The Japanese particle “de”: When and how to use it correctly
The particle “de”「で」 is one of the most useful particles in Japanese as it has two very common uses:
- To mark the means by which an action is completed
- To mark the location where an action takes place
In this article, we will take a detailed look at these two main uses of “de”「で」, including when they apply, how to use “de”「で」 in a sentence, as well as a few things to be mindful of when using or encountering “de”「で」.
Use #1: Using “de”「で」 to mark the means by which an action is completed
Many actions involve the use of something – “means” – that allows the action to be completed.
The particle “de”「で」 is used to define something as the means used to complete an action.
Most commonly, the “means” refers to a mode of transport, a tool or instrument, or a method used to complete an action.
- If I go somewhere by train, then the train is the “means” that I use to get there.
- If Hiro records a video, then the tool – his camera or phone – is the “means” that he uses to record it.
- If Eri emails her friend a photo, then the method – email – is the “means” used to send it.
For all of these, we would use the particle “de”「で」.
Using “de”「で」 to describe means in a sentence
Here’s where this usage of the particle “de”「で」 fits into my model for Japanese sentence structure:
(If you haven’t seen this before, read here.)
Like all other elements in the “other information” section, the means, together with the particle “de”「で」, can appear virtually anywhere between the topic (marked by “wa”「は」) and the verb.
Here’s an example:
I went to the library by train.
watashi wa densha de toshokan ni ikimashita.
わたし は でんしゃ で としょかん に いきました。
In this sentence, the means is a mode of transport, so “de”「で」 tells us that the train was used to complete the act of going to the library.
If we want, we can change the order to this instead:
I went to the library by train.
watashi wa toshokan ni densha de ikimashita.
わたし は としょかん に でんしゃ で いきました。
Both sentences mean essentially the same thing. This is because it is the particles, not the word order, that tells us the role of each word.
The only real difference is that this second sentence puts more emphasis on the train as the mode of transport, because words that appear later in a sentence generally carry more weight.
However, as long as we attach the right particle to each piece of information in the sentence, the fundamental meaning will be the same.
When describing the means used to complete an action, follow it immediately with “de”「で」.
Read more: A Visual Guide to Japanese Word Order
Different types of “means”
In our example above, the means used to travel to the library was a mode of transport – a train. As mentioned earlier, however, there are other things that can be considered the “means” for completing an action, and should therefore be followed by “de”「で」.
Let’s see a few examples:
Hiro shot a video with his phone.
Hiro wa keitai de dōga wo torimashita.
ひろ は けいたい で どうが を とりました。
Here, “de”「で」 tells us that the means of taking the photo was a mobile phone. The means in this case takes the form of a tool.
Eri sent a photo to her friend via email.
Eri wa mēru de tomodachi ni shashin wo okurimashita.
えり は メール で ともだち に しゃしん を おくりました。
This time, “de”「で」 tells us that the means used to send the photo was email. Now, we could think of email as either a tool or a method, but it doesn’t really matter – either way, email was the means Eri used, so we mark it with “de”「で」.
It isn’t at all necessary to classify what type of “means” something may be, so a simpler, albeit less precise way to think of “de”「で」 might be to say…
“De”「で」 marks something that is used to complete an action.
That “something” can be virtually anything. For example, I can use my foot to do something:
I closed the door with my foot.
watashi wa ashi de doa wo shimemashita.
わたし は あし で ドア を しめました。
Or Satomi can use her head (ie. her intellect):
Satomi solved a difficult problem in her head. (ie. using her intelligence)
Satomi wa atama de muzukashī mondai wo tokimashita.
さとみ は あたま で むずかしい もんだい を ときました。
The means can even be completely abstract, like in this example:
Tomoyuki studied English with a positive attitude.
Tomoyuki wa maemuki na shisei de eigo wo benkyō shimashita.
ともゆき は まえむき な しせい で えいご を べんきょう しました。
Basically, if something is used to complete an action, we can usually express that involvement with the particle “de”「で」.
