Friday, September 6, 2019

How Transitive and Intransitive Verbs Work in Japanese

Among verb types, intransitive, transitive, and ditransitive verbs are verbs of varying transitivity. A ditransitive verb has three arguments: subject, direct object, and indirect object. A transitive verb has two: a subject and a direct object. An intransitive verb only has one: a subject.

Normally, you wouldn't have any problem with such verbs, except that in Japanese they work differently from how they do in English, and most people have trouble with transitive-intransitive verb pairs, which take different particles.


Before we begin learning how the transitivity of verbs work in Japanese, let's see an example of intransitive, transitive and ditransitive verbs:
  • Tarou ga shinda
    Tarou died.
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo koroshita
    Hanako killed Tarou.
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni shi wo ataeta
    Hanako gives Tarou death.

Now, the first thing we need to understand about transitivity is that verbs of higher transitivity require more arguments.

For example, you can't say just "Hanako kills," with only the subject, because "to kill" is transitive, so it takes an object: she has to be killing somebody.

Similarly, the verb "gives" takes three arguments. If "Hanako gives death," there has to be a recipient (an indirect object), for that death she's giving. If you say "Hanako gives," that doesn't make any sense either. "Hanako gives Tarou" lacks what she's giving.

Even if the argument isn't explicitly uttered in the sense, the fact is that any "giving" verb implies a giver, a gift, and a receiver, so these three things must be recoverable from somewhere in the context.

In Japanese, the subject is marked by the ga が particle, the direct object by the wo を particle, and the indirect object by the ni に particle.

Note that you can't mark more than one noun phrase as the subject, direct object, or indirect object for a single verb. For example, you can't use the wo を in the following sentence:
  • *Hanako ga Tarou wo Jirou wo koroshita
    (expectation: "Hanako killed Tarou/Jirou.")

In the case above, the verb korosu doesn't get to have "three" arguments (1 ga plus 2 wo). Instead, we use a parallel marker such as the to と particle to form the noun phrase "Tarou and Jirou."
  • Hanako ga {Tarou to Jirou} wo koroshita
    Hanako killed {Tarou and Jirou}.

Now it's alright, because the transitive verb has two arguments: Hanako ga, and Tarou to Jirou wo.

Indirect Objects

In English, the term "indirect object" kind of only applies to the "recipient" of a verb. Consequently, a prepositional phrase starting with "to" isn't necessarily an indirect object. Observe:
  • I sent a gift to you.
    You - indirect object, recipient.
  • I drove my car to the park.
    The park - not indirect object, destination.

The difference between these two isn't arbitrary. In English, the idea is that an indirect object can become the subject in passive voice. Given this criteria, a recipient is an indirect object, but a destination is not.[Are ditransitives (or tritransitives?) cross-linguistically attested? -, accessed 2019-09-06]
  • John gave a book to Mary.
    A book was given to Mary by John.
    Mary was given a book by John. (this makes sense, so Mary is an indirect object.)
  • John drove the car to the park.
    A car was driven to the park by John.
    *The park was driven a car by John. (this doesn't make sense, so the park isn't an indirect object.)

Of course, we aren't learning English, we're learning Japanese here, so we don't care about what English thinks an indirect object is, we only care about Japanese indirect objects.

The same thing does, in fact, apply to indirect objects in the passive voice in Japanese:(Miyagawa and Tsujioka, 2004:16)
  • Tarou ga Hanako ni wo ataerareta
    Tarou was given death by Hanako.
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo ano-yo ni okutta
    Hanako sent Tarou to the-other-world.
    • ano yo あの世
      "That world." The other world. The world of the dead. Afterlife.
    • kono yo この世
      "This world." The world of the living.
  • *ano-yo ga Hanako ni Tarou wo okurareta
    *That world was sent Tarou by Hanako.

One thing worth noting: the ni に particle is a case-marking particle with a dozen functions. When it marks the recipient, that's called the "dative" case. A location is the "locative" case. Although they happen translate to "to" in English, "to" doesn't always translate to ni に in Japanese.
  • anime e no ai
    Love toward anime.
    The love to anime.

