とうきょう から きょうと まで、 しんかんせん で にじかん はん です。
From Tokyo to Kyoto, it’s two and a half hours by shinkansen [bullet train].
Literally: “Tokyo + から (=from) + Kyoto + まで (=to / until), + shinkansen / bullet train + で + two hours + -half + です.”
Generally speaking, まで tends to be fairly straightforward.
In the following question, for example, you might be a bit thrown off by the word order. However, looking at the word-by-word breakdown, we can see that nothing too complicated is happening here:
いつ まで にほん に いる の？
How long are you in Japan till?
Literally: "when + until (=まで) + Japan + に + are + の?"
Note:A Japanese friend might ask you this when you are in Japan on vacation, for example.
We see に marking the location of something — of you!
We also have の at the end of the question, which is a bit tricky to explain. Suffice it to say that the speaker appears genuinely curious about how long "you," the listener, will be in Japan.
And we have まで, the focus of this lesson, meaning something like "until." We could also use this two-kana particle in our answer:
Literally: "Friday + until."
Look at you, reading these Japanese conversations. If only your kindergarten teacher could see you now.
We need to be careful when using まで, as it does not match up perfectly with the English word "until," and sometimes this can cause confusion.
When we are referring to a point in time at which something will end, the meaning is quite clear.
Let's say that you and I are planning to meet up for a drink (coffee, beer, tea — your choice) after I get off work. You ask:
なんじ が いい？
What time is good for you?
Literally: "what time + が + good?"
Bonus Tip: See how we used が in the above sentence? You will pretty much never put は (wa) after a question word like いつ(when), 何 (なに // what), 誰 (だれ // who), etc.
うーん... 仕事が５時半までだから... ６時はどう？
うーん... しごと が ごじ はん まで だ から... ろくじ は どう？
Hmm... I have work until five-thirty, so... how about six?
Literally: "hmm... + work + が + five-thirty + until + だ + because (=から)... + six o'clock + は + how?"
That's a long sentence, but I think you'll find that it makes sense if you look at the word-by-word breakdown.
What I want to point out is how nicely まで matches up to the English word "until" when we are talking about a specific point in time: 5:30.
The confusion with まで can arise when we are talking about not a point in time but a span of time.
I find that the confusion tends to be most common in sentences where まで is combined with に, giving us までに, which we could translate as "by" or "by the time."
Consider the following sentence:
さんじゅっさい まで に こども ほしい。
I want kids by the time I'm 30.
Literally: "thirty years old + until (=まで) + に + children + wanted."
↑ I don't know if that's an accurate English translation, if I'm being completely honest.
Excuse me?! I thought you were good at Japanese!
Wait. Don't attack me yet. The problem with the translation above is that the nuances of "by" or "until" and まで are not exactly the same. The English sentence appears to mean "I want kids before I turn 30," don't you think?
However, it is possible that what the speaker really means is: "I want kids before I turn 31." Because when まで is describing a span of time, it can potentially mean "until" or "by" the end of that span of time.
I don't think that this is worth worrying about. The person saying the English sentence above might in fact not care if she has her first child when she is 30. Conversely, the person saying the Japanese sentence might want her first child before she turns 30. Whatever!
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