All You Need to Know About Japanese Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

  • February 26, 2018 / Lily Cernak

When using a Japanese verb, it is important to know whether the verb is a transitive or intransitive verb. In this post we will discuss Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs in detail.

Generally speaking, transitive verbs are actions that affect or change something in the environment around the person or thing doing the action. Intransitive verbs describe actions that happen or states that exist without being directly affected or caused by a particular person or thing.

Two Types of Japanese Verbs

All verbs in Japanese are either transitive or intransitive. For instance:

書く  kaku (to write) is transitive because it cannot just happen.  A person must do it first.

曇るkumoru (to be/get cloudy) is intransitive because while cloudiness does have a cause (atmospheric conditions), no specific person or thing causes it. It just happens, at least in a manner of speaking.

Partner Verbs

In addition, many Japanese verbs have a partner verb that is their opposite type. Partner verbs typically sound similar to one another, but always have at least one syllable that is different.

For instance, the verb 消す kesu (to erase/turn off/cause to disappear), which elementary Japanese textbooks often uses, is a transitive verb. It also has an intransitive partner verb 消える kieru ([something] turns off/disappears).

Of course, there are also many verbs that have no opposite-type partner verb. (For instance, the intransitive verb 曇る kumoru (to be/get cloudy) does not have any similar-sounding transitive partner verb).

How to know if the verb Transitive or Intransitive 

If you know both verbs of a transitive/intransitive partner verb pair but are having trouble remembering which verb is the transitive and which verb is the intransitive one, there are some rules of thumb that you can use.

  • If one of the two verbs ends with “~su,” it is probably the transitive verb.

For example:

かわちゃんは道を

Kawa chan wa michi o wataru

(Kawa-chan crosses the road) (intransitive – nothing is being done to the road).

 

かわちゃんはかぎを

Kawa-chan wa michi o watasu

(Kawa-chan hands over the key) (transitive – the key is affected).

 

  • If one of the two verbs ends with “~reru” and the other ends with just “~ru,” the verb ending with just “~ru” is probably the transitive verb.

For example:

かわちゃんの手作り帽子よく売れる

Kawa chan no te zukuri boushi ga yoku ureru

(Kawa-chan’s handmade hats often sell) (intransitive).

 

かわちゃんの手作り帽子よく売る

Kawa chan no te zukuri boushi o yoku uru

([We] often sell Kawa-chan’s handmade hats) (transitive).

 

With this type of partner pair, the “~reru” verb tends to be a Ru Verb, and the “~ru” verb tends to be a U Verb.

  • If one of the two verbs ends with “~aru” and the other ends with “~eru,” the verb ending with “~eru” is probably the transitive verb.

For example:

かわちゃんは色変わる

Kawa chan wa iro ga kawaru (Kawa-chan changes color)

(intransitive, describes Kawa-chan’s color simply changing, with no particular person or thing changing it).

 

かわちゃんは色変える

Kawa chan wa iro o kaeru

(Kawa-chan changes her color) (transitive, Kawa-chan is doing the action of changing her color).

 

With this type of partner pair, the “~aru” verb tends to be an U Verb, and the “~eru” verb tends to be a Ru Verb.

Note:

The consonant in front of the “a” in the “~aru” verb and the consonant in front of the “e” in the “~eru” verb tend to be the same consonant. (For instance, 止まる (tomaru) and 止める (tomeru) both have an “m” before their “a” and “e,” respectively).

Even “kawaru” and “kaeru” follow this rule: “Kaeru” has no consonant before its “e,” and in a way neither does “kawaru.” Remember, in cases where conjugation would cause adjacent “a”s, a “w” will sometimes intervene (for instance, 買う (kau) and its negative conjugation, 買わない (kawanai) – see our Plain Form article here for further explanation).

Unfortunately, there are also transitive/intransitive partner verb pairs whose ending syllables are less revealing. For instance, in pairs where one verb ends with “~ku” and the other ends with “~keru,” the “~keru” verb tends to be the transitive one; but in some pairs it is the intransitive one.

If you are not sure whether a particular verb is part of a partner pair, or if you know it is part of a pair but do not know the ending syllable(s) of its partner verb, it may be best to double-check whether the verb is transitive or intransitive before using it. If you look up your verb in most Japanese-English dictionaries, the entry will tell you which of these two types of verb it is.

