Friday, August 30, 2019

Ergative Verb Pairs

Among verb types, an ergative verb pair refers to an intransitive-transitive verb pair, where the subject of the intransitive is the object of the transitive, and the transitive expresses the causation of the intransitive event. Although there are some exceptions, like ditransitive verbs.

For example: ageru 上げる, "to raise," and agaru 上がる, "to rise," form an ergative verb pair both in English and in Japanese. If "you raise something" (object), you cause: "something rises." (subject)

Ergative Alternation

Ergative verb pairs generally feature ergative alternation: the process, and the ability, to switch from the intransitive verb to the transitive counterpart and vice-versa. Observe:

  • Tarou ga nan'ido wo ageru
    Tarou raises the level-of-difficulty.
  • nan'i-do ga agaru
    The level-of-difficulty rises.

Above, we have the ergative verb pair ageru-agaru.

Observe that, in both sentences, the following event happens: "the level-of-difficulty rises," however, in the transitive sentence, Tarou causes it to happen, while in the intransitive sentence, there's no overt causer.

This means the intransitive sentence can mean two things:

  1. There's no causer at all.
    The level-of-difficulty rose on its own, spontaneously. Nothing caused it to rise. It felt like rising, and then it rose.
  2. There's an implicit causer.
    Tarou causes the level-of-difficulty to rise, thus: the level-of-difficulty rises. Even if we don't explicitly say who caused it, there's the possibility that someone did cause it, and it didn't just happen spontaneously.

In Japanese, the subject and the object are marked by the ga が particle and the wo を particle respectively. These are case-marking particles. The subject is the nominative case, while the object is the accusative case.

Consequently, with few exceptions, like exchange verbs that we'll see later, most ergative verb pairs can be alternated between each other like this:

  • CauserがDoerをTransitive Verb.
  • DoerがIntransitive Verb.

There's a few things worth noting about terminology, because it's kind of confusing.

First, the transitive verb "causes" stuff to happen, so we have a causative sentence, however, the verb isn't conjugated to the causative form. That means it's a lexical causative verb, which is causative even without being in the causative form.

In the sentences above, level-of-difficulty undergoes the "rising" process in both sentences. This means its the "patient" in both sentences. An intransitive verb whose subject is a patient is called an unaccusative verb.

In English and some other languages, only unaccusative verbs feature ergative alternation. Intransitive verbs whose subjects aren't patients, whose subjects are agents, are called "unergative verbs," as they couldn't participate in ergative alternation.

Unfortunately, some verbs that would be called unergative, like "to cry," naku 泣く, do have causative counterparts in Japanese: nakasu 泣かす, "to cause someone to cry."

According to Perlmutter (1978:162), unergatives seem "to correspond closely to the traditional notion of active or activity." Roughly speaking, an unergative is an action that the subject voluntarily does, while an unaccusative is a process that "can" happen regardless of the subject's volition. The level-of-difficulty rises whether it wants to or not. The causer has the volition then, not the patient. The problem is: Perlmutter goes to list "certain involuntary bodily processes" that are unergative. Among those, there is "to cry." Of course, you can cry on purpose if you want, if you're an actor, acting, for a sad scene, but generally you cry without wanting to, and something or someone "causes" you to cry. I guess that's the aspect where the English and the Japanese grammar for the verb for "to cry" became split into "is unergative" and "is an ergative pair member."

Anyway, the point is: intransitive verbs aren't always unaccusative verbs, and the intransitive subjects aren't always patients. So I can't just call it "the patient" all the time.

For the sake of convenience, I'll just call the subject of the intransitive verb the "doer" from now on.


English has more ergative verbs than ergative verb pairs, consequently, it's often the case that an ergative verb pair in Japanese will translate to a single ergative verb in English.

For example: kawaru 変わる and kaeru 変える both translate to "to change."

  • sekai ga kawaru
    The world changes.
  • sekai wo kaeru
    To change the world.

