Through? In? At? Across?… Oh my!
Alright, so we’ve talked about wo/を in previous lessons, but we’re going to address it once again today. を is a versatile particle that is used frequently in Japanese, so it’s very important to know all of the standard uses. Today, we are going to address a usage of を that varies from the most common use as a direct object marker. The を that we are going to focus on today is the use as a particle that expresses the movement “through”, “in”, or “across”. We will also compare it against the particles ni/に, and de/で because of their similar functions.
When used before an motion verb such as oyogu (to swim), aruku (to walk), or noboru (to climb), を functions as a particle that expresses a processual movement through or across something. For instance, the sentence fuji-san wo nobotta (富士山を登った) or I climbed Mt. Fuji, を marks that the action occurred through Mt. Fuji, focusing on the process of climbing. Similarly, koen wo hashitta (公園を走った) or I ran through the park, focuses on the process of running through the space of the park.
Now, lets compare を to に and で. There are many situations where を, に, and で could be used and the only the nuance would change. While を works best in the situations above, the other two can be used to convey slightly different meanings. For example, you can say I hiked Mt. Fuji in a few different ways with these particles. 富士山を登った and 富士山に登った. The first focuses on the hike itself, the entire process of going about the journey, however, the second’s primary focus is getting to the top of Mt. Fuji as a destination or goal. So if the speaker wants to emphasize the entire process of hiking, を is used. If the speaker wants to emphasize that they got to the very top and met their goal, に is used.
Furthermore, で can be used in similar ways as both を and に. で can be used to mark the location of an action, so it can easily be confused with both of these. The main difference to remember is that で is used to mark the location of an action or event, rather than the destination/goal (に) or the processual (を) that occurs with movement through a domain. However, action verbs take で in the majority of cases. This difference can be illustrated through the sentence 公園で走った and 公園を走った. The first means to “run at the park”, focusing on the action of running, perhaps doing sprints. The second means to “run through/around the park” focusing on the process.
This may seem confusing at first, but try to pay attention to the nuances between を, に, and で, and it should come more naturally with time.
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Today’s vocabulary includes a lot of ‘counters’. Counters are very important in the Japanese language. In English we sometimes use counters, but they can often be omitted and carry the same meaning. When someone asks us how many oranges we bought at the store, we can answer “three” and the listener will understand that we bought three oranges. At the same time we can also say “three oranges” or “three of them” and the listener will get the same meaning. However, in Japanese, there are specific words that need to follow numbers when counting specific quantities. For instance, if someone asks you how many cows are out in the field, you can’t just say ni (two) in Japanese. You have to say ni-pikki, pikki being the specific counter for these kind of animals. You can’t just say that you have three pencils – you’d need to say that you have san-pon, pon being the counter for long-cylindrical objects. There are many counters in Japanese, so it’s important to know as many as them as possible so you don’t fumble around trying to count objects.
There is one way that you can kind of cheat with counters though. If you use the form of counting that involves tsu, like hitotsu, futatsu, mitsu and so on, you can get away with using the number + no + thing being counted in order to convey the same meaning.