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Following the current trend of pitting the particles に and で against each other, here is another question that does the same but from another type of usage and perspective.

When we want to say "do X before Y", we use "Y 前に X":

食べる前に「いただきます」と言う。

On the other hand, when we want to say "do X after Y", we use "Y 後で X":

食べた後で「ごちそうさまでした」と言う。

What is the simplest explanation to explain the differences between 前 and 後 that make 前 goes with に while 後 goes with で in the two situations above?

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I was under the impression that に or で can be used with 後。Google agrees and it seems that 食べた後に is more common than 食べた後で。How I feel about this however, is that に indicates you will do the action soon after eating, where as で is much more ambiguous. 食べた後に水を飲む indicates that you will drink water soon after eating. Where as で would be used like 食べた後で勉強する, this indicates you will study after eating, but not necessarily right away. (Could be something in between eating and studying). However, since this is all just gut feeling, I would LOVE if someone could confirm or deny this. –  phirru Jul 26 '11 at 8:31
    
It's true, に can be used with 後, but it has a different semantic meaning. If you use に, then there's a very ironic sense of uncertain clarity that something is going to happen. For example, you can use it to describe a dream: あたしの彼氏とハイキングするの後に滝の下に彼はあたしに申し込みにします! -> After I go hiking with my boyfriend, he's going to propose to me under the waterfall! :D –  千里ちゃん Jul 26 '11 at 16:59
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@千里ちゃん: I rejected the edit to the question which you suggested because (1) it introduced errors in the example sentences (“食べるの前” is ungrammatical) and (2) the change of the tense which you suggested serves seemingly no purpose. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 26 '11 at 16:59
    
@Tsuyoshi_Ito That is a typical mistake made by Chinese people learning Japanese by simply replacing the usage of Chinese with Japanese . –  sawa Jul 26 '11 at 17:13
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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

derives from に+て, and roughly corresponds to the present/past participles (-ing, -en) in Western langauges. Kuno (1973) notices that implies temporal order. So when you have

走ってころんだ
'(By) running, I fell',

running has to precede falling; it cannot be the other way around. This much is the general consensus.

Notice that the usage of in the question involves temporal notions rather than locations. Now, I found an interesting explanation here: Q14 that connects the facts mentioned above. According to this, when you have an expression

A [temporal noun] で B,

the that is included in obeys the temporal restriction mentioned above; that is, what is expressed by A [temporal noun] has to precede B. Going in the other temporal order is not allowed. Therefore, expressions like

食べた後で「いただきます」と言う。 [Temporal order: 食べた => 言う]

are grammatical but

× 食べる前で「いただきます」と言う。 [Temporal order: 食べる <= 言う]
× 食べるよりも先で「いただきます」と言う。 [Temporal order: 食べる <= 言う]

are not. can be used by all the examples above:

食べた後に「いただきます」と言う。
食べる前に「いただきます」と言う。
食べるよりも先に「いただきます」と言う。

If there is preference of 食べた後で「いただきます」と言う over 食べた後に「いただきます」と言う, then some kind of slight difference in meaning like what phirru mentions in the comment may be playing a role here.

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You know, in a practical usage sense: people say 後で when they really want to emphasize that they are set on something's happening (i.e., 食べtた後でするから! -> "Jeeze! I said I'd do it after I eat!"). 後に is like a soft, polite way to say things. It's not like it's rarely said. It's actually said a lot because it sounds so sweet compared to 後で. For example: your friend says, "食べた後でテレビゲームをしましょうね?" -> "Maybe we should plan on playing a video game after dinner, huh? Pal? Buddy? Chap?" –  千里ちゃん Jul 27 '11 at 6:46
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@千里ちゃん 食べる後でするから is not a correct Japanese sentence. –  sawa Jul 27 '11 at 6:48
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Right. Sorry, I do that all the time. My friends make fun of me for it. It's supposed to be 食べた. I changed it. –  千里ちゃん Jul 27 '11 at 6:51
    
When you use Chrome, do you see a square with a question mark where there should be a に in your example, and do you see a bunch of strange characters after "If there is preference of..."? I think I have another bug. –  千里ちゃん Jul 27 '11 at 16:17
    
@千里ちゃん I'm using Chrome too.. but What do you mean? –  Pacerier Apr 27 '12 at 8:18
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I always consider this kind of で as the suspensive form of です. So, I would read the second sentence as "It is the time after lunch; we say gotisousamadesita".

As for why it sounds more natural with 後 than with 前, I have no idea.

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Btw what do you mean by a suspensive form? –  Pacerier Apr 27 '12 at 8:38
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In 後でする the focus is that you will do whatever you were doing, just later; whereas in 後にする the focus is that you will postpone whatever you are supposed to do until later.

Treating で as the "instrumental" particle, this way, "後でする" would mean "to do (whatever), by using the time after now"

And "後にする" would mean "to do (whatever), at a point of time after now"

So "前に" would be "at a time before now", and "前で" would be impossible since you cannot use a time before now.

Alternatively, treating で as the verb-conjunctive form of the copula だ, ”後でする” would mean "It is afterwards, and do it"

This also shows the impossibility of 前で which would translate strangely into "It is now before and..." which is temporally impossible for the past to exist in the present.

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dap. Good job. The English is hard to understand because it sounds a little manufactured, but it makes a lot of sense. Specifically, I like that your answer shows how 前で seems nonsensical. –  千里ちゃん Jul 27 '11 at 16:11
    
@Flaw I don't quite agree that this argument shows how "前で" is impossible. I agree that we cannot use a time before now, but what if it's past tense? If it's past tense, it simply means "I have used a time before now", which is possible. For example, "あとで作ります" means "I'll build it, using later." Inverting it, "まえで作りました" means "I've built it, using earlier." I think that the reason "前で" is not used is not because that we cannot use a time before now, but simply because it is simply not used by the speakers (users) of the language. –  Pacerier Apr 27 '12 at 8:33
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If you want a very simple answer, then you can look at the meaning of ni and de, again: ni means things are separate and interacting. de means that things are contiguous and acting in a similar manner (i.e., to the same ends). I think I answered a question you asked about them earlier to tell you that に and で could be compared to an English analogue of 'each other' and 'themselves'.

Anyway... 後で is used because after the past happens, it is included as a part of a continuing timeline 'themselves'. 前に is used because the prior event interacts with the future event through time or the doer or whatever 'each other'. So, 'ホニャホニャの後でいく' = 'With/'contingent on' whatever's happening, I will do it.' 'ホニャホニャ前にいく' means, 'Whatever happened, and my going before that is related somehow'. And to reiterate one more time: '後で' means: 'the future comes only with complete a specific past' and '前に' means: 'the future seems to interacts with a past'.

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