Japanese does have some lone ergative verbs, too. For example: hiraku 開く can be either causative or unaccusative depending on whether there's something marked with the accusative case or not.(Lam, 2006:265)

  • Tarou ga tobira wo hiraku
    Tarou opens the door.
  • tobira ga hiraku
    The door opens.

Not all Japanese ergative verb pairs translate neatly to a single English verb. Many pairs translate to different verbs or even verb phrases.

  • ito wo kiru
    To cut a string.
  • ito ga kireru
    The string becomes cut.
    The string gets cut.
  • neko ga hako ni hairu
    The cat enters in the box.
  • Hanako ga neko wo hako ni ireru
    *Hanako "enters" the cat in the box.
    Hanako puts the cat in the box.
*「ネルソンさんを仲間にくわえるのね。わかったわ。 ネルソンが仲間にくわわった! なかまをよびだす なかまをあずける めいぼをみる やめる
Game: Dragon Quest III, Doragon Kuesto Surii ドラゴンクエストIII
  • *"Neruson-san wo nakama ni
    kuwaeru no ne. wakatta wa.

    *「ネルソンさんを 仲間に
    *"Add Nelson to your party, [right]? [I got it.]
  • neruson ga nakama ni kuwawatta!
    Nelson was added to the party!

Some verbs are polysemous: they have multiple meanings, and only one of those meanings is ergative.

For example, you can say: "Hanako enters the cat into the competition," because that meaning of enter isn't of physical movement, but of entering information into a form.


  • Hanako ga neko wo hako kara dasu
    Hanako takes the cat out of the box.
  • neko ga hako kara deru
    The cat gets out of the box.
  • neko ga hako wo deru
    The cat leaves the box.
    The cat exits the box.

The verb deru is polysemous. It can be the unaccusative counterpart of dasu, or it can be a transitive verb (wo deru). Both usages mean practically the same thing. However, the unaccusative means the doer is the patient, while the transitive means the doer is the agent.

By being the agent, the doer must have agency, control over the action. That is, it's leaving the place out of their own accord. In practice, this means an inanimate doer (like blood), wouldn't take wo を with the verb deru 出る, as it will imply blood can leave places on its own.

  • chi ga atama kara dete-iru
    Blood is getting out of [his] head.
    [He] is bleeding out of [his] head.
  • chi ga atama wo dete-iru
    Blood is exiting [his] head. (is this Hataraku Saibou?)

Like the "bleeding" translation above, sometimes you also have to deal with sentences meaning special things under certain circumstances.

For example, the ergative pair for "fell on the ground" can also mean "to be defeated," just like in a fight when someone falls on the ground it's because they've been defeated.

  • ki ga taoreta
    The tree fell-on-the-ground.
  • taifuu ga ki wo taoshita
    The typhoon made the tree fall-on-the-ground.
  • yuusha ga maou wo taoshita
    The hero makes the demon-king fall-on-the-ground.
    The hero defeats the demon-king.
  • maou ga taoreta
    The demon-king fell-on-the-ground.
    The demon-king was defeated.

Of course, the first examples could also mean the typhoon wrestled a tree and karate'd it to the ground, but that's probably not the case.

Some ergative pairs overlap with each other when one verb has two meanings, and each meaning is associated with a verb of another pair. For example:

  • ito wo tsunageru
    To connect the string.
    To tie the string.
  • ito ga tsunagaru
    The string gets connected.
    The string gets tied.
  • hito to hito wo tsunagu
    To connect people with people.
  • hito ga hito to tsunagaru
    People are connected with people.

Above, the verbs tsunageru and tsunagu share a common intransitive: tsunagaru. The difference between the causatives is that tsunageru is generally used with the meaning of "to tie" something up, rather than "to connect."

Here's another very, very intriguing example, that touches the deeper philosophical side of linguistics:

  • pantsu wo miru
    To see panties.
  • pantsu ga mieru
    Panties can be seen.
  • pantsu wo miseru
    To show panties.

Above, mieru, a verb regarding the visibility state of the doer, pantsu, forms ergative pairs with both miseru and miru.

