Most verbs are usually either transitive or intransitive. Transitivity is a concept that helps explain what does what, what does what to whom, and similar questions related to action or state.
The Japanese terms for transitive verbs (他動詞) and intransitive verbs (自動詞) are defined below. As transitivity classifications don't always match with their English equivalent, the Japanese terms will be preferred in this discussion.
|他動詞||An action done by "someone/thing" on something or someone else (direct object).|
|自動詞||An action or state that has no active agent and no direct object.|
Definition Note: An "agent" in grammar is, simply put, the "doer" of an action. However, just because a verb has "no active agent," this doesn't mean that the verb has "no agent" at all. There are some verbs like 暮らす which do have an agent, but the agent is "non-active". After all, "people" do "live" out their lives. However, "living" is not the same thing as "cooking a meal" or "driving a car." As opposed to having a non-active agent, "cooking" and "driving" have active agents acting upon a direct object.
As alluded to above, some verbs don't have the same transitivity as their English equivalents. For example, 分かる (to understand) and 要る (to need) are intransitive in Japanese even though their English equivalents are transitive verbs. The reason for these discrepancies is that the two languages describe things from different angles in these instances. More will be discussed about this later.
Rules of Thumb
を with 他動詞 always marks the direct object of a sentence. If it is used with a 自動詞, it essentially means "through".
1. パソコンを捨てる。 (捨てる ＝ 他動詞)
To throw away a PC.
2. 道を歩く。 歩く ＝ 自動詞
To walk through the street.
If you don't see を and the subject is marked with が, it is often safe to assume that the verb is a 自動詞. However, the direct object could be dropped. So, you must take that into consideration. Is it logical for the verb in question to have a direct object?
3. 鳥が歌っている。 (歌う ＝ 他動詞)
The bird is singing.
Transitivity Note: 歌う is a transitive verb because birds sing songs. There is intrinsically always a direct object implied.
4. 車が停まった。 (停まる ＝ 自動詞)
The car stopped.
There are upwards of 300 of these verb pairs in Japanese. Most fit nicely into four broad categories with various sub-types. Derivation becomes convoluted very quickly, however. Morphology doesn't always make a language easier. It just explains where things come from and why. As you go through the types of transitivity verb pairs, don't feel that you must memorize every detail being shown. After all, not even the best Japanese scholars have this completely figured out.
Type 1: ある and おる = Intransitive
About a fourth of pairs have an intransitive pair with an r or y suffix usually preceded by either the vowel /a/ or /o/ to the root of a verb (except for Type 1d below). The transitive form may end in -u, -eru, or -ru based on type. The sub-types will be listed by frequency. Frequency here is not frequency in type 1 alone but for ALL verb pairs of all types.
|a||~20%||√ -(w)ar-u||上がる (to rise)||√-Ø-eru||上げる (to raise)|
|b||~3%||√-ar-u||塞がる||√-Ø-u||塞（ふさ）ぐ (to block)|
|c||~1%||√-(w)ar-eru||分かれる (to divide/branch)||√-Ø-eru||分ける (to split)|
|d||~.70%||√-[y]-eru||見える (to be in sight)||√-Ø-ru||見る (to see)|
|e||~.33%||√-o[y]-eru||聞こえる (to be heard)||√-Ø-u||聞く (to hear)|
|f||~.33%||√-or-u|| 積もる (to pile)||√-Ø-u||積む (to pile)|
|g||~.33%||√-or-eru|| 埋もれる (to be covered)||√-Ø-eru||埋める (to bury/cover)|
Chart Note: Ø is used here to stand for "nothing" that takes the place for where a morpheme (meaning component) would otherwise be located to indicate transitivity explicitly.
Even though there are seven sub-types, many patterns can be observed. The /ar-/ and /or-/ you see actually relate to the verbs ある and おる.The [y] in parentheses is actually silent and is etymologically the same as the /r/ in these derivations.
