How come they never teach 「何で」?

I don’t know how far Japanese language education has progressed in recent years, but back when I was a student, we were taught to use 「どうして」 for “why”. This was great until I went out into the real world and found out that people used another word that I was never taught: 「なんで」. Huh? What the-? Why wasn’t I taught the real deal instead of being handed down a second-rate word that nobody uses? Why eat a California roll when you can have real sushi?

Now that I know some more stuff (you know… stuff… and things…), I can think of two reasons: 1) 「なんで」 is a bit informal and would not be appropriate in some written contexts, and 2) 「なんで」 has some “issues” and they didn’t want to confuse the poor students (we were confused enough as it was).

Only in Japanese, can you write paragraphs explaining the word for “why”

I can understand why you would rather teach 「どうして」 as a teacher. It’s perfectly normal Japanese and you can use it just about anywhere in any context and be “safe”. The only problem is that Japanese people don’t use it that much. Why? Probably because 「なんで」 is shorter and easier to say.

Unlike 「どうして」, you have to be a little more careful when using 「なんで」. First of all, it’s more for conversational Japanese so you don’t want it use it on, for example, official documents. In this sense, 「なんで」 is kind of similar to “how come” instead of just “why”.

Second, things can get kind of confusing because 「なんで」 in kanji is 「何で」 and 「何」 is the kanji for 「なに」. 「で」 is also the particle for describing means. You can see the problem this overlapping might cause.

-A: With what (by what means) do you eat spaghetti?
-B: Why do you eat spaghetti?

The sentence above can have two meaning and there is no way to tell without any context. The dictionary says that 「何で」(なんで) means “why”. But if you write it in kanji, it looks identical to 「なにで」. There’s even a Japanese page with a survery of 「なんで」 vs 「なにで」. In general, 「なんで」 means “why” and 「なにで」 means “by what means” so when you want to make things absolutely clear, you should write it in hiragana.

In terms of ambiguity, 「どうして」 also has the same type of issues because 「どう」 means “how” and 「して」 is the te-form of 「する」.

-A: I don’t know what I should do (how to do so that it’s good).
-B: I don’t know why it’s good.

The first translation is more likely, but the second interpretation is possible as well. There’s no way to tell for sure without more context. (Aren’t you glad you didn’t pick an easy, sissy language to learn?)

Because two just isn’t enough

「何故」 is yet another word that means “why”, which we need because… I’m pretty sure there’s a good reason. 「何故」 is more formal than the other words for “why” and has, I feel, a sharper sting to it, if that makes any sense. It’s more suitable for when you want to ask hard-hitting questions such as, for example, a narrative for a documentary. As a result, you don’t hear this too often in regular, everyday conversations.

-Just why, exactly, did this happen?


Now that you know all the ways of saying “why” in Japanese (minus local dialects I’m not aware of), you can ask questions like the following in a variety of ways.

Why, Lord, why, is Japanese so complicated?!!

There, aren’t you happy now?

11 thoughts on “How come they never teach 「何で」?

  1. Cool post! I actually felt comfortable reading about “why”. Japanese is such an interesting language, and you present it very nicely. Take care!

  2. You may have wanted to include information on the pronunciation of 何故 and how there are two pronunciations: ナゼ and ナニユエ.

  3. I get the feeling the なぜ reading is what Tae was talking about.

    But that does raise an interesting question, how is the なにゆえ used in general?

    I’d like to say thanks to Tae Kim for and for this blog! truly great materials, please continue to share your wealth of knowledge.

  4. Next you can write a post on “how come” versus “why” in English.

    I bet that English teachers rarely teach “how come”.

  5. I thought you could use both なんで and なにで to mean by means of what. When I first went to Japan, I thought that you couldn’t, but then I discovered that I heard it once it a while. Like when I was going to meet someone somewhere, they asked me なんで行くん?, and I KNOW they weren’t asking me why I was going! lol So I just answered 電車で, they nodded, and all was good. So are you SURE that なんで can’t mean by means of what as WELL as why in contexts where it would be really obvious?

  6. Notice I wrote “in general”, which means there’s no solid rule on which to use. It’s more a matter of general trends as shown by the the survey I linked to. Also different dialects might have different tendencies. なんで行くん? sounds like a dialect. Where were you in Japan?

  7. hi tae kim,
    thanks for the great posts!
    but one suggestion that i want to make is that you somehow include hiragana for the kanji because i’m not fluent in kanji reading

  8. I know this is super old but I just stumbled upon it and wanted to add my 2 cents. I almost never hear people say 「なにで」for 「何で」unless it’s impossible to tell from the context and the speaker wants to be very specific. I think this tends to be pretty rare though and 「なんで」is almost always used for both ‘why’ and ‘how’. I’d say friends tend to stick to 「なんで」. But of course I never studied Japanese in school and did not write a Japanese text book so you should probably trust Tae Kim over me 🙂

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