It pairs with miseru because, if you show something, you cause it to become visible. It also pairs with miru, because visibility is subjective: something isn't visible (to you) unless you're actually looking at it. In other words: looking at it causes it to become visible.

Similarly, kikoeru 聞こえる, "to be heard," forms ergative pairs with both kiku 聞く, "to hear," and kikasu 聞かす, "to make hear."

Perfect and Progressive

When conjugated to the te-iru form, the verbs of a ergative verb pair tend to behave differently: the intransitive verb has a perfect meaning while the transitive verb has a progressive meaning.(Matsuzaki, 2001:145-146, citing Kindaichi 1950, Yoshikawa 1976, Okuda 1978b, Jacobsen 1982a, 1992, Takezawa 1991, Tsujimura 1996, Ogihara 1998, Shirai 1998, 2000)

This means when te-iru is used with an unaccusative, for example, it means the event already happened, and it has already changed into that state, but with te-iru, it means the action is still going on. Observe:

  • kabin ga kowarete-iru
    The flower-vase is broken.
  • kabin wo kowashite-iru
    To be breaking flower-vases.

With the unaccusative kowareru, the sentence means the vase broke-and-exists. That is, after it broke, it continued existing in its broken state. With kowashite-iru, however, it means someone exists breaking vases. They "are" breaking them, they were and still are breaking them.

Since this difference in meaning exists, you normally wouldn't alternate a sentence from the ergative-intransitive to the ergative-transitive if they were in te-iru form. However, it does help understand how certain te-iru sentences work.

For example, observe the following ergative pair:

  • saru ga ki kara ochiru
    The monkey falls from the tree.
  • Hanako ga saru wo ki kara otosu
    *Hanako "falls" the monkey from the tree.
    Hanako makes the monkey to fall from a tree.
    Hanako drops the monkey from a tree.

If we were to assume that te-iru simply always means "-ing" in English, we would be very disappointed. That's because ochite-iru doesn't mean "falling" as we would expect.

  • gomi ga ochite-iru
    Your waifu, err...
    Trash is fallen.
    Trash is lying on the ground.
    Trash has been dropped on the ground.

The sentence above is perfect, in the sense that ochiru already happened, it's in the past, the action has been perfected already. So it can't mean "to be falling."

In order to say that something "is falling," you'd have to use the auxiliary verbs iku 行く, "to go," and kuru 来る, "to come," instead of the auxiliary verb iru いる, "to exist."

  • {sora kara ochite-iku} yume
    A dream [in which] {[you're] falling from the sky}.
  • {sora kara ochite-kuru} onna no ko
    An girl [who] {is falling from the sky}

The difference between the two sentences above is that ochite-iku means "to go falling," in the sense of going away from where you are. If you're in an airplane and someone jumps from it, they ochite-iku.

On the other hand, if you're on the ground, and someone is falling from the sky, they're "coming," kite-iru 来ている, toward you, so they're ochite-kuru. That's how it went in Laputa, at least.


There are various types of ergative verb pairs that can be observed in Japanese.


The most basic ergative type is change-of-state. An unaccusative verb expresses how a patient ended up, and a causative verb expresses a causer changed the patient to that state.

  • Tarou ga kabin wo kowasu
    Tarou breaks the flower-case.
  • kabin ga kowareru
    The flower-vase breaks.
  • Tarou ga kabin wo kowashita
    Tarou broke the vase.
  • kabin ga kowareta
    The vase broke.

As mentioned previously, the intransitive verb allows the possibility that the flower-vase broke spontaneously, without a causer.

Due to this, change-of-state unaccusatives are also called inchoative verbs, in the sense that the doer begins an action on its own. The causative verb in this case is called an inchoative-causative verb. And the alternation inchoative-causative alternation.(Piñón, C., 2001, p. 346)

Of course, this is just a general rule. In practice, it's hard to imagine a situation where a vase just breaks on its own accord without a cause for it to break or a causer breaking it into pieces.(Levin and Rappaport Hovav, 1995:93, as cited in Matsuzaki, 2001:22)


Verbs of change-of-state can often translate to "become" or "gets."