English also has benefactive indirect objects. These are generally represented with tame ni ために, "for the purpose," rather than with just ni に.
  • Hanako ga Tarou no tame ni keeki wo yaita
    Hanako baked a cake for Tarou.
    Hanako baked Tarou a cake.
    • Tarou - benefactive for whom the cake was baked.

The verb yaku 焼く, "to bake," is only transitive. You bake something. Period. There's no third argument, only two. Therefore, the usage seen below isn't an "indirect object," but a different function of the ni に particle: it can mark the objective of an action.

The objective above would be Tarou's purpose, Tarou's benefit. It's only valid because tame, "purpose," acts as the benefit objective. Without it, the following becomes ungrammatical:
  • *Hanako ga Tarou ni keeki wo yaita
    (you can't say this because the person Tarou isn't an objective by himself.)

The ni に particle can be used if there's an auxiliary verb, like ~ageru ~あげる, expressing giving an underlying action for somebody.(Otani and Steedman, 2010:503)
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni keeki wo yaite-ageta
    Hanako baked a cake for Tarou.
    Hanako gave "baking a cake" for Tarou.


Although intransitive, transitive, and ditransitive verbs require a different number of arguments, they aren't always marked by ga が, wo を, and ni に in Japanese. Often, an argument will be marked as the topic instead, by the wa は particle.

For example, with an intransitive verb, its subject can be marked as the topic:
  • Tarou wa shinda
    Tarou died.

With transitive verbs, both subject and object can be marked as the topic. However, normally, the object isn't marked as the topic, only the subject.
  • Hanako wa Tarou wo koroshita
    Hanako killed Tarou.
  • Tarou wa Hanako ga koroshtia
    Tarou: Hanako killed. As for Tarou, it was Hanako who killed him.

Since the topicalized argument can be either subject or object, ambiguously, we rely on the non-topicalized, unambiguously marked arguments to figure out what the topic is supposed to be.

In the first sentence, there's already an object: Tarou wo. Therefore Hanako wa is the subject. In the second sentence, there's already a subject: Hanako ga. Therefore, Tarou wa is the object.

In ditransitive verbs, the same thing applies: all arguments can be topicalized. Once again, the objects are seldom topicalized. Usually only the object is topicalized.
  • Hanako wa Tarou ni shi wo ataeta
    Hanako gave Tarou death.
  • shi wa Hanako ga Tarou ni ataeta
    The death, Hanako gave to Tarou.
  • Tarou wa Hanako ga shi wo ataeta
    As for Tarou, Hanako gave death.


In Japanese, often sentences are elliptical: with part of it omitted, missing, unspoken, interpreted from context, and so on. For example:
  • Tarou wo koroshita ka?
    Did [you] kill Tarou?

The sentence above isn't ungrammatical despite having no overt subject. That's because it's implied the subject is "you." Did you kill him? Depending on context, the subject could be "he" or "Hanako" or whoever.

Together with topicalization, ellipsis creates sentences whose meaning depend heavily on interpretation. For example:
  • Tarou wa shi wo ataeta
    As for Tarou, death gave.

As we've seen before, wa は mark any of the three arguments of a ditransitive verb. The sentence above contains a direct object, marked by wo を, but is missing a subject and an indirect object.

Thus, the sentence becomes ambiguous, as we can't determined if Tarou is the sender or the recipient of death.

In such cases, the assumption is that Tarou is the subject (sender), not the indirect object (recipient). That's because it's possible to disambiguate such sentence if it were the recipient by using niwa には instead:
  • Tarou niwa shi wo ataeta
    For Tarou, [someone] gave death.

Since the speaker didn't use niwa to say the topic is the indirect object, we'll have to assume it's the subject without further context.


In relative clauses, the qualified noun can be any of the three arguments.

With intransitive verbs, this is simple:
  • {shinda} Tarou
    The Tarou [that] {died}.
  • {shinda} hito
    The person [that] {died}.
    The people [that] {died}.

