The contextual particle で is one of the most versatile and difficult to fully master. It has many uses and each one helps give some context to the sentence: where did the action take place? how did John get from A to B? how long did the action take? and so on. It is sometimes referred to as the “place of action” particle because that is typically the first usage that beginners of the language will come across. In fact, で can be used to define:

  1. The place an action is performed
  2. The means or method used to perform an action (method, time, materials)
  3. A reason
  4. The condition in which an action is performed

1. The Place an Action is Performed

One of the most common and easy to understand usages of the で particle.

わたしは 学校がっこう 勉強べんきょうしました。
I studied at school.
おとうとは 友達ともだちの いえ 宿題しゅくだいを します。
My younger brother will do his homework at his friend’s house.
わたしは 東京駅とうきょうえき 山口やまぐちさんの 彼氏かれしを ました。
I saw Yamaguchi-san’s boyfriend at Tokyo station.

2. The Means or Method Used

Another basic usage of で is to express how an action was performed. In this case it the particle can often be thought of as meaning “by” or “by means of”.

わたしは 自転車じてんしゃ かえりました。
I went home by bicycle.
おおきいこえ はなします。
I spoke in a loud voice (I spoke by means of a loud voice).

This usage extends to time taken and materials used to perform an action.

学生がくせいは せん くつを いました。
The student bought shoes for 1,000 yen.
わたしは 一時間いちじかん てんぷらを つくりました。
I made tempura in one hour.
 つくえを つくります。
To make a desk from wood (to make a desk by means of wood).

3. Expressing a Reason

I will introduce the conjunction “because” later, but depending on the context で can also be used to give a reason for an action. In this case, it is often something that is outside your control.

彼女かのじょは 風邪かぜ 仕事しごとを やすみました。
She was absent from work because of a cold.

4. Condition for an Action

Finally, the condition in which an action is performed.

まじめなかお 授業じゅぎょうを けます。
To take the lesson with a serious face.

You might be wondering how all of these meanings can be expressed using the same one particle—surely there’s room for confusion? For instance, how do we know that the intended meaning of the last example sentence isn’t “Attend the lesson because of a serious face”?

Obviously we’re just at the very beginning of introducing more complex grammatical constructs and expressions. Where there is room for ambiguity a different way of saying the same thing would be found as it would in any language. The point here is to show the で particle’s many uses.

Incidentally, you may recall the sentence used to introduce the basic Japanese sentence structure:

わたし 友達ともだち いえ 寿司すし べました。
I ate sushi at my friend’s house.

Well, you’ve now covered all the particles necessary to understand the grammar!

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