  • karada wo atatameru
    To warm up [your] body.
  • karada ga atatamaru
    The body warms up.
    The body becomes warmed up.
    The body gets warmed up.

There are four classes of unaccusative verbs: change-of-state, appearance, existence, and inherently directed motion. Among these, only change-of-state verbs and maybe appearance can be ergative in English, while in Japanese all four classes feature ergative pairs.(Volpe, 2001:14-15.)

An ergative verb pair describing the appearance of things would be about how they look, smell, sound, etc.

  • eizou ga gamen ni arawareru
    The image appears on the screen.
  • puroguramaa ga gamen ni eizou wo arawasu
    *The programmer "appears" the image on screen.
    The programmer makes an image to appear on screen.

In English you can say you "appear happy," but that's how you look, smiling, and so on. It doesn't mean the same thing as "I made happy appear," so it isn't ergative.


An existence unaccusative verb would be one that tells "there is" something somewhere somehow. Observe:

  • ichi-oku-en ga ginkou kouza ni nokoru
    One million yen remain in the bank account.
    There is one million yen left in the bank account.
  • otousan ga ginkou kouza ni ichi-oku-en wo nokosu
    *[My] father "remained" one million yen in the bank account.
    [My] father caused one million yen to remain in the bank account.
    [My] father left one million yen in the bank account.

You can't use "remained one million yen" in English like the way above. Ironically, if you said "one million yen left the bank account," it means they aren't in the bank account any longer. Therefore, neither English verb is ergative.

Inherently Directed Motion

Unaccusative verbs about something moving toward a given direction can have causative counterparts where a causer causes the causee to move toward that direction.

  • fune ga Hakata-futou ni tsuku
    The ship arrives at Hakata port.
  • senchou ga Hakata-funou ni fune wo tsukeru
    *The captain "arrives" the ship at the Hakata port.
    The captain makes the ship arrive at the Hakata port.

An interesting thing is that tsuku 着く, "to arrive" is actually an interpretation of tsuku つく, "to be attached to." Thus the pair "arrive" and "to make arrive" also means "to be attached" and "to attach." The complexity of the English translation switches around depending on the meaning.

  • ribon wo kami ni tsukeru
    To attach a ribbon on [your] hair.
    To wear a ribbon on [your] hair.
  • ribon ga kami ni tsuku
    The ribbon is attached to the hair.
    The ribbon is worn on the hair.

This verb is also used with the infamous ki 気 word to form an ergative pair of idioms:

  • ki ga tsuku
    To notice. To realize.
  • ki wo tsukeru
    To be careful. To pay attention.

The idioms above hint that ki 気 refers to your attention to things. The causative causes the attention to attach to things, in other words, you're deliberately trying to pay attention to your surroundings, to be careful. The unaccusative says you perceived something without trying to, you just noticed it.


The lexical causative verbs are often about causing something to happen, and sometimes that translates to English as just "make."

  • nanika ga okiru
    Something will happen.
  • nanika wo okosu
    To make something happen.
  • uchi no musume ga naite-iru
    My daughter is crying.
    • naku - to cry.
  • {uchi no musume wo nakashita} yatsu wa yurusanai!
    [I] won't forgive the guy [that] {made my daughter cry}!
    • nakasu - to make cry.

It just happens that English has a verb for it sometimes:

  • sekai ga moto ni modoru
    The world returns to what-it-was-before.
  • sekai wo moto ni modosu
    To make the world return to what-it-was-before.
    To return the world to what-it-was-before.
  • moji ga kieru
    The letters disappear.
  • keshi-gomu ga moji wo kesu
    *The eraser "disappears" the letters.
    The eraser makes the letters to disappear.
    The eraser erases the letters.
    • keshi-gomu - literally "rubber that makes [stuff] disappear," an eraser.
  • ishi ga narande-iru
    The stones are forming a line.
    • narabu - base form.
  • ishi wo narabete-iru
    To be causing the stones to form a line.
    To be arranging the stones into a line.
    • naraberu - base form.