Use #2: Using “de”「で」 to mark the location where an action takes place
Most actions take place in a physical (or sometimes virtual) location.
The particle “de”「で」 is used to define the location where an action takes place.
Here it is in our diagram:
Let’s see an example:
Sanae read a book at the library.
Sanae wa toshokan de hon wo yomimashita.
さなえ は としょかん で ほん を よみました。
In this sentence, Sanae is reading a book, and “de”「で」 tells us that the location where she was doing that was the “toshokan”「図書館」, or library. Here are a few more examples:
Yuto goes shopping in Harajuku every week.
Yūto wa maishū harajuku de kaimono shimasu.
ゆうと は まいしゅう はらじゅく で かいもの します。
Mai studied engineering at university.
Mai wa daigaku de kōgaku wo benkyō shimashita.
まい は だいがく で こうがく を べんきょう しました。
Aya watched a movie on the plane.
Aya wa hikōki de eiga wo mimashita.
あや は ひこうき で えいが を みました。
When not to use “de”「で」 to mark locations
The use of “de”「で」 to define a location is, by itself, fairly straightforward, but there is another location-defining particle that is easily confused with “de”「で」 – “ni”「に」.
The particle “ni”「に」 has several uses, but the one that is easily confused with “de”「で」 is this one:
The particle “ni”「に」 marks the location where something “is” or exists.
When describing locations, it is important to make the distinction between where an action takes place, and where something is.
Let’s look at an example that highlights this difference:
Satoshi is in Yotsuya.
Satoshi wa yotsuya ni imasu.
さとし は よつや に います。
Satoshi is watching baseball in Yotsuya.
Satoshi wa yotsuya de yakyū wo mite imasu.
さとし は よつや で やきゅう を みて います。
Even though both of these sentences describing Satoshi’s location as being in Yotsuya, the role of the location is different.
In the first sentence, Yotsuya is the location where Satoshi just is.
In the second sentence, however, Yotsuya is the location where Satoshi is doing something.
This is an important distinction, because it is the basis for determining what particle to use when talking about locations.
If you often find yourself getting confused by these two particles or just want a better understanding of their differences, check out my detailed article on the difference between “ni”「に」 and “de”「で」.
A note about translating from English (or any other language)
It’s often tempting to try to work out which particle to use by translating from an English preposition, such as “by” or “in”.
Don’t do this.
Although there is a fair amount of overlap between certain particles and certain prepositions, the rules for choosing particles are distinctly different from the rules for choosing prepositions.
This is particularly true of “de”「で」, especially when it comes to defining locations.
Put simply, in English, we choose between “in”, “on” and “at” based on where something is relative to something else. Consider the difference between:
“In a box” vs “on a box”
“On a table” vs “at a table”
Particles, however, do not care about where something is relative to something else. They care about what action is being done.
- If someone is doing something somewhere, use “de”「で」.
- If someone is just existing somewhere, use “ni”「に」.
Ignore English prepositions because they will only cause you unnecessary confusion.
Although it’s less of an issue, the same applies to our other use of “de”「で」 – defining the means. The most common translation for this use of “de”「で」 is the English preposition “by”. For example:
However, we would not generally say “he recorded a video by phone” – we’d more likely say “with his phone” or “using his phone”.
Conversely, while in English we would say “this was written by Mrs. Watanabe”, we absolutely would not use “de”「で」 to say this. The “by” used here is different to the one used to say, “by car”, plus Mrs. Watanabe is not a tool.
Bottom line – for all particles, instead of translating to or from English, consider the role being defined and choose a particle accordingly.
Hopefully you now have a solid understanding of how and when to use the particle “de”「で」. Here are the most important points to remember:
- The particle “de”「で」 has two main uses:
- To mark the means by which an action is completed, such as a mode of transport, tool or method used to complete the action.
- To mark the location where an action takes place
- If the location being described is the place where an action takes place, use “de”「で」, but if the location is just the place where something exists, use “ni”「に」 instead.
- Avoid translating particles to/from English prepositions – the rules for selection are often completely different.