Why Is It Important to Know Whether a Verb is Transitive or Intransitive?

Before using a verb, it is important to know whether that verb is transitive or intransitive. There are several reasons for this.

  1. Even verbs that are transitive/intransitive partner pair verbs are not interchangeable.

For example, the following two sentences use the partner pair of verbs 始まる hajimaru ([something] begins, intransitive) and 始める hajimeru (to begin, transitive), and have a difference in meaning:

授業始まる前にトイレに行ってくる。

Jugyou ga hajimaru mae ni toire ni itte kuru

(I will go to the bathroom before class begins).

 

授業始める前にトイレに行ってくる。

Jugyou o hajimeru mae ni toire ni itte kuru

(I will go to the bathroom before I begin class).

 

Aside from the difference in verb between the two sentences, there is also a particle difference. The transitive sentence uses the particle “o” after the word “class,” and the intransitive sentence uses the particle “ga” after the word “class.” This is the second reason that it is important to know whether your verbs are transitive or intransitive: Particle usage.

  1. Intransitive verbs are usually describing something that is happening, and so will have the subject particle “ga.”

Transitive verbs are usually acting directly upon a person or thing, and so will have the object particle “o.”

In the first sentence above, the speaker is describing class starting, but is not doing the action of starting class; and so the particle “ga” comes after “class.” In the second sentence, the speaker is doing the action of starting the class, and so the particle “o” comes after “class.”

Now, generally speaking, your intended meaning (in the case of the sentences above, “I will begin class” vs “Class will begin”) will probably be understood through context. This is regardless of whether you use the transitive or intransitive version of a verb. Also regardless of whether you used the correct particles for that verb (if a student used either “hajimeru” or “hajimaru” in the sentences above, with either “o” or “ga” after “class,”) the assumption would be “When class begins” rather than “When I begin class”).

However, checking whether your verb is transitive or intransitive and using the correct particle(s) is still very important. If you do not make a point of practicing the correct usage and understanding of verbs and particles now, it will hamper your ability to parse complex sentences later in your studies, and may also cause you to become accustomed to using verbs and particles in a way that is incorrect!

  1. The third reason it is important to know whether a verb is transitive or intransitive is that for both types of verbs, conjugating the verb into its “-Te Form + iru” form will cause it to mean “currently in a state of [verb],” but in two different senses.

For example, if we conjugate 勉強する benkyou suru (to study, transitive) into -Te Form and add “iru,” we get 勉強している benkyou shite iru (to [currently] be studying).

However, if we conjugate 行く iku (to go, intransitive) into -Te Form and add “iru,” we get 行っている itte iru (to [currently] be [in a state of] go” (or, in other words, “to be gone”), as opposed to “to be going” in the sense of “to be on the way”).

かわちゃんは図書館勉強している

Kawa chan wa toshokan de benkyou shite iru

(Kawa-chan is studying at the library).

 

かわちゃんは図書館行っている

Kawa chan wa toshokan ni itte iru

(Kawa-chan has gone to the library).

Essentially, transitive verbs in “-Te Form + iru” form describe actions that someone or something is currently doing. Intransitive verbs in “-Te Form + iru” form describe a state in which an action has been done/has happened. Let’s look at one more example:

パン焼いている

Pan o yaite iru

([Someone] is toasting the bread).

 

パン焼けている

Pan ga yakete iru

(The bread is toasted).

The first sentence uses the transitive verb 焼く yaku (to roast/fry/bake) in “-Te Form + iru” form (with the particle “o”) to say “currently doing the action of toasting.” The second sentence uses the intransitive verb 焼ける yakeru (to be/get roasted/fried/baked) in “-Te Form + iru” form (with the particle “ga”) to say “currently in a state of toast,” i.e. the bread is currently in a state in which toasting occurred.

That’s all on transitive and intransitive verbs for now!

Do you have any additional questions about the ways in which Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs are used? Leave us a comment, and we’ll leave you an answer!

And, if there are particular verbs that you wish we had discussed in this article, let us know and we will try to include information on those verbs in future content!

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