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A simple questions here on word usage.

For reply I have always used 返事. Today however a friend mailed me and said 返信. This word is new to me. How does it differ?

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Hello! Welcome to Japanese.SE! We prefer if you ask one question per question on this site. Please feel free to ask your other question separately. Thank you! – snailplane Jun 11 '14 at 3:22
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Both mean reply, but 返信 can only be used if the reply is transmitted via code (be it letter, e-mail, flag semaphore, Morse code etc. as opposed to speech (including telephone), gesture etc.). Note that 返信 does not refer to the object that contains the reply; it refers to the reply.

Eメールで返事しといた -> OK
Eメールで返信しといた -> OK
大声で返事した -> OK
大声で返信した -> Weird, speech isn't via code

Re: transmitted via code, I think the best practical way of defining it would be "not via speech or gesture". To your example, spy talking in code would be 返事 because the transport layer (haha you can tell I'm an Engineer) is still speech, but I think it's border line. If they'd do the same on the phone, that will be still 返事. However, if they transmit encrypted message via phone (like by reading out bunch of numbers etc.) or even in person, that would be now 返信 because it's no longer via speech.

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It might be helpful to think of 返信 in conjunction with 通信 – ssb Jun 12 '14 at 0:24
Thanks. Sorry to sound a smart arse here but just to make sure all bases are covered- what if you are physically speaking but speaking in code? Spy 1: "White ducks lay the tastiest eggs" Spy 2: "But Cincinnati is too hot at this time of year". Or by code do you mean just by electronic means (sorry if so, I`m not trying to trash anyones English) and I'm reading way too much into this? – josquius Jun 12 '14 at 1:32
@josquius: No probs. Tried to define it as good as possible, but I'm not sure myself and it may vary among native speakers I guess. – Enno Shioji Jun 12 '14 at 8:16

Every Kanji character has its own meaning.

  • "返" means "return" and is also used as "返す(かえす)".
  • "事" means "thing" in general and is also pronounced as "こと".
  • "信" means "letter" or "signal" as in "信号" (signal).

Thus, "返事" is a reply in general, while "返信" is something sent as a reply.

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