A lexical causative verb can mean a permission (permissive causative) in some cases. This works under the same principle as other causative sentences: the causer inherently prohibits something to happen, and agency is necessary to allow it to happen.

For example, observe the causation below:

  • men ga nobiru
    The noodles elongate.
    The noodles grow longer.
  • men wo nobasu
    To elongate the noodles.
    To make the noodles longer.

Above, we're making ramen, or something like that, and we're preparing the noodles and making them longer, pulling them, stretching them with your hands and so on.

By contrast, we have this permission:

  • kami ga nobiru
    The hair elongates.
    The hair grows longer.
  • kami wo nobasu
    To make your hair grow longer. (unlikely.)
    To let your hair grow longer.

Your hair grows, and, normally, you cut your hair, so it doesn't grow too long. In other words, to let your hair grow means to not cut it. Inherently, you cut it, prohibiting the hair to grow, and by not doing that, you allow it grow, you cause it to grow.

Naturally, it could also mean "to make" your hair grow longer. But how are you going to do that? You can't just... pull your hair and it just keeps coming out of your head, it doesn't work like that. Similarly:

  • se ga nobiru
    The back grows longer.
    To grow taller.
    • se ga takai
      The back is high.
      To be tall.
  • se wo nobasu
    To make the back grow longer.
    To make [yourself] grow taller.
    • Edward Elric's greatest dream.

Another example:

  • shuujin ga nigeru
    The prisoner escapes.
  • shuujin wo nigasu
    To let the prisoner escape.
  • chansu wo nogasu
    To let a chance escape.

Above, a prisoner is escaping. Since they're a prisoner, it makes sense that you're supposed to be catching that prisoner. By not catching him, you're letting him escape.

Note that nigasu and nogasu mean slightly different things. The verb nigasu means someone is escaping and you fail to stop them, though it could also mean to release something or someone you've already captured. The verb nogasu means you fail to catch something that wasn't escaping in first place, and you just missed it.


There are a few verbs of exchange that form ergative verb pairs but that work differently from other ergative verb pairs.

Exchange means there's a sender, an object sent (package), and a receiver. That means the causative verb is a ditransitive verb: it has a subject, a direct object, an indirect object. Consequently, we end up with a system like his:

  • SenderがReceiverにPackageをSending Verb
  • ReceiverがSenderからPackageをReceiving Verb.

To understand this better, let's see a few examples:

  • seito ga sensei kara suugaku wo osowaru
    The students learn math from the teacher.
    The students are taught math by the teacher.
  • sensei ga seito ni suugaku wo oshieru
    The teacher causes: the students learn math.
    The teacher teaches students math.
  • Tarou ga Hanako kara okane wo kariru
    Tarou borrows money from Hanako.
    Tarou is loaned money by Hanako.
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni okane wo kasu
    Hanako allows: Tarou borrows money.
    Hanako lends money to Tarou.

As you can see, these are completely different from tall the ergative pairs we've seen so far in this article. Which rises the question: are these even ergative pairs? And if so, what makes them ergative verbs?

The reason why these verbs are considered ergative pairs is because one verb's existence blocks the counterpart's causativization or passivization.

That is, since a lexical causative verb like dasu 出す, "to put out," exists, you don't normally conjugate deru 出る, "leave," to its causative form, desaseru 出させる, "to make leave," because you can just use dasu instead.

Similarly, you don't use osowaraseru 教わらせる, "to make learn," because you can use oshieru 教える, "to teach," "to inform," "to tell (some information)."

And you don't use kariraseru 借りらせる, "to cause to borrow," "to let borrow," because you can use kasu 貸す, "to lend," instead.

Note that this last pair is so different from each other that even the kanji is different. In spite of that, it still forms an ergative verb pair.

The same principle applies to the verbs korosu 殺す, "to kill," and shinu 死ぬ, "to die." Since "to kill someone" means "to cause someone to die," they form an ergative pair. The causative form shinaseru 死なせる can still be used, but only in the permissive meaning: "to let someone die.""

