Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond the Basics
Japanese verbs are often categorized into one of two categories — "transitive" or "intransitive". For most learners, transitivity is a concept that they encounter for the first time when studying foreign language, so you might be surprised to learn that it exists in most, if not all languages — even English! Transitivity in Japanese operates differently than in English, which is why it can be so hard to wrap your mind around. In this page, we'll explore what transitivity is, and how it differs in English and Japanese.
What is transitivity?
First, consider the word "transitivity." It contains the same root word as "transfer," and that is no coincidence. A verb that is transitive involves the transfer of energy from one entity to another, namely from a subject to an object.
- Jenny opened the door.
This is a typical transitive sentence. The subject, Jenny, transfers energy to the door, causing it to open. It involves one entity acting upon another, which explains why the Japanese term for "transitive verb" is 他動詞 — "other verb".
An intransitive verb is the opposite of a transitive one. There is no transfer of energy between a subject and object. Instead, the verb expresses a change in the subject.
- The door opened.
In this intransitive sentence, we have no idea how or why the door opened, we just know that it happened… creepy 👻 Maybe a ghost opened it, or maybe it was the wind. In any case, the sentence presents "open" as though it happens independently, or by itself. This explains the native Japanese term for intransitive verbs — 自動詞, or "self verb".
These Japanese terms are really good to keep in mind as you learn about transitivity in Japanese. Not only are these terms a bit more transparent than "transitive" and "intransitive," but you'll also see the first kanji (他 and 自) in native dictionaries to indicate the transitivity of specific verbs.
In Japanese, there are a large number of verbs that come in pairs, with each side of the pair having a transitive or intransitive meaning. This is an area where language learners struggle, since English does not have this feature. Let's check it out:
- (Someone) opens the door.
- The door opens.
In English, verbs either stay exactly the same no matter if they're used transitively or intransitively (like "open") or there are two totally different verbs that have a similar meaning but opposite transitivity (like "I dropped the ball" or "The ball fell").
Japanese does something different — many verbs are part of a pair that share a root, but have different endings depending on their transitivity. In the examples above, you'll see that 開ける is used in the transitive sentence, and 開く is used in the intransitive sentence. Their kanji is the same, but the way the end is different! These types of pairs are common in Japanese. Not all Japanese verbs are part of a pair, but there are at least 300 pairs that exist in modern Japanese. Check out this great resource from Meguro Language Center for examples of pairs with visuals and context sentences.
Particles を and が
When it comes to determining if a verb is transitive or intransitive, particles are your friends! While there are some exceptions, transitive verbs will take an object marked with particle を, and intransitive verbs will only take a subject, marked with particle が. Let's examine the use of particles in sentences with the following transitivity pair: つける (to turn something on) & つく (something comes on).
- Cameron turned on the lights.
In this transitive sentence, 電気 (lights) is the object, and is marked with particle を. We also see a subject, Cameron, marked with particle が.
- The lights came on.
In this intransitive sentence, 電気 is not the object, it's the subject, and so it is marked with particle が.
These particles are a helpful hint when you're trying to determine if a verb is transitive or intransitive, but there are a variety of reasons why you can't rely on them as a rule of thumb. For one, it's common to drop both subjects and objects from sentences when they are known from context. Consider the following conversation for example:
ウイチ先生、トイレ行っていい？ </br> KoichiSensei, can I go to the bathroom?
まみ先生始まる前に行きなさい。 </br> Ms. MamiGo quickly before class begins.
〜Koichi goes to the bathroom and comes back🚽〜
まみ先生コウイチくん、お帰り。では、始めます。 </br> Ms. MamiWelcome back, Koichi. Ok, now I'll get class started.
As you can see, both verbs in the transitivity pair 始まる (something begins) and 始める (to start something) appear in this dialogue, but particle を and が are nowhere to be found! Let's plug in those omitted elements back into the sentences:
- (授業が) 始まる前に行きなさい。
- Go quickly before class begins.
始まる is an intransitive verb, so we can only add a subject in. Since this is a conversation between a teacher and student, we can assume the thing that will begin in this sentence is 授業 (class). Stick particle が on the end of 授業 to clearly mark it as the subject!
- では、(私が) (授業を) 始めます。
- Ok, now I'll get class started.
始める, on the other hand, is a transitive verb. This means we can add in both a subject and an object. Again, we assume that the thing being started is class, so we add 授業 back into this sentence, too. However, since the verb is transitive, we'll treat it as the object and add を after it. Now, we can add in a subject — who caused the class to start. That would be the teacher of course, so since she is the speaker of this sentence we'll add her in with the first-person pronoun, 私. We'll stick が on the end too to clarify that 私 is the subject! Just a side note, though: it's so obvious that 私 is the subject here, that we'd almost always leave it out in Japanese.
These sentences, and many others, are more natural with the subject and object omitted, so you really can't rely on particles alone to determine the transitivity of a verb.
Beyond the Basics
As you come across more examples of verbs in Japanese, you might begin to see peculiarities that are hard to explain using the traditional approach to transitivity presented above. For instance, you'll notice that not all intransitive verbs behave the same way — some can even take particle を!! 🧐 In this section, we’ll take a deeper look at the stranger aspects of transitivity.
