Japanese Verbs: Transitive vs. Intransitive

Even after years of studying Japanese language, and conversing with my wife, family and friend, one thing I still struggle with is a fascinating feature of the language: transitive and intransitive verbs.

The concept of transitive and intransitive verbs is nothing unique to Japanese. Some verbs take a direct object (transitive) and some don’t (intransitive). English has both, and so does Japanese. What’s interesting in Japanese is that the verbs frequently come in pairs.

Compare these two verbs:

  • 上がる (agaru) – to go up, intransitive
  • 上げる (ageru) – lift something up, transitive

They look very similar, but their usage is different:

  • 上がる (hon ga agaru) – “The book goes up.”
  • 上げる (hon wo ageru) – “To lift the book up.”

The first one expresses the state of the book itself (it is going up), while the second expresses someone lifting the book up (as a direct object). Hence intransitive vs. transitive.

But many other verbs come in pairs like this:

  • 雪が積もってる (yuki ga tsumotteiru) – “The snow is piling up.” The verb is tsumoru (積もる)
  • 雪を積んでいる (yuki wo tsundeiru) – “Piling up snow.” The verb is tsumu (積む).

Yet another example is ochiru (落ちる) and otosu (落とす) meaning to “to fall” and “to drop” respectively:

  • 落ちている (hon ga ochiteiru) – The book has fallen (i.e. in the state of “fallen”).
  • 落としている (hon wo otoshiteiru) – Dropping the book.

The last two examples illustrate an important point: the intransitive verb is often used to express state of something, almost like an adjective: 落ちている本を拾う (ochiteiru hon wo hirou) – “I pick up the book that’s fallen”.

The other thing to remember with transitive and intransitive verbs in Japanese is the particles. Transitive verbs take a direct object, so they take an を of course. Pretty easy. But the intransitive verbs don’t take an object, so you have to use が (or は as appropriate) because you’re trying to answer the question “who” or “what” is in that state.

If you can at least remember that Japanese verbs frequently come in pairs, you’ll have fewer headaches studying Japanese language. Enjoy!

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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