March Japanese Grammar Nuances And Coffee – 時の表現

The past month or so our grammar class dealt with expressions of time (時の表現). Last year, we saw the basics of this (前、時、後)  and this year we take a deeper look at these expressions. There were plenty of interesting things and nuances that I wanted to make a summary of, so instead of keeping it private I’m just throwing it online. Maybe it’s handy for other students!

A basic knowledge of Japanese and Japanese reading is required to follow along. I’m also not going to explain the basics of these time expressions, you can google it.

Let’s go! 行きましょう!

前に、negative + うちに、間に

Both can be translated as “before” in certain sentences, indicating the time before an action occurs. (i.e: “before [x], [y]”), with うちに it’s a really tricky translation, however.
前に is a neutral expression literally meaning beforeうちに denotes a duration meaning while and more specifically while something is still the case.
When using a negative verb + うちに we indicate that we should take the chance to do something, while it’s still possible to do so. And if we don’t heed that advice, something inconvenient might happen.

Let's take a look at some examples:

A lousy translator would translate both as
Let’s go back before it rains.
We went back before it rains.

However, by using the うちに we suggest that we should head back now that we have the chance, and that otherwise, we might get wet. “Let’s go back while it isn’t raining yet (so hurry up)”
negative verb + うちに adds a sense of urgency and can be found on a lot of official warnings.

うちに translates to “while still“, but in negative phrases, it often gets a free translation as “before“, yet it is not to be mistaken by 前に in terms of tone and urgency it implies:

暗くならないうちに買い物に行ってこよう。Let's go shopping before it gets dark! (otherwise it might be dangerous)
日本に来る前に、日本の文化について少し勉強してきました。Before coming to Japan I studied Japanese culture a little bit.

Similarly, you might wonder what the difference between うちに and 間に{あいだに during}is. Let’s take a look at that.

First of all, we use  to indicate a span of time, while 間に puts focus on a specific point within that time. Knowing this and our knowledge of うちに and the difference between them will become clear with these 3 example sentences:

- 子供が寝ている間勉強した。Study while the kids are asleep (and study the whole time)
- 子供が寝ている間に勉強した。Studied a bit while the kids were asleep.
- 子供が寝ているうちに勉強した。Studied while the kids were still asleep (and took the chance, when the kids get up I won't be able to study anymore). "I got the chance to study now the kids were asleep"

Fundamentally you could translate both of them as “I studied while the kids were sleeping.” But there’s an important nuance that can be made clear as seen in the example above.


あと means after, using あとで means that too but by using the で particle we indicate that it’s a short action.

この映画、あなたが見たあとで、私に貸してください。After you watched this movie, can you lend it to me?
食事をしたあと、ずっと部屋で本を読んでいた。 After dinner he/she read a book the whole time in his/her room.

In what way does あとで differ from ~てから? Both means after in the end. There are 2 principal differences.

– あとで is an objective expression (客観的), used frequently in written Japanese.
– ~てから is a subjective expression (主観的), used frequently in 話し言葉
~てから has the nuance that it happens immediately after while あとで is just “after” and can be hours, days, weeks,…

ときに vs ~たら

Both mean “when” but ~たら being a conditional “if/when” is broader and acts as a temporal condition or something relating to chance, while 時に indicates an exact and clearly defined point in time.
Both are usually translated as “When” even though their core meaning is a little different. Let’s look at some examples:

忙しい時に、また電話がかかってきた。 When I was busy another call came.
忙しかったら、後で電話してください。When I'm busy, please call me later. (conditional)
スーパーに行ったら、先生に会った。 When I went to the supermarket, I met my teacher (by chance)

Additionally, ~たら is used when you don’t have the situation under control.

先月パリへ行った時、エッフェル塔へ行った。 When I went to Paris last month, I visited the Eiffel tower
先月パリへ行ったら、どこでもストライキだった。When I went to Paris last month, there was a strike everywhere! (uncontrollable situation)

A Grammar Riddle

Our teacher asked us the following question: when asking someone for help on something (i.e: ちょっと手伝ってくれない?) which one of the following people would be the best choice based on their answers?

- Person A: この仕事が終わったらね。(When I'm done with this [I'll help you out])
- Person B: この仕事が終わってからね。(When I'm done with this [I'll help you out])
- Person C: この仕事が終わったあとでね。(When I'm done with this [I'll help you out])

In this case, Person B would be the best fit because the  てから ensures that it happens right after. Person A just uses the conditional form and this implies he might never even finish with the job. Person C just says “after this job is done” but it might not be immediately after.


Lastly, ところ to denote a point in time. This one has various usages and meanings depending on the second part of the sentence, and sometimes it’s a bit tough to pick the right particle to follow, fundamentally there are 5 groups:

A: Target of study / Scene (~ところを)
B: State [状況] (~ところに)
C: Breaking point in time (~ところで)
D: Information origin (~ところでは)
E: Limit/boundary of ability (~ところまで)
Let’s take a look at some examples in their respective order!

A: タバコを吸っているところを他の人に見られた。them smoking was seen by other people.
B: 部屋に入ったところへ電話がかかってきた。 Just when I entered the room the phone rang.
C: 大急ぎで走り、飛び乗ったところで、電車のドアが閉まった。 I had ran really fast and just when I hopped on the train the train doors closed.
D: 私が聞いたところでは、明日は休講だということです。According to what I heard, there won't be a lecture tomorrow.
E: ピアノが弾けるけど、人の前で弾くところまではいっていません。I can play piano, but not so good as to play in front of an audience.

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