Transitive and Intransitive: mastering Japanese verbs

One of those aspects of Japanese language, I really, really wish I had learned at a younger age was the notion of transitive and intransitive verbs. The notion of transitive and intransitive verbs exists in English, but in Japanese they take on a lot of importance, and rules that don’t necessarily apply in English. Indeed, only when I seriously started studying Japanese about 2-3 years ago for the JLPT, did I realize how much I had missed in college Japanese courses just be knowing the difference. This is because the same grammar rules, applied to both, take on different meanings depending on whether the verb takes an object (transitive) or not (intransitive). Inspiration for this post came after reading a good book on Japanese verbs, at suggestion by fellow blogger “Robert” as

Case in point, take two verbs, shimaru (閉まる) and shimeru (閉める). Both mean “close” in English, but one of them, shimeru, is a transitive verb, which means it must be paired with an object, and uses the を particle marker. The other, shimaru, usually doesn’t. So in the end, although they both mean “to close” they take on different meanings:

  • ドアを閉める (doa wo shimeru, to close a door)
  • ドアが閉まっている (doa ga shimatteiru, the door is closed)

In many circumstances, intransitive verbs in Japanese refer to some kind of state (e.g. the state of being closed) as opposed to an action doing it. This is one of the things I misunderstood for so long, because I assumed all verbs were based on an action. True, English does have intransitive verbs, but being a native speaker, I just never thought about it, but when I applied the logic to Japanese verbs, I made lots of mistakes. Anyway, the lesson is that if you take an intransitive verb, and change it to present-progressive (e.g. 閉まる to 閉まっている), or past-progressive (閉まっていた), then it describes a state.

Even a more common verb like 行く (to go), works the same way. It doesn’t take an object, so it’s an intransitive verb, and as such becomes a state when used in an present-progressive way. If you want to say your wife went to the supermarket, then it might sound like tsuma wa sūpā ni itteiru (妻はスーパーに行っている), not を行っている, or 行った (e.g. past-tense). There may be exceptions, but I am talking about common use-cases.

Another example is tsuku (付く) and tsukeru (付ける). The first one is intransitive and means, among other things, to be turned on or activated (e.g. light switch, TV, etc), while the second is transitive and means to actually go and flip the switch, turn it on, etc. Again, the intransitive one 付く cannot take an object, and at least in the present-progressive form 付いている implies a state as in “the TV is on”: テレビが付いている. This does not mean the TV is being turned on, but rather implies a state because of some previous action. This was explained clearly when I read another helpful book on Japanese structure a while back. Meanwhile, the transitive verb 付ける takes an object as in: テレビを付けて (turn on the TV).

Also, notice carefully how transitive and intransitive verbs frequently come in pairs. Very basic, common verbs like 食べる (to eat)、行く (to go) and such don’t have such pairs, but once you get beyond the most basic, fundamental ones, you’ll start seeing lots of verbs in pairs of intransitive and transitive forms. You’ll notice too that they often use the same kanji. Usually, you can recognize which one is the intransitive verb just by the ending, while the transitive verb have related, but different endings:

  • Intransitive: kieru (消える, to disappear or vanish) and transitive: kesu (消す to erase something, or extinguish)
  • Intransitive: chiru (散る, to be scattered like blossoms) and transitive: chikasu (散らす, to scatter something)
  • Intransitive: ochiru (落ちる, to fall or be dropped) and transitive: otosu (落とす, to drop something)

So if you’re studying Japanese, try and bear these things in mind early on, and you’ll have a much easier time absorbing Japanese verbs and usage before you make a lot of mistakes like I did. Good luck to all you Japanese-language students out there!

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.