How to use the particle NI for destinations, locations and time
The particle “ni”「に」 is extremely common, and a big reason for that is because it has so many applications.
In this article we’re going to look at the three most important uses of the particle “ni”「に」:
- To mark the destination of an action involving movement
- To mark the location where something exists
- To mark the time when an action takes place
For each of these we will look at how and when to use the particle “ni”「に」 in a sentence, common situations when “ni”「に」 is used, as well as some situations where “ni”「に」 isn’t the right particle to choose.
There are other relatively less-common uses of the particle “ni”「に」 that we won’t cover here. However, those can mostly be thought of as adaptations of the above anyway.
You may notice, too, that the above three all relate to defining things in the dimensions of time and space, so there is a connection between them.
In practice, however, it pays to look at each major use individually, so let’s do that!
Use #1: To mark the destination of an action involving movement
Some verbs describe actions that involve the movement of someone or something from one place to another, such as “go”, “come”, “send” or “give”. The destination of such actions can be marked by the particle “ni”「に」.
How to use “ni”「に」 to define a destination
To define the destination of an action involving movement, we can place the particle “ni”「に」 after the word or phrase that describes the destination.
This “destination + niに” combination then fits into our model for Japanese sentence structure like so:
Here it is in an example sentence:
Ryuta went to school.
Ryūta wa gakkō ni ikimashita.
りゅうた は がっこう に いきました。
Let’s break this down.
Firstly, the particle “wa”「は」 tells us that “ryūta”「りゅうた」 is the topic of this sentence, which means that this sentence is talking about Ryuta.
The verb at the end of the sentence is “ikimashita”「行きました」, meaning “went”. This is obviously an action that involves movement.
Lastly, the word “gakkō”「学校」, meaning “school”, is marked by the particle “ni”「に」. This tells us that school is the destination of the action described by the verb, which as we know is “went”.
In other words, “Ryuta went to school”.
Let’s try another example. This time we’ll add another element into the mix to see how that affects things:
Ryuta sent a letter to (his)* mother.
Ryūta wa okāsan ni tegami wo okurimashita.
りゅうた は おかあさん に てがみ を おくりました。
Like before, the sentence is talking about “ryūta”「りゅうた」, who is the topic marked by the particle “wa”「は」.
This time, the verb is “okurimashita”「送りました」, meaning “sent”. We therefore know that this sentence is saying that Ryuta sent something.
In this sentence, we have two pieces of information in the ‘Other information’ section. Here’s what they tell us:
The word “okāsan”「お母さん」, which means “mother”, is marked by the particle “ni”「に」, so this means that Ryuta’s mother is the destination of the action.
As you probably know, the particle “wo”「を」 marks the object of the verb – that is, the thing the action is done to.
In this case, that “thing” is “tegami”「手紙」, meaning “letter”, so the particle “wo”「を」 in this sentence tells us that it was a letter that was sent.
Putting this all together we get:
Ryuta sent a letter to his mother.
ryūta wa okāsan ni tegami wo okurimashita.
りゅうた は おかあさん に てがみ を おくりました。
From our two examples, you may also notice that there are two kinds of actions that can have a destination:
- Words like “go” and “come” where the person performing the action is also the person who moves.
- Words like “send” and “give”, where the person performing the action is separate from the person or thing that moves (eg. if I send an email, I do the sending, but it is the email that does the moving)
The use of “ni”「に」 is the same in both cases, as it just marks the destination to which the person or thing moves.
Notes about the particle “ni”「に」 as a destination marker
For this use of “ni” in particular, there are a few tricky little things that can potentially be quite confusing. To try to pre-empt that, let’s take a look at the most important ones.
Situations where you might not expect “ni”「に」 to be used
This use of “ni”「に」 is most commonly translated to English as the preposition “to” – that’s typically how we identify destinations in English. However, there are a few verbs that use “ni”「に」 to mark a destination where we certainly wouldn’t use “to” in English, and this makes them quite unintuitive to English speakers.
Two examples of this are “suwarimasu”「座ります」, meaning “sit”, and “norimasu”「乗ります」 meaning “ride”. Basically, for these verbs and a few others like them, the thing that is sat on, ridden, etc., can be thought of as the destination of these actions.