  • Tarou ga shinde-iru
    *Tarou is dying. (no.)
    Tarou is dead. (yes.)
    • Like intransitives of other ergative verb pairs, shinde-iru has a perfect meaning: you died, and then you stay like that, dead.


Some ergative verb pairs clearly share something with each other, but have discrepant meanings and thus can't actually participate in ergative alternation. For example:(Matsuzaki, 2001:122-125)

  • Tarou ga suupu ni shio wo tasu
    Tarou added salt to the soup.
  • *suupu ni shio ga tariru
    The salt suffices to the soup. (wrong.)

Above, the verbs tasu 足す, "to add," and tariru 足りる, "to suffice," clearly share something in their meanings: if something doesn't suffice, you keep adding more of it, until it suffices.

However, there's a discrepancy between how the verbs are used in Japanese, and that discrepancy doesn't allow the doer "salt" to alternate between verbs


It's worth noting that, with suru-verbs, ergative alternation would happen with the causative form of the light verb suru する, "to do," saseru させる, "to cause to do."

This doesn't count as a "verb pair" because it's still the same verb, it's just that you conjugated it to the causative form, but I'm including it here for the sake of completeness:

  • yuusha ga sekika suru
    The hero petrifies.
    The hero becomes petrified.
  • Medwuusa ga yuusha wo sekika saseru
    Medusa petrifies the hero.

Observe how, in causative sentences with verbs of change-of-state, we have practically the same thing as ergative alternation: the patient (yuusha) is marked by ga が in the unaccusative, then by wo を in the causative.


The last pair type worth noting is naru なる and suru する. This isn't really a type of many verbs, but just a single, very noteworthy irregular pair.

The verb naru なる means "to become," while suru する, "to do," in this case, means "to make it become," "to take it as," "to decide it to be."

In essence, naru is used to talk about how something ends up as, will end up as, or has ended up as. By contrast, suru can be used to express control over the "becoming." You deliberately make something become so, or take it as so, or make it so.

  • Tarou ga hitori ni naru
    Tarou will become alone.
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo hitori ni suru
    Hanako makes Tarou become alone.
    Hanako leaves Tarou alone.
    • In the sense that if Hanako was around Tarou, he wouldn't be alone, so she left, and now he's by himself.
  • {umi ni iku} koto ni natta
    It became the thing [that is] {going to the sea}.
    It was decided {[we'll] go to the beach}.
    • For example, we were deciding what to do tomorrow, go to the mountains or to the beach, we decided to go to the beach.
  • {umi ni iku} koto ni shita
    [Someone] made it the thing [that is] {going to the sea}.
    [Someone] made it so that {[we'll] go to the beach}.
    • For example, I, personally, decided we'll go to the beach tomorrow. Or the teacher decided it. Anyway, this sentence places emphasis on the fact someone deliberately made it so.
  • Tarou ga baka ni naru
    Tarou becomes an idiot.
    It becomes so that Tarou is an idiot.
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo baka ni shita
    Hanako makes Tarou an idiot.
    Hanako decides Tarou is an idiot.
    Hanako takes Tarou for an idiot.
  • Tarou ga baka ni sareta
    Tarou was made an idiot.
    Tarou was taken for an idiot.

One interesting usage of this pair is with the word ki 気. Observe:

  • ki ni naru
    To start thinking about something. (out of your control.)
    To become curious about something.
    To become worried about something.
  • ki ni suru
    To start thinking about something. (in your control.)
    To bother with something.
  • ki ni naranai
    To not mind something.
  • ki ni shinai
    To ignore something.

The phrases ki ni naru and ki ni naranai express whether something is in your mind, or not, regardless of your will.

The phrases ki ni suru and ki ni shinai express whether something is in your mind, or not, and you can control it with your will.

That's why you can say ki ni suru na, "don't worry about it." Because you can stop worrying if you want. But you can't say ki ni naru na with the same negative-imperative sense, because naru is out of your control, so you can't stop it being curious even if you wanted to.


