JLPT BC 41 | Transitive vs. Intransitive Japanese Verbs

transitive and intransitive Japanese verbsThe anticipation is starting to mount for those July test results. We are only about 3 or 4 weeks away from hearing back about our test results. The tension is starting to really get to me. I hope the weeks fly by between now and then.

I did get a new computer to tide me over in the meantime. I hope to do some more video editing and just doing videos in general because I can do it a lot faster than before. I’ll finally be retiring the dinosaur after 7 years of service.

Anyway, let’s get into the meat of it.

Japanese Parts of Speech

Ok, so just reading that title is enough to do induce insomnia, but bear with me. Before you get the pillows out for a snooze, there are some important things to be aware of about parts of speech that caught me off guard when I was studying Japanese.

In most languages, there are a standard set of parts of speech, noun, verb, adverb, etc… The same holds true for Japanese, but they are generally used a little differently. One example of this is transitive and intransitive verbs.

If you remember what your high school teacher taught you, you’ll remember that intransitive verbs don’t take an object and transitive verbs take an object. So for example, in the sentence “I ate the apple.” ‘eat’ is a transitive verb. You are eating an object (the apple). And in the sentence “I arrived at the station.” ‘arrive’ is an intransitive verb. You can’t say ‘I arrived the station.’

Ok, got all that?

What is Unique about Japanese Transitive and Intransitive verbs

In English, we can often use the same verb transitively and intransitively. For example, ‘I dried the shirt’ (transitive) and ‘My shirt dried.’ (intransitive). This makes life pretty easy in English.

However, in Japanese, life isn’t so easy. You see in Japanese, transitive and intransitive verbs are often two different verbs that have similar definitions. This makes it rather confusing when you go to practice vocabulary. Let’s look at a classic example that I always get hung up on: 乾く and 乾かす as in:

私はシャツを乾かした。[I dried my shirt (with a blow dryer)]

シャツが乾いた。 [My shirt dried (by itself)]

Now, both of these words have very similar definitions. Quoting the WWWJDIC, we have 乾く meaning ‘to get dry’ and 乾かす meaning ‘to dry (clothes, etc.), to desiccate’. To me at least, the difference between the two isn’t immediately apparent.

How can you Apply this to your Studying?

First of all, there are no standard rules for forming transitive and intransitive verbs. You can tell if a verb is transitive or intransitive just by looking at it. This makes it all the more difficult to practice and remember these words.

So, if you encounter a new word that has a similar meaning to a word that you have learned before, but is spelled slightly differently, you should look it up in the dictionary to check whether it is transitive or intransitive. They will usually have the same kanji, but have an extra mora or kana added on.

In a Japanese dictionary meant for learner’s of Japanese, like WWWJDIC, transitive and intransitive verbs are usually marked with the codes vt and vi, respectively. In a ‘real’ Japanese dictionary, transitive and intransitive verbs are labeled 他 short for 他動詞 (tadoushi) and 自 short for 自動詞 (jidoushi) respectively.

Often times, flashcards don’t have parts of speech on them, which in my opinion is a real shame. So, if your cards real or digital lack parts of speech, it might pay off to at least label the transitive and intransitive verbs in your deck.

This kind of thing typically comes up on the test in the vocab usage sections as well as in the grammar section, so it does pay off to make absolutely sure that you can clearly tell the difference between these two types of verbs.

So, don’t be fooled by transitive and intransitive verbs, put this stuff to work on your flashcards today.

P.S. Can you not get enough transitive and intransitive verbs in your life? Fabulous! Join my newsletter for more tips and special deals not shared on the blog.

P.S.S. Do you, now, have no problems with transitive and intransitive verbs? Great go tell iTunes about it.  Or if you have comments or suggestions for the podcast, by all means let me know in the comments below or contact me and let me know what I can do to improve the show.  Thanks!

Music by Kevin MacLeod

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Tim August 20, 2011, 6:45 am

    Important to remember!

    However, your explanation of transitive and intransitive verbs in English was a bit confusing. You can’t use the same verb either way; the order of the object-verb relationship doesn’t change what sort of verb is being used.

    Either a verb is transitive or intransitive (or both, incidentally); preposition use makes no difference, as the verb is defined by its object relationship. “To arrive” is indeed intransitive; just not for the reason that you listed. 🙂

    A better example would be something like “to take”, which is transitive: it requires a direct object. You can’t say, “I took,” as it makes no sense. On the other hand, “to eat” is actually intransitive: it doesn’t require a direct object. You can simply say, “I ate.” If you say, “I ate an apple,” it is still intransitive; you’ve just optionally put in an object for clarification (since who wouldn’t want to know just what it is that you ate?). Even saying, “An apple was eaten,” is intransitive; just in a different form and tense (passive past).

    Whether a verb requires a direct object or not determines, in English, what type of verb it is; not the current sentence it is being used in.

    But the fact does remain that in Japanese it helps to recognise the difference between the two types of verbs when you are learning them. When they are different in Japanese, they may well be the same (either transitive or intransitive) in English – and vice versa.

    A fine example of this are the verbs 起こす and 起きる. In English, the verb “to wake up” is intransitive: “I woke up”. The transitive form excludes the word “up”, as in “to wake”, and is a caused or causing event. To change the intransitive “to wake up” to a caused event, we change the tense: “I was woken up (by my mother).”

    “I woke him (from his slumber)” and “I woke him up (at 8am)” are both acceptable forms; it’s just that the former is transitive and the latter is intransitive.

    To wake (eg. “I woke with a start.”); to wake up (“I woke up late this morning.”); and to awaken (“I awoke to sunlight streaming in through the window.”): these are all acceptable forms with the same meaning. English is interesting (but so is Japanese!).

    It also goes to show just how incredibly differently Japanese language speakers think from us! We are constantly reminded of this as we learn the language.

  • spring October 19, 2014, 11:40 am

    what is the best strategy to learn transitive-intransitive pairs? Should I start from transitive verb and try to memorize corresponding intransitive verb?

    • Clayton MacKnight October 20, 2014, 2:47 pm

      Well, some people learn them that way because I lot of times they are related. And you also want to kind of build a link between them in your head. I would not recommend learning a lot of these pairs all at once though. That could lead to a lot of confusion and just be plain boring. 🙂

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