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Consider the statement A: ホテル(に/で)泊まる. For both cases would translate to "I stay at a hotel" in English. However they are answers to different questions.

Consider the questions 1.どこに泊まる and 2.(ホテルで)何をする

Question 1 would be answered with ホテルに(泊まる), while Question 2 would be answered with (ホテルで)泊まる. The secondary information is presented in parentheses, and can technically be left out. This shows the role of に in marking a location, and the role of で in marking an incidental location where an action occurs.

Consequently, If I present other information using に/で I am in effect emphasizing on the location/action. And for which being more appropriate is dependent on contextual information. (Whether location/action is more important for the listener, or whichever the speaker wants to convey.)

Now consider statement B: 部屋(に/で)泣いている. I am told that I cannot analyze Statement B in the same way as Statement A. I think it's because the verb has been conjugated to its continuative form, and cannot be treated in the same way as Statement A. What happens when I try to ask the two questions of "where" and "what" again?

From Sawa’s answer below, my new understanding is if the verb naturally relates to the location (as in the case of ホテルに泊まる), に should be used. And if it doesn't, で is used.

Consider the following statements. I-部屋に読む, II-部屋で読む, III-図書館に読む, IV-図書館で読む. The verb "read" has no inherent connection with places in general (Reading can be done in a variety of locations). However, "read" is naturally related to "library" as opposed to "room".

Question: So, is II more appropriate than I? And III more appropriate than IV? If it is the case that II>I and III>IV, under what circumstances would I>II and IV>III, and how different would the meaning (or in nuance if any) be in each instance?

Question: For statements containing に or で. Is it true that if に is replaced by で (Or the other way around). The sentence immediately stops making sense and is absolutely wrong? Are there circumstances for which a statement is grammatically correct and has two separate meanings (or nuance) resulting from a (に/で) choice?

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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The opposition is not "what" vs. "where" or action vs. location. It is whether that phrase is an indispensible part that follows from the meaning of the predicate, or an optional part without which the predicate will still make sense. When you say ホテルに泊まる, ホテルに is not simply expressing the location. What it expresses is more like 'the kind of place to stay in', like hotel, home, hut, etc., and this is a core part of the predicate. So if you use it with something that is purely a place, like 熱海, it sounds strange:

△ 熱海に泊まる
○ ホテルに泊まる

On the other hand, ホテルで is merely a location, which is optional, and in fact, sounds completely fine with a pure place like 熱海. It is rather ホテルで that sounds a little bit akward:

○ 熱海で泊まる
△ ホテルで泊まる

When it comes to 泣く, the place has no inherent connection with crying, and a locational phrase would be optional; hence you have to use .

○ 部屋で泣いている
× 部屋に泣いている

In your added part, I and III are wrong. II and IV are correct. The way you take "naturally related" is a little bit wrong. The act of reading has nothing inherent to do with the place, even if it is in a library. On the other hand, staying at some place has an inherent connection to the type of place you stay. Moving has an inherent connection with the origin and destination.

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So if i ask a question "どこに泣いている", would the answer "部屋で" be correct? –  Flaw Jul 26 '11 at 2:17
@Flaw That answer is correct, and your question is wrong. It should be どこで泣いている. –  sawa Jul 26 '11 at 2:23
so the choice between に and で is dependent on how logically-related the location and the verb are? If the verb naturally relates to the location (as in the case of ホテルに泊まる), に should be used. And if it doesn't, で is used. Pardon my rudeness but from what experience do you base this analysis on? I need to assess the reliability of information since i'm learning from various sources. –  Flaw Jul 26 '11 at 2:32
@Flaw Your understanding is right. First, my native intuition supports that distinction. Second, is driven from に+て, and resembles present/past participle in English (-ing, -en), which adds another layer of predication, which means it is adverbial rather than an argument. But feel free to wait for objections against this answer or other answers. –  sawa Jul 26 '11 at 2:47
Looking back at these comments after 7 months, I suddenly realise that I understand them much more now than I previously did. Thank you for your answers, they really helped my learning. I would not have progressed so quickly without your help. –  Flaw Mar 15 '12 at 8:27
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Ok, so you seem quite confused. Let's make it simple.

Verbs いる、ある、泊る、行く、来る、乗る use に.

  • 部屋に人がいる
  • 部屋に車がある
  • 私はホテルに泊る
  • 学校に行く
  • ここに来てください
  • バスに乗ってください

All the others work with で.

  • シャワーで歌を歌う
  • 食堂でパンを食べる
  • ホテルで泣く
  • 図書館で本を読む
  • ここで、何をする?

and so on. Remember that, and you'll be right 99% of the time. The remaining 1% are the verbs I forgot to mention, and nuances that will just get you wrong if you want to learn them now. You have plenty of time before worrying about nuances.

It's not a matter of being natural or not, it's just that given verbs work with given prepositions. That's all.

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so does it mean that for all of the above, ONLY one of them (に or で) can be correct, and under NO circumstances the alternative would make any sense? –  Flaw Jul 27 '11 at 6:36
I think that the 99/1% part of my answer should make you reconsider your question. –  Axioplase Jul 27 '11 at 7:12
I was in fact referring to the 99%. I guess that for the "wrong" choice, it would still make sense, except not in a way relevant to most situations. E.g. 図書館に読む would mean "I read to the library" (In the same way as "mother reads to her children") right? –  Flaw Jul 27 '11 at 7:47
Yes, it would. But it's not a location any more and is completely unrelated to the distinction に/で. It's just pure chance that both target (read to someone) and location (read somewhere) may be followed by the same character に. –  Axioplase Jul 27 '11 at 8:57
That would be another question on its own. Quick answer is a question back: is there a greater logic relating "I am good AT soccer" and "I am AT school" and "I am looking AT you"? Since you can say "I look AT you" and "I look FORWARD TO seeing you", would it imply you can say "I'm good FORWARD TO soccer"? –  Axioplase Jul 27 '11 at 9:30
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