時 question

When using 時 (とき) for “when” and “before” how can you differentiate between the two? I understand the basic structure A時B, where A is in the plain form and determines before or after based on tense, but when can you differentiate between when and before?



In my limited knowledge, this could be translated as: “when I study, I watch TV” or “before I study, I watch TV.”

Am I in the wrong? I assume I must be. This one doesn’t seem like an easy one to tell with context.

This sentence couldn’t be “before I study, I watch TV” because there’s nothing to put it in the past. In this case, what comes before 時 specifies it’s range.

勉強する時 = During the time frame in which study happens, i.e. “when I study”

Verbs in non past tense usually default to future tense, though present tense as in “while studying” is possible depending on context.

勉強した時 = During the time frame in which I studied, i.e. “when I studied”

By putting する in past tense you’re marking that the time is referring to an already passed event. Note that this still doesn’t mean “before I studied”. You’d need to use 前 to get that meaning, as in 勉強する時の前テレビを見ます. (This might be an uncommon way to say this)

Edit: Jonapedia gives a more thorough explanation below and pointed out my example with 前 is uncommon use. Thank you.


Certainly not going to claim to be any sort of expert, but in my experience I don’t think I’ve seen 時 used in either of these cases. 時 for me comes up very infrequently, and is like referencing a specific point in time.

To say “Before A, B” you might use A 前に B or A うちに B depending on what you’re trying to convey.

To express the idea of concurrent or overlapping time frames (“while A, B”) in Japanese you’d use grammar constructs like A ながら B、A 間 B、A 間に B again depending on what specifically you’re conveying.

Another use of the English “when” could be like “I get nervous when I speak Japanese” in the sense of A always leading to B, you might use と, as in 日本語を話すと緊張している

Suffice to say, in thinking between English and Japanese it’s really important to consider the abstract sense of what you’re trying to convey… because coming at it like “how do I say ‘when’ in Japanese” can lead you all sorts of directions.


J-E resources LOVE ignoring what words mean and just looking at the word in a Japanese sentence, translating the sentence to English, searching for a roughly corresponding term in the new sentence, and listing that as a meaning. I gave up on gleaming any real meaning from J-E sources for anything beyond very finite and non-abstract words when I saw that 全然 get’s listed as meaning “completely” and “not at all”. ???

What actually happens is that you’ll have two Japanese sentences. Which mean literally that:
Kanji studies are difficult aren’t they? Yes, they are completely/totally difficult.
Kanji studies are difficult aren’t they? No, they completely/totally are not difficult.

But in more natural English it becomes:
Yes, absolutely.
No, not at all!

And herp derp. We’ve now magically made 全然 an antonym of itself and listed these meanings on every J-E dictionary as well as explaining it that way on WK itself. Luckily the logographic nature of Kanji goes a looooong way to gleaming the true meaning before even getting more context, but you still need plenty of purely Japanese context, and every J-E definition should be taken with not a grain, but a few truckloads of salt.


Aye, agreed. Usually I see it in the context of “the time when I was younger”:

学校の時は - when I was in grade school


Too much is the same as not enough --Sun Tzu

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時 in “when” sentences is a bit special, because it’s equally flexible to the English “when”. It sets the time context (clause A) and builds a timeline relationship between clause A and clause B, where either or both can be in the past/present and will typically mean different things. You can use it to talk about past experiences, memories, but also about future events and make it clear how A and B are related in time to each other. This is a good example, I think:
When I will have traveled to China, I will buy oolong tea.

AとB comes close to this, but is more focused on the action/change context and how clause B happens when clause A happens first. It’s also more abstract, because it can be used to talk about general things, not necessarily executed actions:
Whenever Autumn comes, the leaves of trees take on autumn colors.

There is also the traditional conditional “if” in the form <simple, past form> + ら, but it’s even more abstract, because clause B won’t happen if clause A didn’t happen. Also, it can be used to talk about completely hypothetical situations like being a cat or flying to the Moon. Clause A can still be used to set up a context:
If I meet the teacher, I will try to explain it to him.

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Your example sentences explain the apparent contradiction, yes, but there’s actually one more reason why listing it as ‘not at all’ is somewhat necessary. You can try searching for an article from The Japan Times entitled ‘No Way Around No’ in order to read about it, but basically, after World War II, the use of 全然 with negation became much more common, and some people even started to suggest that it’s incorrect to use it in the positive sense of ‘completely’. That’s not true, of course, but the fact remains that the negative sense of 全然 became a major feature of its usage, to the point that, to reuse your example…
is a completely natural response that needs to be interpreted as meaning ‘no, not at all!’ and nothing else.

However, yes, I agree that E-J/J-E dictionaries typically fail to explain finer nuances effectively, and that’s problematic.

What I’ve read (and I believe it’s also in the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, though I’m not sure because I don’t own it) is this: the tense of the verb before 時 indicates the state of that action relative to the verb in the main clause. That means that we have:

勉強する時=‘when I study’ (the act of studying isn’t complete yet, and this could even mean that you haven’t even started studying, but you’re about to start)
勉強している時=‘while studying’ (you’re specifying that whatever comes after happens as you study, at the same time. If the verb in the main clause is in the past tense, this means that your studying was in progress in the past as well.)
勉強した時=‘when I have studied/after I studied’ (the act of studying is completed)

Depending on the verb before 時, I think there can in fact be an overlap with ‘before’ in the first case (〜る, not 〜ている), but the difference is that with 時, the action in the main clause is much closer, and can even happen at the same time (and therefore does not happen ‘before’), whereas ‘before’ simply implies precedence, and the action in the main clause can happen much earlier and be very far away.

Speaking of ‘before’,

I believe that the more common way of phrasing this is 勉強する前に. I don’t know if する時の前 is another possibility, but I’ve never seen it before. A quick Google search for ‘時の前’ in quotes brings up 89 results for me, so it might be OK, but it doesn’t seem common.

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Well, I learned something new today. It seems google misreports the number of search results until I go to the last page of the search results. On the first page it says there’s well into the thousands of results. On the last it says 112. I thought that way of phrasing it might be uncommon so I checked and was misled. Thanks for pointing it out.

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After the answers and a lot of research today, I think I have a good general understanding of how it works. As RushianAgent pointed out, J-E translations don’t always work one for one. 時 is used like a relative noun to relate two verbs in time. It is used with the plain form on the “A” side of a sentence and another verb in any form on the “B” side in the construction A時B. 時 refers to a time relative to the verb it follows.

Better explained:

Past A 時 past B

“By the time A was complete, B”
(B happened after A)

Non past A 時 past B

“While A was still going to happen, B”
(B happened before A was done)

Past A 時 non past B

“At the time when A is completed, I will B”
(B WILL happen after A)

Non past A 時 non past B
“At times when A happens or will happen, B also happens or will happen”
(Used to show routines, such as in my original example, when I study, I watch TV)

Thanks all for the help today, and if my interpretation is still off, please let me know.


Sounds fine to me. I’d just like to suggest that you also include the ている form, because it has a special nuance that doesn’t appear in your post – simultaneity:

That aside, everything looks correct.



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