Question regarding に and "direction"

Howdy folks, how’s everyone doing- got your Christmas shopping done yet? :wink:

I have a question about the particle に and the “direction” sense of it.

From the get go I was told that this particle is like “towards” something. But this isn’t always true?! I sort of ignored it up until now because I could never find a good example of why I believe this isn’t always true, but alas I have come across an example that should help illustrate where my confusion stems from.

If I said
先生に ゆっくり話します
“I will talk to the teacher slowly”
^Simple, right?

Now what if I said …
先生に ゆっくり話してほしいです
This now suddenly becomes “I want the teacher to talk slowly”
When I read this, I perceive this as “I want to talk to the teacher slowly”…

Basically, I’m trying to figure out how to distinguish when に is towards something, or just a general direction…


に usually designates a target for an action, not a direction. へ is for direction.

I said usually, because it also is used to indicate the person action is received from which might not fit perfectly with the English definition of “target”.


i think thats just an issue with translating japanese into english.
に indicates the direction or target of your verb similar to english preposistions like to in on etc.

this article here explains how the particle is used


“I want you to talk to the teacher slowly”


Really broadly speaking, there’s two relevant big important sense of the particle に, like @TheCodingFox phrased as “target for an action” and indicating who or what the “action is received from.”

(disclaimer, I don’t practice actual production so these sentences and my explanation might all be completely wrong)

The trick to distinguishing the two (and what, believe it or not at the moment, will start to become unconsciously absorbed over time with practice reading), is getting used to the different forms of verbs.

1.(私が)ボブにサンドイッチを投げた。= I threw the sandwich to Bob.
2.(私が)ボブにサンドイッチを食べさせられた。 I was forced to eat the sandwich by Bob.

In sentence 1, I, the subject, 投げた’d. 投げる can take に (I think) to mark to who/where I threw, so it slots in just fine. I threw to Bob.

In sentence 2, I, the subject, 食べさせられた’d, so I was made to eat. You might wonder who was the one who did that to me, and it’s marked by に, so Bob made me eat.

In English, especially learning it first as “towards” (or “in”) because that’s simplest, I think starting out this is really confusing, because it feels like “I threw a sandwich AT Bob” and “a sandwich was thrown BY bob” would be two opposite things, so it’s weird that に could be used to convey them both.
And especially because we’re not used to the passive form, when that’s in play it feels like に is marking the one DOING the thing, so why isn’t it the subject?

But the key is a passive verb isn’t about doing, it’s about being affected. The action the subject is doing is BEING affected, so it’s still the one DOING the action, the action is just… to be affected. The に part in the sentence is just an (optional) tipoff about who or what did the affecting.

So in both senses, if you want to try to unify them in your head, に is marking an especially important 3rd thing. It might not be the subject or the object, but it’s important to the sentence nonetheless, either the target informing the direction of the verb, or the thing ultimately causing or supervising the verb, etc. depending on what the verb happens to be.

One other thing to mention is that these two meanings CAN be ambiguous (to some extent). What if both cases happen - After all, maybe Bob would make me throw the sandwich to someone else!!
And while again, I may be wrong and would be happy to be overruled, I think you’ve spotted a case:

先生に ゆっくり話してほしいです
may mean you would like the teacher to speak slowly, but it could also maybe mean you want someone else to speak to the teacher slowly. (I think… in practice one may be truer than the other)

It could be disambiguated with context, (for example if you were asking the teacher this, it wouldn’t be ambiguous because there’s no third person),
or by using different words, for example:
Would, I think, unambiguously mean that you want someone else to talk slowly to the teacher. (because に対して has the “with/at” sort of sense but not the “marking the one you want the ほしい from” sense)
(and probably even just と would work)
(or if you wanted to rephrase to keep the “wanting the teacher to speak slowly” meaning you could use ください if you were talking to him and drop the 先生に, or you could pick a verb that doesn’t take に as well, etc.)

(but what one would or should actually say in different contexts is not something I would know at all so don’t go run off saying any of these sentences)
Mainly I want to convey that you have spotted two meanings that can be ambiguous, but it’s not so unintuitive as it may seem from an English perspective. With time and practice reading (and it’ll be really really satisfying when this happens), you’ll see a verb and not have to sit and piece together who did what anymore, and that’ll make the “wait what is this に doing?” feeling go away at least (…mostly).


I don’t think it’s correct it should be (私に)ボブがサンドイッチを食べてくれた
Because くれる means “to give” and it’s Bob that give the favor of eating the sandwich for me, so he is the subject of the head verb くれる. I am the target of his favor so 私 is marked by に (but 私に is almost always dropped since くれる almost always target I, the speaker)


You’re right! I very obviously bungled that. Thanks! I’ll see if I can replace it with a different word or just retract the whole thing since I stepped too far into production.

I ended up just taking it out – I hope it illustrates at least that while practice reading will help you UNDERSTAND sentences better… it will not by itself help you FORM them better :sweat_smile:

I hope the larger point is still of some use, and if not I hope it is also corrected!


話す/話します - (I) will speak.
話してほしい - (I) want (to receive) a speaking.
話したい - (I) want to speak.

You’ve changed the main action of the clause which has changed the “source” of に while leaving the “target” unchanged. So the change here has nothing to do with に。

に is directing 話す toward 先生。

Now it’s directing ほしい towards 先生。


Fyi tehoshii is what you want other people to do, so your interpretation wouldnt make sense. I dont think its a problem about understanding how ni works, I think your problem is understanding how hoshii works.


The problem here isn’t the に, it’s the 話してほしい.てほしい is like て下さい, it’s for when the subject is making a request of an object. 話したい would be used to convey the subject’s desire to himself talk to the teacher slowly.


Thanks all for the info. It’s still quite confusing but less confusing (does that even make sense?) I can see now that it’s maybe not a fault of my understanding of how に works per se, but it might be helpful for me (for the time being) to think of things on a case by case basis.

Like I know when we use 貰う we mark who we received from with に, so I guess with ~てほしい construct I will associate に with the direction of what I want (if that makes sense).

I can see now that it’s maybe not a fault of my understanding of how に works per se, but it might be helpful for me (for the time being) to think of things on a case by case basis.

Well, another problem may be that there isn’t any one universal rule for particle に, because it plays more than one role.

For example, in this case, it’s not exactly indicating “direction” because 話す isn’t a verb of motion. Rather, it’s just marking the indirect object. The concept is similar, but not quite the same. Indirect objects can go in either direction, depending on the context.

Consider the following sentences:

  1. I wrote a letter to my mother.
  2. I received a letter from my mother.

In both sentences, “I” is the subject (I am writing, I am receiving), and “letter” is the direct object (the letter was written, the letter was received). “Mother,” then, is the indirect object. So in Japanese, “I” would be marked with particle は / が, “letter” would be marked with particle を, and “mother” (could) be marked with particle に. Regardless of whether she is the sender or the recipient. In such sentences, it is the verb (write vs receive) that specifies the directionality relative to the subject. This is true for both English and Japanese.

So you could totally use 先生に to make the teacher either the one speaking or the one being spoken to, depending on your verb choice.

However, if you’re using a verb of motion (行く、来る、帰る、歩く、走る、上る、飛ぶ, etc.), then as far as I know, particle に should always mark the target destination. It’s a separate rule.


To be honest this explanation I think has made the most sense to me so far. Thank you!
I have forgotten that you can use に to mark indirect objects :scream:

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