Particles #5: Use で, を, or に to Indicate Place
Updated: May 21, 2021
In Japanese, で is ised to mark the location where an action occurs.
One exception is you can't use で if it is followed by a verb indicating existence (e.g., いる, ある).
Another exception: で is replaced by を when the following verb indicates movement (e.g., 歩く (to walk), 飛ぶ (to fly)).
Use で to Indicate Where an Action Is Performed
Just like the particle に covers several English prepositions when referring to time (see Particles #4: Use に, から, and まで to Explain When Something Occurs), で covers multiple words (e.g., "at" and "by") when referring to place.
As shown below, there are times when で can't be used to mark the place where an action occurs. Still, it is quite versatile in this regard, as shown in the following examples.
We met by the post office.
Let's eat in the car.
I didn't find that book at the library.
When Not to Use で
Use に when the verb indicates existence.
If you simply want to express where something is (as opposed to describing an action), you should mark the place with に instead of で. Most often, this is the case when the verbs いる and ある are involved. However, this rule applies to some other verbs, such as 住む (to live) and 行く (to go).
There's milk in the fridge.
I worked at a bookstore last summer.
Use を when the verb indicates movement.
You also can't use で to mark the location where an action occurs if that verb indicates movement through, over, past, etc. that location. In such cases, you should mark the location with を.
I run through my neighbourhood every Saturday.
This rule is a bit confusing since 行く and 来る indicate movement, but sentences containing these verbs include に, not を. So, it's better to think of this as a general rule. As a beginner, I suspect I'll make lots of mistakes with these as I learn.
Also, sometimes, bothで and を are grammatically correct, with the correct choice depending on your intended meaning. This is illustrated in the examples below.
My daughter danced in the park.
My daughter danced through the park (i.e., she danced her way from one side of the park to the other).