For example, if I ride a bicycle, the bicycle can be thought of as the destination of my act of riding. Here it is in a sentence:
Ryuta rode a bicycle.
Ryūta wa jitensha ni norimashita.
りゅうた は じてんしゃ に のりました。
It may help to think of the word “norimasu”「乗ります」 (to ride) as describing the act of getting on something, as opposed to being on something, as is implied in English.
“He”「へ」 – A similar but subtly different particle
Another particle, “he”「へ」, has a very similar purpose to this use of “ni”「に」, but it is subtly different.
The main difference is that “he”「へ」 marks the direction of movement, while “ni”「に」 marks a destination.
These can be the same thing, but there are situations where they certainly are not the same, so they are not always interchangeable.
For example, if you were talking about somebody going to the north, you might say:
Ryuta went north.
Ryūta wa kita he ikimashita.
りゅうた は きた へ いきました。
You generally would not, however, use “ni”「に」 here, since “north” is not a place that could be considered a destination. It is only a direction, so only “he”「へ」 should be used in this situation.
The opposite situation is less common, at least with concrete actions like “going” and “sending”. For example, “Tokyo” is a place, and can be both a destination and a direction. That is, you can go to Tokyo, or you can go in the direction of Tokyo. You could therefore use either “ni”「に」 or “he”「へ」 in the following sentence:
Ryuta went to Tokyo.
Ryūta wa Tokyo [ ni / he ] ikimashita.
りゅうた は とうきょう [ に・へ ] いきました。
りゅうたは東京 [ に・へ ] 行きました。
There is a difference between these two, but it is so subtle that most Japanese people probably wouldn’t be able to explain it to you.
It’s not really worth worrying about, but when in doubt, I recommend the use of “ni”「に」 as it tends to be more widely used, particularly with more abstract expressions.
The meaning flips with passive verbs
When using verbs that are passive in nature, the role defined by “ni”「に」 flips from the destination to the origin.
That sounds like it could get confusing, but until you learn the more advanced topic of passive verbs, there is only really one verb where you need to worry about this.
That verb is “moraimasu”「もらいます」, which means “receive”, and my detailed article about giving and receiving in Japanese explains everything you need to know, including the appropriate use of “ni”「に」.
The vast majority of verbs where “ni”「に」 flips to mark the origin is with regular verbs in their passive form. For example, while “īmasu”「言います」 means “say”, “iwaremasu”「言われます」 means “is told”.
As I said, this is a more advanced topic, and there are other particle gymnastics involved with passive verbs, so we won’t get into it here. If you’re interested, my book covers them in Chapter 12.4.
Use #2: To mark the location where something exists
Most actions take place in a location, but there are a few verbs that describe the act of simply “being” in a location. For these, the location is marked by the particle “ni”「に」.
How to use “ni”「に」 to define a location where something exists
When we want to describe where something is “being” or “existing”, we place the particle “ni”「に」 immediately after the word or phrase that describes the location of existence.
Just as we saw when using “ni”「に」 to mark the destination, this “location + niに” combination belongs in the ‘Other Information’ section of our sentence diagram:
The important point with this use of “ni”「に」 is that it should only be used with verbs that describe something equivalent to “being” or “existing”. In practice, there are two main verbs that this applies to – “imasu”「います」 and “arimasu”「あります」.
“Imasu”「います」 and “arimasu”「あります」 both mean “to be” or “is”. The difference is that “imasu”「います」 is used to describe the “being” of living things, while “arimasu”「あります」 is used for non-living things.
Let’s see an example:
Mana was at the library.
Mana wa toshokan ni imashita.
まな は としょかん に いました。
This should be fairly self-explanatory:
- Mana is the topic, marked by “wa”「は」
- The verb is “imashita”「いました」, which means “was” (the past tense of “is”)
- The location where Mana “is” is the library
Now, it’s important to remember that “ni”「に」 should only be used like this to mark a location for a verb describing existence or “being”.
Here’s a similar example where “ni”「に」 should NOT be used:
Mana read a book at the library.
