English, while it is all that matters in Japanese, so direct word-for-word translation simply does not work.

Instead of trying to translate, focus on visualising what is happening and decide:

Is the person or thing doing something in the specified location, or are they just “being”?

Key Takeaways

The difference between the location-defining uses of particles “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」 are as follows:

  • Ni defines the location where someone or something is
  • De defines the location where someone does something

To help you apply this, remember that:

  • “Ni”「に」 (as a location-defining particle) is mostly only used with verbs that describe existence – particularly “imasu”「います」 and “arimasu”「あります」.
  • “De”「で」 is used with verbs that describe someone doing something, which is most other verbs.
  • The form that the verb takes does not matter – what matters is whether the action described by the main verb is “being” or “doing”.
  • For some verbs, like “suwarimasu”すわります」 (sit) and “tachimasu”ちます」 (stand), what looks like the location (eg. a chair) is actually the destination or endpoint of that action, hence the thing a person sits or stands on is usually marked by “ni”「に」.
  • There is no simple direct translation between these particles and English prepositions. Ignore the translation and focus on the nature of action described by the main verb.
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