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The following sentences are from a post on the Particle を & Intransitive Motion Verbs:

Japanese: よくこの道を歩いた。
English: I often walked along this street.

Japanese: 毎日公園を走った。
English: Every day I run through the park.

Japanese: 鳥が空を飛んだ。
English: The birds flew across the sky.

I was taught that the で particle indicates places that actions occur, or more specifically indicates the boundaries within which actions occur, or the means by which they occur. With that in mind, it seems like で is a better choice of particle in the above sentences?

Question: What is the difference in meaning between these sentence pairs like the following:

よくこの道を歩いた。

よくこの道で歩いた。

毎日公園を走った。

毎日公園で走った。

鳥が空を飛んだ。

鳥が空で飛んだ。

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  • Related: japanese.stackexchange.com/a/90225/7944 Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 17:08
  • @user3856370: Thanks for that reference. It looks like usingで adds emphasis on the place of motion over を, and can make the location of the motion seem more purposefully chosen. Is that about it?
    – George
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 17:30
  • English has verbs like this, too: we "walk through" the park, but we "traverse" it (no conjunction, the park is now a direct object). Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 12:58

3 Answers 3

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You basically cannot use で with these movement verbs. A rare exception is when the action does not involve the actual change of place, or when such a change of place is not important at all as the purpose of the action. (EDIT: Another exception is when で is clearly used as a method marker, e.g., 電車ではなく高速道路で行きます "I'll go not by train but using a highway".)

この道で歩く is almost always nonsense, and you should say この道を歩く instead. However, if the context is a strange YouTube streamer who sets up and uses his treadmill in different places, then saying 昨日はこの道で歩いた, 今日はトイレで歩く, 明日は図書館で歩く and so on make sense because he stays in the same place while doing the action of walking.

公園を走る is much more common, but 公園で走る is also acceptable if the context is where you do your everyday exercise (the purpose is the running itself rather than the change of place). If the park is relatively small and you run over the same place many times, 公園で走る can be more acceptable. Likewise, プールで泳ぐ is typically more natural than プールを泳ぐ because the purpose is usually recreation or exercise rather than traveling (you move back and forth within the same narrow area).

鳥が空で飛ぶ usually makes little sense, but it can be used when talking about a wounded bird that has been training to fly in a facility. When it finally tries to fly in the sky as the last step of its training, you could say 明日その鳥は初めて空で飛ぶ or something like that (the flying action and the location are important but the traveling is unimportant). 僕は部屋で飛ぶ is a reasonable catchphrase of a flight simulation game (you are experiencing the flying without actually traveling), and in this case 僕は部屋を飛ぶ makes no sense.

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    If I do my exercise on the street walking back and forth 10 times, would で be more appropriate?
    – user1602
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 5:41
  • 1
    @user1602 No, it must be 道路を10往復する, not 道路で10往復する.
    – naruto
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 8:14
  • An unrelated question. In your example, "電車ではなく高速道路で行きます", is the casual form "電車じゃなく高速道路で行きます"? That is, is じゃ contraction acceptable even if で and は are two separate particles?
    – max
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 11:23
  • @max Yes you can say that (contraction usually happens with two or more words).
    – naruto
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 3:05
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よくこの道を歩いた。 is more natural.
よくこの道で歩いた。 can be used, but it feels like the speaker talks about walking like he's now speaking about his experience of exercise.

Both 毎日公園を走った。 and 毎日公園で走った。 are natural, because both would be used when talking about an experience of exercise.
But If you wanna talk about days you ran across the park and you got home so fast, then you should use the former one. The latter one is weird.

鳥が空を飛んだ。 would be always better. 鳥が空で飛んだ。 feels like the bird has flied somewhere else but the sky. That's odd.
Plus そらで has a meaning of "by heart" like 私はこの曲をそらで歌える。. That's so confusing.

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I generally think of で as meaning "in/within/around in"/etc (in a given space). On the other hand, を with these sorts of verbs means more "over/across/along/through"/etc (along a given path). So:

歩いた
I walked along the street (the street was the path I was walking along. I was using the street to get from one place to another.)

歩いた
I walked at the street (I was at the street when I started walking, and I never left the street, or I went to the street and then I started walking around there (which seems like an odd situation, to be honest))

or

公園走った
I ran through the park (I ran from one end of the park to the other, or along a path that covers most of the park, etc)

公園走った
I ran around in the park (I ran somewhere within the confines of the park. I went to the park and then ran there for a while, etc.)

The point is that で merely indicates the area within which the activity was confined, but を more explicitly refers to the path or route which was taken or over which the activity occurred (and is part of the intent of the activity).

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  • Hmm, I feel 道で歩いた is much, much less common than "walked on the street" or 道を歩いた. BCCWJ has only 4 hits of 道で歩 (and 3 of them are false positives), meaning it's close to nonexistent. There are more than 1000 hits of 道を歩. Or are you saying "walked on the street" is something that only makes sense in a rare situation?
    – naruto
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 21:35
  • @naruto Hmm.. I suppose you're right.. I was trying to come up with a way to phrase things in English and that was the closest equivalent I could figure out that didn't actually mean something else, but I guess that is still something that people do actually say more commonly in English than in Japanese. I've changed it to "walked at the street" instead, which I think may have more of the same feeling of awkwardness..?
    – Foogod
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 16:15
  • It's probably impossible to explain every nuance using English particles... ジムを1時間走った sounds very strange but ジムで1時間走った is perfectly natural, so your "through/around" analogy doesn't always work, either.
    – naruto
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 4:03
  • Well, it's just a rule of thumb, not intended to be a perfect 1:1 equivalence, and in that capacity I think it's actually a pretty good one that does work well a substantial majority of the time. And for what it's worth, "run through the gym" (を) sounds rather strange but "run in the gym" (で) is natural to me in English too, so I think that example does actually work just fine with this analogy too...
    – Foogod
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 17:39

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