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In a question:

Tokyo e nande ikimasu ka?

how can I know what "nande" refers to, even when I have the context:

  • how are you going? (by bus, by car, on foot)
  • why are you going?
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    "How are you going" would be nani de, clearly distinct from nande; unless I'm missing something...
    – deceze
    May 5, 2016 at 3:43
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    @deceze, I think you are. "How are you going" can definitely be asked as in my question -- nande.
    – Oskar K.
    May 5, 2016 at 4:25
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    何で can be read both ways, but in practice nande is "why" and nani de is "by what means", as far as my non-expert experience goes. While technically it can probably be ambiguous, in practice it's usually not. But I'll leave the actual answer up to the actual linguists.
    – deceze
    May 5, 2016 at 4:38
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    I agree that most people would use "nani de" to avoid confusion. But as far as the example goes, I would probably think "how" as opposed to "why" because most people asking "why" would place the "nande" at the top.
    – Jimmy
    May 5, 2016 at 7:41
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    To avoid confusion, I'd use なにで or どうやって to mean "how / by what means" (as in @Yuuichi's answer), and どうして or なにしに(何しに) to mean "why / what for". (どうして can also mean "how", but if you said どうして東京に行くんですか? it'd be understood as "why".)
    – chocolate
    May 6, 2016 at 7:06

4 Answers 4

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I'll attempt an answer with a few observations from my rather amateurish position:

  • The sentence is rather stilted to begin with, you probably won't hear it used in practice.
  • 何で can be pronounced both nande and nani de.
  • Usually you'll hear people use nande for "why" and nani de for "with what" or "by what means".
  • Usually sentences asking "why" start with the "why":

    [何で]【Nande】[東京]【Tōkyō】に【ni】[行きます]【ikimasu】か【ka】?
    Why are you going to Tokyo?

  • It's possible to use the same word order [何]【Nani】[で]【de】[東京]【Tōkyō】に【ni】… to ask "with what", but since written as 「何で」 it is indeed ambiguous whether it's 「[なに]【nani】[で]【de】」 or 「[なんで]【nande】」, you'll either find it unambiguously written in hiragana, or with furigana, or put entirely differently:

    [東京]【Tōkyō】に【ni】[行く]【iku】[に]【ni】[は]【wa】[何]【nani】[で]【de】[行きます]【ikimasu】か【ka】?
    About you going to Tokyo, how are you going?

    While it's still possible to misread that, again, most "why" questions put the 「[何で]【nande】」 at the start of the sentence, so it would be unusual to misread this.

  • Japanese always depends a lot on context, so usually the question should be clear from the relationship between the speaker and the listener and/or the situation. In spoken language the intonation can also give the right hint, e.g. 「[なあぁんで]【Naaande】[東京]【Tōkyō】[に]【ni】[行く]【iku】[の]【no】?!」 is probably more about the "why" than the "how"...
  • There are many ways to express this differently and less ambiguous as needed, e.g.:
    • [行く方法]【ikuhōhō】 – means/way of going
    • [行く理由]【ikuriyū】 – reason for going
    • [飛行機]【Hikōki】[や]【ya】[新幹線]【shinkansen】[で]【de】[行きます]【ikimasu】[か]【ka】? – Are you going by plane or train?
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  • "Tokyo ni iku ni wa nani de ikimasu ka" why formal and informal forms of the same verb are used in the same phrase? is there a reason for it or you could use both forms in formal or both informal?
    – Pablo
    Jan 12, 2017 at 13:44
  • BTW, you writting the hiragana in your answers is really appreciated for those of us who are struggling with kanjis
    – Pablo
    Jan 12, 2017 at 13:45
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    @Pablo いく as such isn't "informal", e.g. 行く事になりました Iku koto ni narimashita. Here ikukoto is basically one word. A similar thing happens with iku ni wa. I'm not sure I'm formulating this correctly, but you only need the polite tense on certain verbs in the sentence, not on every word which can in the correct situation accept a polite tense marker. Ikimasu ni wa … ikimasu ka is somewhere between overblown and complete nonsense.
    – deceze
    Jan 12, 2017 at 13:50
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なんで means both "why" and "how", so なんで東京に行く? can mean both "Why do you go to Tokyo?" and "How do you go to Tokyo?" We guess from the context which meaning the なんで is being used for.

If you want to be clear, you can use なにで or どうやって. These words only mean "how", so なにで or どうやって東京に行く? means only "How do you go to Tokyo?"

The reason why なんで means both "why" and "how" is that, an adverb なんで basically means "why" and なにで means "how". However なんで is also a euphonic change of なにで, so they are confusing.

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Ordinarily we use なぜ = why 何で = how to distinguish. In your question case, we can not distinguish which the sentence means.

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    "Ordinary" "distinct" >> You mean "Ordinarily" and "distinguish", right? (ordinary は名詞・形容詞, distinct は形容詞)
    – chocolate
    May 5, 2016 at 16:03
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IMO, 何で means why

東京え何で行きますか

means "why do you go to Tokyo ?"

If I want to ask "how are you going ?", I would use:

どうやって東京えいきますか
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    nande also means why.
    – Oskar K.
    May 5, 2016 at 4:27
  • 何で == nani de? or nan de?
    – Oskar K.
    May 5, 2016 at 4:30
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    @OskarK. 何で can be read both なにで and なんで。 なんで can mean either "why" or "how", and なにで is "how"
    – chocolate
    May 5, 2016 at 4:33
  • @chocolate, ok, but my question isn't how I can say what I want, but how to distinguish between "how" and "why" when someone else is saying that. nande can mean both "why" and "how"?
    – Oskar K.
    May 5, 2016 at 4:35
  • @OskarK. Yeah I know. Maybe I'll try to post an answer later today when I have time..
    – chocolate
    May 5, 2016 at 4:40

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