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I was reading a page about passive verbs in Japanese, and I came across the phrase: "蚊に刺された。" What intrigued me is why the particle "に" is used in this phrase, because when I read it and try to understand the sense, I understand it as "Bit on the mosquito". It becomes even weirder if a pronoun is used, as in "私が蚊に刺された" ("I was bit on the mosquito").

Why does it use "に" instead of another particle that, translating, would make more sense and it would be like "I was bitten by a mosquito"? I think what confuses me is that the phrase doesn't indicate that the person was bitten by the mosquito. Instead of that, it has a "に" indicating that the location of action is the mosquito instead of the person.

Could someone explain that to me?

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Little words like by and に have lots of uses.

  1. He was murdered by his own doctor!
  2. She was sitting by the tree enjoying the sun.
  3. I won the contest by cheating.
  4. She bills by the hour.

In the first sentence, by is used for the agent of a passive clause.
In the second sentence, by is used to express a location.
In the third sentence, by is used to express a way or means.
In the fourth sentence, by is used for a unit of measurement.

Although we may not realize it, little words like this have all sorts of different uses! And the same is true for Japanese, where に is used lots of different ways. It simply isn't accurate to say that に always indicates location, any more than by always indicates location.

In your example, に indicates the agent of a passive clause, and that is something it is very commonly used for that has nothing to do with location.

Unfortunately, the little words like に and by don't really match up very well between languages, so you'll have to learn the various ways に is used in Japanese without thinking of it as a translation of English by (or at, to, in, on, for, with, etc.).

  • Many thanks! I was struggling with this all the day and now I finally understand. With the explanation you gave, now I understand that the fault of being bitten is 蚊に (in/with the mosquito). I didn't know those other meanings (with, by, etc.) because the dictionaries I use are based on the JMdict that doesn't cite any other meaning beyond location indication. – Yuuza Oct 4 '14 at 3:28
  • @BrunoLopes To get an idea of the range of uses of に, see the Progressive J-E Dictionary. But to really understand how に works, you'll want to learn the uses one at a time, like you're doing in this case. – snailboat Oct 4 '14 at 3:36
  • @BrunoLopes JMDict does cite "by; from" as a meaning of に - I'm guessing you might be using a site that uses an outdated version of JMDict (such as jisho.org). I think most of the JMDict-based sites are using outdated version, except for WWWJDic and Jisho beta – 3 to 5 business days Oct 4 '14 at 4:58
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    I would actually recommend a source like A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar to learn the basics of the passive construction rather than EDICT-based dictionaries or websites like JREF or Tae Kim. – snailboat Oct 4 '14 at 6:31
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    Shoichi Iwasaki's "Japanese" has a good chapter on the passive construction as well. – Herb Feb 28 '17 at 12:46
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刺された does mean "I was bitten by a mosquito."

Passives in general work like this:

Active sentence:  actor-GA            patient-WO verb.stem-verb.inflection
⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓
Passive sentence: patient-GA actor-NI            verb.stem-are-verb.inflection

So in your case:

Active sentence:  ka-GA              (watasi-WO) sas-ita
⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓
Passive sentence: (watasi-GA) ka-NI              sas-are-ta
  • (This answer is a bit lacking on its own, but once I saw the other two I figured I should just leave it as a supplement rather than abandon it!) – Darius Jahandarie Oct 4 '14 at 0:05
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The particle "に" can fulfil many distinct grammatical functions. In this case, "に" does not mark a qualifier of time or place, but instead marks the agent/source of a passive verb. As such, it would usually be translated in English with the preposition "by":

私が刺された。

I was bitten/stung.

私が蚊に刺された。

I was bitten by a mosquito.

See this page for an overview of the most common use cases of the "に" particle.

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There is an article on Wikipedia about Japanese possessives. Particle に is used with ある and いる to indicate possession and there is a little explanation about particle に .

Johnさんに車がある。John has a car. Literally it says A car exists/is in/at john.

The literal translation may sound strange since the possessor is indicated as a place or location, but if you analyse it it may make sense. Particle に is used in two basic senses: to indicate target/destination and to indicate location and most other uses stem from these two. In the above sentence particle に is being used in its locative sense (in/at) metaphorically, in other words, particle に is showing the "area" that possess the car (John, John is the area). As I said before, the locative use of particle に in a metaphorical sense.

So, it could be the case that particle に used to indicate the agent in the passive form is also being used in its locative sense metaphorically identifying "the area" where the action originates.

蚊に刺された。 I was bitten by a mosquito.

Following this logic the literal translation would be I was bitten in/at a mosquito. The "area" where the action of being bitten is already identified (a mosquito) so now understanding what is being expressed and the context you know that に is equivalent to by for the passive case.

I hope this can help.

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