Mana wa toshokan de hon wo yomimashita.
まな は としょかん で ほん を よみました。
Unlike our example that used “imasu”「います」, this sentence describes an action that is taking place at the library. This is different from being at the library.
The location where an action takes place is marked by the particle “de”「で」, not “ni”「に」.
You can learn more about this in my article, Ni vs De: How to choose between these two location-defining particles.
Let’s try an example using “arimasu”「あります」.
The book is on the desk.
hon wa tsukue ni arimasu.
ほん は つくえ に あります。
Notice that this follows the exact same pattern as the “imasu”「います」 example.
The two verbs have the same meaning and are used in the same way as each other. The only difference is that “imasu”「います」 is for living things, and “arimasu”「あります」 is for everything else.
Using “ni”「に」 when saying, “there is…”, in Japanese
The other major phrasing that combines “ni”「に」 with the verbs “imasu”「います」 and “arimasu”「あります」 is the Japanese equivalent of the expression, “there is…”.
Here’s a modified version of our last example that applies this:
There is a book on the desk.
tsukue ni hon ga arimasu.
つくえ に ほん が あります。
You’ll notice that the unique pieces of information in this sentence are the same as our previous example. We have:
- A book
- A desk
- A verb describing “being”
In other words, both sentences describe the existence of a thing (the book) in a particular location (the desk).
The difference, of course, is the phrasing. By not including a topic and instead marking “hon”「本」 with the subject particle “ga”「が」, we have changed the meaning of the sentence from, “The book is on the table”, to something closer to, “There is a book on the table”.
We won’t go into this too much, but just as is the case in the English translations, the first example emphasizes where the book is, while the “There is…” example emphasizes the thing that is on the desk.
To understand why, it might help to think of it this way:
- the first sentence is about a book (ie. the book is the topic), and describes what that book is doing
- the second sentence is not really “about” anything, and is simply a description of something being somewhere
The following two articles should help to explain this further.
Ultimately, the main thing we are concerned about here is that in both cases, the particle “ni”「に」 marks the location where the thing is being.
And for the sake of clarity, the “There is…” equivalent phrasing works with “imasu”「います」 too, such as in this example:
There is a bird in the library.
toshokan ni tori ga imasu.
としょかん に とり が います。
Use #3: To mark the time when an action takes place
There are a three main types of time expressions:
- Timing – when an action takes place
- Frequency – how often an action occurs
- Duration – how long an action goes on for
Expressions describing the last two – frequency and duration – act more like adverbs and usually don’t need a particle.
The first one, however, is where we sometimes need the particle “ni”「に」.
How to use “ni”「に」 to define time when an action takes place
To define the timing of an action, we can place the particle “ni”「に」 after the word or phrase that describes the time it happened.
This “time phrase + niに” combination can then go in one of two locations:
- At the beginning of the sentence, before the topic
- Somewhere between the topic (marked by particle “wa”「は」) and the verb
Let’s see this in our diagram:
What this essentially means is that timing phrases can appear anywhere in the sentence before the verb. Easy!
Here’s an example using option 1.
On Tuesday, Masaki watched a movie.
kayōbi ni Masaki wa eiga wo mimashita.
かようび に まさき は えいが を みました。
Now here’s the same sentence using option 2.
On Tuesday, Masaki watched a movie.
Masaki wa kayōbi ni eiga wo mimashita.
まさき は かようび に えいが を みました。
Both sentences mean the same thing. What’s more, since elements in the ‘Other information’ section can be included in any order, we can also put “kayōbi ni”「火曜日に」 after “eiga wo”「映画を」, like this:
Masaki watched a movie on Tuesday.
Masaki wa eiga wo kayōbi ni mimashita.
まさき は えいが を かようび に みました。
So, is there a difference? Yes and no.
The fundamental meaning of all three sentences is the same; that is, they all tell us that Masaki saw a movie on Tuesday.
However, the emphasis of each sentence is different. Generally, words that appear closer to the end of a sentence are more important.
So, the first two versions, where the “kayōbi ni”「火曜日に」 is near the beginning, emphasize more what Masaki did on Tuesday.
