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My book has these two sentences and I don't quite understand why they are using には in the first example and では on the second one. It seems to me that only では would be correct in this situation.

1)わたしの [学校]{がっこう} には アメリカ[人]{じん}の [先生]{せんせい} が います。

2)わたしの [学校]{がっこう} では [中国語]{ちゅうごくご} が [習]{なら}えます。

To make things even worse, the explanation given is the following:

は is used to highlight a noun as a topic, and when が or を follows the noun, it is replaced by は. When other particles (e.g. で、に、へ、etc.) follow the noun, は is placed after them.

EDIT: Wow, thank you everyone for the very detailed and helpful answers. Since I cannot mark all as Answers, I'll mark the one with the most votes and then upvote everyone who has answered so far. Thanks!

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Related (duplicate?): Using で instead of に with いる –  Flaw Nov 9 '12 at 10:01
Well, it is similar... duplicate means "exact duplicate", and this is not the case (imho). –  Andry Nov 9 '12 at 10:32

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Your question is about two different things:

  • The usage of particle で and particle に to express place vs. action.
  • The usage of particle は to highlight a matter in the sentence.

Understanding particle で vs. particle に

When you want to express where a certain action is taking place, you use particle で. Consider the following examples:

1a) My mom bought an apple in the supermarket. => お母{かあ}さんはスーパーでりんごを買{か}いました。

2a) I am studying Japanese in Naganuma School. => ナガヌマ学校で[日]{に}[本]{ほん}語{ご}を勉{べん}強{きょう}しています。

3a) I had a fight with that guy in a restaurant. => あの人{ひと}とレストランで喧{けん}嘩{か}をした。

4a) Where can I buy an apple? => どこでりんごを買{か}ったらいいですか。

I am using particle で, here, because I want to describe the place where an action took place.

Consider now these sentences:

1b) There is a kid there. => あそこに子{こ}どもがいます。

2b) Place that bag over here please. => そのカバンをここに置{お}いて下{くだ}さい。

3b) I am in a restaurant now. => 今{いま}、レストランにいます。

4b) Where are you? => どこにいるんですか。 or どこにいる?

5b) Ms Shimura is in her office now. => 志{し}村{むら}さんは自{じ}分{ぶん}の事{じ}務{む}所{しょ}にいます。

6b) There is a bag in that room. => あの部{へ}屋{や}にカバンがあります。

7b) Pay attention to the boxes on the table please. => テーブルにある箱{はこ}に気{き}をつけて下{くだ}さい。

In this case I used particle に because, although I am specifying a place where something is happening, I am actually describing a place where things are. Where things do exist.

Consider the sentences 1a and 1b. Sentence 1a is actually telling you: Ok my friend, my mom bought an apple. Where does this action took place? => In the supermarket!. Sentence 1b, on the other hand, is telling you: Ok my friend, there is a kid. Where? => There is a kid over there!. The latter is not telling you when an action is taking place. The kid is existing in a certain place, I am not telling you what he is doing, just telling you where is existence is located. The same goes for all my examples.

A particular example is sentence 2b. Here There is a man that is telling you to put the bag in a certain place. Of course you need to specify a place where to put it, but particle で is to be avoided. Here you are not describing where the action of dropping the bag is being performed (probably in a room). In sentence 1b, verb 置{お}く necessarily needs a place which implies a movement of something.

This should explain you when using particle で and when using particle に.

Understanding particle は

This particle is terrible for beginners because it is so versatile and flexible that you will end up finding it in every damn place.

Probably they tell you, in the first lessons, that particle は is used to mark the subject of the sentence. It is true, but too specific. Actually particle は has two important usages:

  • It is used to mark the argument of the sentence. Pay attention, the argument of the sentence is not necessarily the subject.

  • It is used to underline something and put emphasis on it.

Since it is better proceeding by examples, here we go.

As subject marker

In the following sentences, the particle marks the subject of the sentence:

Where is mom? => 母{かあ}ちゃんはどこにいる?

I am here! => 僕{ぼく}はここにいる。

I am watching a movie with my brother. => 僕{ぼく}はお兄{にい}さんと映{えい}画{が}を見{み}ています。

Ishikawa-san went out to buy some fruit. => 石{いし}川{かわ}さんはスーパーへ果{くだ}物{もの}を買{か}いに行{い}きました。

To mark the argument

In the following conversation, the particle does not mark the subject, but the argument.

Aさん: Soon it is Christmas! => そろそろクリスマスになるよ!

Bさん: Yes! About the present for your brother, what will you buy? 
    => そうね!ああ、お兄{にい}さんのギフトはどうする?


Particle は can also be used next to other particles in order to act as some sort of remarker. Consider the following sentences:

The kid is in that place (saying with anxiety) => あそこには[子]{こ}どもがいるよ!

The entrance ceremony will take place in the school gym, students will gather there! => 学{がっ}校{こう}のジムで入{にゅう}学{がく}式{しき}があるから、あそこでは学{がく}生{せい}が集{あつ}まる!

Both sentences use particle に and particle で as I told you, and also use particle は to remark something. Just like your examples!

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Often when you see -niwa, you can expect a final ar-u or i-ru. It expresses existence. While English "at" is fine for a translation, you should rather interpret it as "in... are". The example 1) fits this pattern just fine.

In contrast, with -dewa you can expect to find an action. This is "at" rather than "in". In 2), the action is learning.

Bonus: There are multiple -de so this will not always work, but the one here is a contraction of -nite. As such, if it helps you, you can try to place a verb between -ni and -te and see if the sentence still makes sense. In this case sentence, the following is not too obscure: "watasi no gakkou ni [itte] wa (=ikeba), tyuugokugo ga naraemasu" (Go to my school and you can learn Chinese.)

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Great bonus - where does it come from? Is just something you worked out for yourself? –  Tim Nov 9 '12 at 22:58
@Tim The etymology is well known and available in any number of references. The rest, though, is something that I have noticed myself over the years. –  Dono Nov 10 '12 at 2:18

Short answer: each one has a different verb, hence a different particle.

The lesson and examples are probably about when to use は or が, not when to use に or で so the explanation does not make much sense because the topic it explains is not what you have doubts about.

Particles are always dependent on the verb they refine, so the question of the difference between に and で only makes sense if you specify a verb as the context for both possibilities. Do not compare two particles each one refining a different verb, and do not wonder what meaning a particle conveys irrespective of the verb it refines.

ある/いる are verbs special and frequent enough that you can take it as a hard rule that they will always use に to determine place, without putting more thought into why. Consider it an exception to what I explain below if you will, just because.

For other verbs, when the verb has a nuance of direction, に will usually express that direction (hence usually translated as "to"); when the verb describes an action/state happening at a static location, で will express that location (hence usually translated as "at"). 習う is a verb without any nuance of movement whatsoever, so the place where you "learn" is expressed with で ("at the school").

Not that it is easy to establish a rule on this, as sometimes besides に you may also use へ (ロンドンへ行きます/ロンドンに行きます/I am going to London). Thinking if a verb implies either direction or a static location is fuzzy enough and culturally dependent that you will still sometimes have doubts about what applies in each case such as, maybe:

いすに[座]{すわ}っている。 : She's sitting on a chair..

あそこで[停]{と}めてください。 : Please stop there (when on a taxi)

テーブルに[置]{お}いてください。 : Please leave it on the table.

Again, note that it is the verbs that are mandating the use of a specific particle, and both things cannot be disassociated.

So sometimes, when the correct way sounds opposite to the explanation above, consider how the verb may have a nuance of direction for Japanese people when it does not have it in English, and try to put yourself into that way of thinking to remember. Or just memorize them as they come.

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