As you've probably noticed already, most Japanese ergative pairs start with the same morpheme. That is, they start with the same syllables, and they share a similar base meaning.

For example, agaru and ageru start with this ag~ morpheme, which presumably would mean "rising" given the meaning of the verbs.

In Japanese, ergative pairs tend to start with the same kanji. After all, kanji generally represent morphemes, so it follows that two words starting with the same morpheme would also start with the same kanji that represents that morpheme: 上がる, 上げる, 切る, 切れる, 倒す, 倒れる, etc.

Some shorter verbs have differing pronunciations of the first syllable, despite being written with the same kanji. For example: ha-iru 入る and i-reru 入れる, de-ru 出る and da-su 出す. Consequently, the kanji end up having extra readings to match both words.

Causative verbs that end in ~su ~す resemble the causative form ~saseru ~させる. However, lexical causatives are different from the causative form of verbs. First, because a lexical causative verb can be further conjugated to the causative form:

  • iwa ga ugoku
    The boulder moves.
  • Tarou ga iwa wo ugokasu
    Tarou causes: the boulder moves.
    Tarou moves the boulder.
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni iwa wo ugokasaseru
    Hanako causes: Taoru causes: the boulder moves.
    Hanako causes: Tarou moves the boulder.
    Hanako makes Tarou move the boulder.

Second, the causative form of the intransitive is normally avoided (since the lexical causative counterpart exists), but, if used, has a difference nuance from the lexical causative counterpart.

  • kodomo ga ofuro ni hairu
    The children enter in the bath.
  • Hanako ga kodomo wo ofuro ni ireru
    Hanako puts the children in the bath.
    • Lexical causative: Hanako physically grabs the children and put them into the bath. Could be used for a baby, for example, who can't enter the bath on their own.
  • Hanako ga kodomo wo ofuro ni hairaseru
    Hanako makes the children enter the bath.
    • Causative form: Hanako doesn't physically grab the children, but orders them to get in the bath, or, albeit unlikely, lets them take a bath (permissive causative).

Similarly, some intransitive verbs, ending in ~eru, resemble the passive form ~rareru ~られる. These, too, are different from the passive form. Observe:

  1. mizu ga nagareru
    The water flows.
  2. Hanako ga mizu wo nagasu
    Hanako makes the water flow.
    Hanako pours the water.
    Hanako flushes the water.
  3. mizu ga Hanako ni nagasareru
    The water is made flow by Hanako.
  4. *mizu ga Hanako ni nagareru
    The water flows by Hanako. (?)

In the example 3 above we have a sentence in passive voice, because the verb nagasareru, is in the passive form. In the passive voice, the agent is marked by the ni に particle: Hanako ni, "by Hanako."

In the example 4, we have an intransitive verb. The sentence is ungrammatical because we can't mark Hanako as the agent. Therefore, intransitive verbs differ from verbs conjugated to the passive form, despite resembling them.


Ergative verb pairs follow certain verb-ending patterns. These can be divided into three groups, according to which one is more morphologically complex. It's assumed that the morphologically simplex verb is the origin from which the complex verb derives from.(Okutsu, 1967, as cited in Matsuzaki, 2001:54-55)

  1. tadouka
    The intransitive is simplex, the transitive derives from it.
    • ugoku 動く
      To move.
      ugokasu 動かす
      To move something.
    • tobu 飛ぶ
      To jump. To fly.
      tobasu 飛ばす
      To make something fly. To fling something.
    • waku 沸く
      To boil.
      wakasu 沸かす
      To boil something.
  2. jidouka
    The transitive is simplex, the intransitive derives from it.
    • hasamu 挟む
      To put something between. (e.g. pick something by holding it between two fingers, or to pick rice by putting it between two sticks.)
      hasamaru 挟まる
      To get stuck between. To be placed between.
    • tsunagu 繋ぐ
      To connect something to.
      tsunagaru 繋がる
      To be connected to.
    • fusagu 塞ぐ
      To block.
      fusagaru 塞がる
      To be blocked.
  3. ryoukokuka
    Both verbs are equally complex and derive from a hypothetical root.
    • naoru 治る
      To be healed. To heal.
      naosu 治す
      To heal something. To cure something.