Type 2: S = Transitive
These verbs all have a transitive form with a stem that ends in s. What else makes up the stem or what follows varies, but this characterizes 30% of all pairs in Japanese. Frequency, again, refers to frequency among all verb pairs.
|a||~14%||√-Ø-eru|| 冷える (to get chilly)||√-(y)as-u||冷やす (to chill)|
|b||~10%||√-Ø-u|| 散る (to scatter)||√-(w)as-u||散らす (to scatter)|
|c||~2%||√-Ø-iru|| 干る (to dry up)||√-os-u|| 干す (to dry)|
|d||~1.3%||√-Ø-iru||生きる (to live)||√-as-u||生かす (to keep alive)|
|e||~1%||√-Ø-ru||着る* (to wear)||√-s-eru||着せる (to clothe)|
|f||~.70%||√-Ø-eru|| 膨れる (to swell)||√-as-eru||膨らせる (to swell)|
|g||~.33%||√-Ø-u|| 及ぶ (to extend)||√-os-u||及ぼす (to affect)|
|h||~.33%||√-Ø-iru|| 綻びる (to come apart)||√-as-eru||綻ばせる (to break into)|
|i||~.33%||√-Ø-iru|| 尽きる (to run out)||√-us-u||尽くす (to exhaust)|
*: Although it is technically transitive, its meaning is more like an intransitive verb and this is important for other uses of the verb.
Word Note: 綻ばせる is "to break into" as in "to break into a smile.
Type 3: Once the Same Long Ago
Type 2 and Type 3 are extremely similar. Put together, they indicate that at one point, many transitivity verb pairs probably derived from a single verb which could function as either an intransitive or a transitive verb. This would be just how most English verbs work. As for Type 3, its verbs have morphemes expressed after the root indicating transitivity. Unsurprisingly, the "r/y-s" pattern is used for this.
|a||~8%||√-r-u|| 余る (to be plenty)||√-s-u||余す (to spare over)|
|b||s ~6%||√-r-eru|| 現れる (to appear)||√-s-u||現す (to show/appear)|
|c||r ~1%||√-r-u||乗る (to ride)||√-s-eru||乗せる (to pick up)|
|d||u ~.70%||√-[y]-eru|| 越える (to go over)|| √-s-u||越す (to go over)|
|e||t ~.33%||√-r-iru|| 足りる (to suffice)||√-s-u||足す (to add)|
Type 4: Change in Verb Class
For the above types, a morpheme of some sort is used to go from one transitivity to another. Adding a morpheme to the root of the verb frequently results in a verb that's in a different verb class than its counterpart. For instance, 上がる is a 五段 verb and 上げる is an 一段 verb. The addition of "-ar" to the root of these verbs "ag-" was all that was needed to cause this difference.
For the remaining 25% of verbs, change in verb class alone is what's responsible for transitivity change. Nothing is added to the roots of these verbs to change transitivity. In times past, the basic verb form for these verb pairs looked identical. The only distinguishing aspect they had was having different conjugations. This indicates that these verbs may be remnants of a far older process to derive transitivity pairs. Ironically, however, this type of verb pairs is split into two polar opposite sub-types. This is where memorization becomes especially important.
|a||~16%||√-Ø-u|| 開く (to open)||√-Ø-eru||開ける (to open)|
|b||~10%||√-Ø-eru|| 割れる (to crack)||√-Ø-u||割る (to crack)|
Exceptions Note: There are several exceptions that are important to learn. Those will be found as examples in this lesson.
Sometimes knowing which verb form to use is not easy. For instance, suppose you have a cat named ニャ子ちゃん. To tell her to hide because a dog is coming, you would say かくれて, not かくして. This is because there is only an implied subject (the cat) and an action (hiding). There is no direct object. Had you wanted to say "hide yourself", you would use the transitive form かくす and get 身をかくして.