The last example, however, has “kayōbi ni”「火曜日に」 as the last element before the verb. This is less common, but would be appropriate when you want to emphasis when Masaki did what he did.
The different English translations provided for the above examples (with “on Tuesday” appearing either at the beginning of end of the sentence) highlight this somewhat, although none should be considered “perfect” translations; there is no such thing.
Read also: A Visual Guide to Japanese Word Order
Time expressions that don’t use the particle “ni”「に」
Now, there’s one more fairly important thing to note here…
In the diagram, you may have noticed that the line surrounding the particle “ni”「に」 for Timing is dotted, unlike the rest of the particles.
This is because we don’t always need the particle “ni”「に」 with time expressions. Depending on the type of time phrase being used, we either need to use the particle “ni”「に」, or use no particle at all.
My article, Japanese Expressions of Time (and when to use the particle “ni”), discusses this in much more detail, but to summarize, the two groups of timing expressions are as follows:
- Phrases that describe a point in time relative to “now”
- Time phrases that rely on context for specificity
To simplify things, these groups almost perfectly match up with English expressions of time.
Here’s a basic summary:
Group 1 includes phrases where the point in time being referred to changes as time progresses.
This includes words like “ima”「今」 (now), “kyō”「今日」 (today), “ashita”「明日」 (tomorrow) and “senshū”「先週」 (last week). Notice that all of these words refer to points in time that change depending on when they are said.
In Japanese, these phrases do not need to be followed by a particle when used in a sentence. This is much like English, where these phrases can be used in a sentence without a preposition (such as “in”, “on”, or “at”).
Group 2 includes phrases that describe points in time that occur repeatedly.
They therefore rely on context for us to know exactly which point in time is being referred to.
This includes phrases like “goji”「5時」 (5 o’clock), “kayōbi”「火曜日」 (Tuesday), “sangatsu”「3月」 (March) or “natsu”「夏」 (summer). Notice that each of these words could refer to many different points in time. We therefore need context to tell us which Monday or which summer is being talked about.
In Japanese, these phrases should be followed by the particle “ni”「に」 when used in a sentence (eg. “kayōbi ni”「火曜日に」). Again, this is comparable to English, where these phrases usually need to be used with a preposition of time (eg. “at 5 o’clock”, “on Tuesday”, etc.)
Both groups follow the same sentence position rules.
We saw already how a time phrase from Group 2 can be used in a sentence. Rest assured that the only difference when using Group 1 time expressions is that “ni”「に」 is not needed.
To highlight this, here are the two sentence structure options for a slightly modified version of our example from earlier:
Yesterday, Masaki watched a movie.
kinō, Masaki wa eiga wo mimashita.
きのう、まさき は えいが を みました。
Yesterday, Masaki watched a movie.
Masaki wa kinō, eiga wo mimashita.
まさき は きのう、 えいが を みました。
As shown, the word “kinō”「きのう」 can appear either before the topic or in the “Other Information” section, just like “kayōbi ni”「火曜日に」. (And yes, it can also come after “eiga wo”「映画を」).
The particle “ni” has three main uses. Here are the main points to remember for each:
To mark the destination of an action involving movement
- “Destination + niに” usually appears somewhere between the “Topic + waは” and the verb
- Has a few unexpected applications, such as with the verbs “norimasu”「乗ります」 (ride) and “suwarimasu”「座ります」 (sit)
- Subtly different to particle “he”「へ」, which generally marks the direction rather than the destination, though these are often interchangeable
- Meaning flips to mark the origin when used with verbs of a passive nature (such as “moraimasu”「もらいます」 or the passive form of active verbs)
To mark the location where something exists
- “Location of existence + niに” usually appears somewhere between the “Topic + waは” and the verb
- Only used for verbs describing “existence”, particularly “arimasu”「あります」 and “imasu”「います」
- For the location where an action takes place, use “de”「で」 instead
- Often used when saying the equivalent of, “there is…”
To mark the time when an action takes place
- “Timing + niに” can appear basically anywhere before the verb, including before the Topic
- Particle “ni”「に」 is not required for time expressions describing a point in time relative to “now” (eg. today, yesterday, next year, etc.)