English vs. Japanese Transitivity
Remember how transitive in Japanese is 他動詞 (“other” verb) and intransitive is 自動詞 (“self” verb)? Keeping this idea in mind will help you to understand how transitivity in Japanese differs from English. In English, any verb that takes a direct object is considered to be transitive in that context, even if that object is not being acted on or affected by some “other” entity. For example:
Jenny understands French.
In this sentence, “Jenny” is the subject, and “French” is the direct object. It is what she understands. The fact that we have a direct object makes this a transitive sentence in English. But what if we apply the Japanese concept of transitivity? The French language itself is not affected by whether Jenny understands it or not, right? Of course not. So in Japanese, the equivalent sentence will actually be intransitive:
- Jenny understands French.
Since フランス語 is not some “other” entity being affected by Jenny, this sentence is intransitive (自動詞) in the Japanese sense. That’s why you’ll see that フランス語 is followed by the subject marking particle が. Many English speakers would instinctively want to put the object marking particle を here, so watch yourself! Here are a few other common verbs that might feel transitive to an English speaker, but are intransitive in Japanese:
- Kanae has a French textbook.
- Mami has Canadian friends.
The existential verbs, ある and いる, are intransitive in Japanese. This is why you see that 教科書 (textbook) and 友達 (friends) are both marked by particle が, rather than particle を. Despite the fact that the English translation feels transitive, remember that neither 教科書 nor 友達 are being affected or acted upon in these sentences.
Intransitive Verbs with Particle を
Ok, so far so good, right? In Japanese, transitive verbs act upon something else, and that something else gets particle を. Intransitive verbs happen by themselves, and only take particle が. Right? …Right? 😅
Not always! There are a couple of reasons why an intransitive verb might actually appear with particle を… Sorry to burst your bubble! The truth is, that the boundary between transitive and intransitive verbs is often blurry—it’s more of a spectrum than it is a dichotomy.
Verbs with Intention
As you already know, 分かる is usually used with particle が. However, when there is a sense of intention in a sentence, sometimes を is actually possible too.
- Kanae became able to understand French.
- Kanae became able to understand French.
These sentences are not just about understanding French, but more so about the processes of becoming able to understand French, due to the use of なる (become) as the main verb. This creates a slightly more transitive feeling to the sentence, so even though が is still the more common choice, you could also choose を if you want to highlight the fact that Kanae did something to make herself understand French. The difference is subtle, but it's interesting to see how grammatical choices can add flavor and meaning to a sentence like this.
Intention also helps us understand how particle choice effects a word like 食べたい (want to eat). It’s composed of two parts, the transitive verb 食べる (to eat) and the intransitive suffix 〜たい (want to). Since 食べたい is composed of both a transitive and intransitive component, which particle is most appropriate? The answer is both!
- I want to eat uni (sea urchin)!
- I want to eat uni (sea urchin)!
At first glance, you might think that both of these sentences express intention—we’re talking about wanting to do something, aren’t we? However, the first sentence with が is more likely to fit in a context where you spontaneously crave some of that goopy sea urchin sushi you ate last week, and verbalize that desire. You don’t actually intend to eat it in that moment! For that reason, が is more appropriate. If, however, you’re actually at your favorite sushi joint, you might excitedly tell your dining buddy うにを食べたい to express both your desire and your intention to act on it right then and there.
Verbs that describe a physical motion can also take を in certain circumstances. Many of these intransitive verbs are loners, meaning that they don’t have a transitive verb partner verb (aww 😢), such as 歩く (walk) or 泳ぐ (swim). Let’s take a look at these in context:
- Cameron walked the Kumano Pilgrimage in 2016.
- Jenny swims the English Channel every year.
Even though we see particle を here, these verbs are still considered to be intransitive by Japanese grammarians. Instead of particle を marking an object, the idea is that it marks a path that the movement takes. This can be really hard to wrap your mind around if you view it from the English perspective of transitivity. If you apply the 他動詞 vs. 自動詞 concept though, you can see why this makes sense. Even though Cameron walked the pilgrimage and Jenny swam the channel, neither of those places were affected by their movement. They are just the paths taken.
Intention is actually a helpful concept for understanding the “path” meaning of particle を as well. For example, let’s look at how the meaning of the intransitive verb 上がる (go up) changes when particle が and particle を are used:
- The price of gasoline went up recently.
- Machiko went up the hill.
In the first sentence with particle が, the thing that goes up is gas prices. The gasoline doesn’t cause its own price to rise, it just happens, driven by whatever forces affect gas prices. Think of this as a “spontaneous” intransitive—the verb just occurs by itself. In the second sentence though, Machiko is both who goes up and who causes the rising action to occur, since 上がる is a motion verb here. So this is an intentional act as well, since the verb is caused by the same entity that is affected, in this case, Machiko. Again, even though we see particle を after 坂, this sentence is considered to be intransitive since the stairs are not being affected by the action—they are just the path taken.