The chart below has a handful of the most important pairs for you to learn.
|To break||壊す||To be broken||壊れる||To open||開ける||To open||開く|
|To raise|| 育てる|| To be raised|| 育つ||To close||閉める||To close||閉まる|
|To put out||消す||To disappear||消える||To flow||流す||To flow||流れる|
|To drop||落とす||To fall||落ちる||To stand||立てる||To stand||立つ|
|To stop||止める||To stop||止まる||To change||変える||To change||変わる|
|To start/begin||始める||To begin||始まる||To reveal||現す||To appear||現れる|
|To add||加える||To take part/join||加わる||To (a)wake|| 覚ます ||To wake up||覚める|
|To leave||残す||To remain||残る||To rotate||回す||To rotate||回る|
1. 開く read as あく is an intransitive verb.
2. 開ける read as あける is only transitive and is used to open many things. There are also other spellings of this verb depending on usage. When read as ひらける, it is a more literary, intransitive verb for enlightenment, development, and things being opened up. For instance, you can say 目の前に海がひらけた (the sea opened up in front of our eyes) and 文明がひらけた (civilization has developed).
1. 消える may also mean "to fade", "to go off/out", "to pass", "to vanish", etc. 消す may also mean "to turn off", "to remove", "to erase", "to vanish", "to extinguish", etc.
2. Etymologically, 立つ and 立てる are the same words as 建つ (to be built) and 建てる (to build) respectively. Translation of たつ and たてる, which have other spellings depending on usage, varies. However, you should get the theme of what they mean.
3. 止める read as とめる means "stop" as in "to halt". It can be spelled as 停める (to halt a vehicle), 留める (to restrain; to hold (custody); to leave an impression), and 泊める (to accommodate/lodge). When read as やめる, it means "stop" as in stopping a condition/action. It can be spelled as 辞める (to quit a job). The intransitive form of やめる is やむ.
Spelling Note: Many of these words have additional meanings and additional spellings. Knowing each and every meaning of these verb pairs and the spellings to go with them is too overwhelming for now.
The car suddenly stopped.
漢字 Note: 停まる ＝ 止まる. The first is more indicative of a temporary stop.
My younger brother broke the camera.
My new camera broke.
The river is flowing into the lake.
You didn't stop a taxi?
I opened the door.
The automatic door opened.
When will it start?
I don't know if [his/her] mind changed.
My little sister turned on the TV.
The TV came on.
To shed tears.
The ground was dyed with blood.
To start one's homework.
I turned off the lights.
The lights [turned/went] off.
To change topics.
23. 彼は腹が立った。(Set Phrase)
He got angry.
There are rose bushes planted.
I planted a rose bush.
Usage Note: Sometimes a certain verb in a transitivity pair will not be frequently used. For instance, some speakers hardly ever use 植わる.
The following sentences will have you choose one of two options. Use additional information and the contents of the lesson to help you choose the right answer.
1. オレンジが（落ちる・落とす）。 Drop
2. 図書館の前に人が（並ぶ・並べる）。 Line up
3. 日時を（決まる・決める）。 Decide
4. 枝を（折れる・折る）。 Bend
5. 勉強を（続く・続ける）。 Continue
6. 草を（燃える・燃やす）。 Burn
7. 週末を（過ぎる・過ごす）。 Spend
8. 猫を（助かる・助ける）。 Save
9. 木が（倒れる・倒す）。 Fall down
10. 仕事が（増える・増やす）。 Increase
11. 数が（減る・減らす）。 Decrease
12. 子どもを（育つ・育てる）。 Raise
13. トイレを（流れる・流す）。 Flush
14. 角を左に（曲がる・曲げる）。 Turn
15. ひげを（伸びる・伸ばす）。 Grow long
Curriculum Note: Later on in a series of lessons, we will learn about verbs that do not change depending on transitivity. These verbs must be looked at on an individual basis, but because they each require a considerable amount of attention due to their complexity, this will conclude our studies of transitivity for now.