As you can see above, there's no rule that says the longer verb is intransitive or transitive, or even that they must be of different lengths.

It's not even possible to conjugate a verb to its counterpart in the ergative pair.

For example, if you have horobiru 滅びる, "to be ruined," you can't reliably guess what its counterpart would be. Is it horoberu? Or horobisu? Nope. It's horobosu 滅ぼす, "to ruin [something]."

For reference, a list of common patterns.

  • ~u and ~eru.
    toku 溶く, tokeru 溶ける
    To dissolve something. To be dissolved.
  • ~eru and ~u.
    shizumeru 沈める, shizumu 沈む
    To sink something. To sink.
  • ~eru and ~aru
    ateru 当てる, ataru 当たる
    To hit or touch something. To be hit or touched by.
    To say something correctly. To be correctly said.
  • ~su and ~ru.
    kaesu 返す. kaeru 返る
    To return something to its original owner or place. To be returned.
  • ~su and ~reru.
    hanasu 離す, hanareru 離れる
    To separate something from. To be separated from.
  • ~su and ~riru
    tasu 足す, tariru 足りる
    To add something to. To be sufficient.
  • ~asu and ~u
    kawakasu 乾かす, kawaku 乾く
    To dry something. To dry.
  • ~asu and ~esu
    morasu 漏らす, moreru 漏れる
    To leak something. To leak.
  • ~asu and ~iru
    mitasu 満たす, michiru 満ちる
    To fill something with. To be filled with.
  • ~osu and ~iru
    hosu 干す, hiru 干る
    To hang something to dry. To be hung to dry.
  • ~seru and ~u
    noseru 乗せる, noru 乗る
    To place something atop of. To get atop of, to board (a train).
  • ~akasu and ~eru
    obiyakasu 脅かす, obieru 脅える (see note after list.)
    To frighten something. To be frightened of.
  • ~eru and ~oru
    nukumeru 温める, nukumoru 温もる
    To warm something up. To become warm.
  • ~eru and ~areru
    wakeru 分ける, wakareru 分かれる
    To divide something. To be divided.

Not all ergative pairs fall into the patterns above, but a lot of them do. The list above is a sample from Jacobsen's (1992) list, found in the appendix of Matsuzaki (2001), pages 185-194.

Note: some consonants get deleted when combined with certain vowels in Japanese. For example, although there's a ya や syllable, there's no ye. Consequently, the counterpart of moyasu 燃やす, "to burn," isn't moyeru, but just moeru 燃える, "to be burning."

Similarly, hiyasu 冷やす, "to cool," fuyasu 増やす, "to increase," hayasu 生やす, "to sprout," become hieru 冷える, fueru 増える, haeru 生える in the intransitive.


  1. Perlmutter, D.M., 1978, September. Impersonal passives and the unaccusative hypothesis. In annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society (Vol. 4, pp. 157-190).
  2. Matsuzaki, T., 2001. Verb Meanings and Their Effects on Syntactic Behaviors: A Study with Special Reference to English and Japanese Ergative Pairs (Doctoral dissertation, University of Florida).
  3. Lam, Patrick P.W., 2006. Causative-inchoative Alternation of Ergative Verbs in English and Japanese: Observations from News Corpora.
  4. Piñón, C., 2001, October. A finer look at the causative-inchoative alternation. In Semantics and linguistic theory (Vol. 11, pp. 346-364).
  5. Volpe, M., 2001. The causative alternation and Japanese unaccusatives. Snippets, 4, pp.14-15.

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  1. Great article.
    From many points intransitive verbs are like passive in english, and quite often are being translated as passive voice. Considering that Japanese tend to avoid inanimate agent in passive voice it may explain why almost every verb in Japanese has its intransitive pair. I mean "fallen by storm" is a common construction in English but you wouldn't see it in Japanese with grammatical passive voice used.