With transitive verbs, one of the arguments must be inside the relative clause so we can guess what the relative argument is supposed to be:
  • {Hanako ga koroshita} hito
    The people [that] {Hanako killed}.
    • hito wa Hanako ga koroshita
      People, Hanako killed.
  • {hito wo koroshita} Hanako
    Hanako [who] {killed people}.
    • Hanako wa hito wo koroshita
      Hanako killed people.

If there's no argument inside the relative clause, the relativized argument is assumed to be the subject. This happens because you can use the passive form if you need the patient to be relativized.
  • {korosu} hito to {korosareru} hito
    People [who] {kill} and people [who] {are killed}.

The same principles apply to ditransitive verbs:
  • {Hanako ga shi wo ataeta} hito
    People [whom] {Hanako gave death to}.
  • {Hanako ga hito ni ataeta} shi
    Death [which] {Hanako gave to people}.
  • {hito ni shi wo ataeta} Hanako
    Hanako [who] {gave death to people}.

With ellipsis and passivization:
  • {shi wo ataeru} Hanako
    Hanako [who] {gives death}.
  • {shi wo ataerareta} Tarou
    Tarou [who] {was given death}.

Ambitransitive Verbs

Some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive at the same time, or transitive and ditransitive, and so on.

To clarify: this means is that THE WORD has varying levels of transitivity according to how it's used in a sentence. Sometimes it's transitive, sometimes it's intransitive. It doesn't mean that a single verb in a single sentence can be both transitive and intransitive simultaneously.


Some verbs feature multiple levels of transitivity depending on their meaning.

For example, "to give" is naturally a ditransitive action. Many verbs that mean the "to give" ditransitively in Japanese also feature a completely different transitive meaning.
  • Tarou ga te wo ageta
    Tarou raised his hand.
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni ringo wo ageta
    Hanako gave Tarou an apple.
    Hanako gave an apple to Tarou.

Above, we see the verb ageru 上げる has two meanings: first, "to raise," to make something go "up," ue 上. And, second, "to give." Similarly, the verb yaru やる can mean "to do" transitively or "to give" ditransitively.
  • Tarou ga shukudai wo yatta
    Tarou did the homework.
  • Tarou ga inu ni esa wo yatta
    Tarou gave the dog animal-food.
    Tarou gave animal-food to the dog.
    Tarou fed the dog.


Ergative verbs are verbs that allow ergative alternation (object becoming subject) according to their transitivity in a clause.

For example:(Lam, 2006:265)
  • Tarou ga to wo hiraita
    Tarou opened the door.
  • to ga hiraita
    The door opened.

In the first sentence above, the verb "to open," hiraku 開く, is transitive, but in the second sentence, it's intransitive. Observe how the door was marked as the direct object by the wo を particle, and then was marked as the subject by the ga が particle.

Since the transitivity of an ergative verb relies on the arguments available (if there's a wo を, it's transitive), an ergative verb found in an elliptical sentence with a single topicalized argument relies entirely on the interpretation of the arguments to determine its transitivity:
  • to wa hiraita
    The door opened.
    [Someone] opened the door.
    ?The door opened [something]. (doors don't do this.)
  • Tarou wa hiraita
    ?Tarou opened. (Tarou isn't openable.)
    ?[Someone] opened Tarou. (Tarou isn't openable.)
    Tarou opened [something].

This isn't really a problem because the agent in Japanese is normally an animate object (animals, people), and the patients are inanimate objects (doors).

Transitive-Intransitive Verb Pairs

A transitive-intransitive verb pair, or ergative verb pair, is a pair of different verbs where the intransitive verb describes and event and the transitive verb has a subject which cases said event.
  • Tarou ga nan'i-do 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 agaru-ageru, in English: to rise and to raise. The verb "to rise" is intransitive. The verb "to raise" is transitive.
  • Tarou raises something.
    • Tarou - subject, agent.
    • Something - object, patient.
  • Something rises.
    • Something subject, patient.

The pair above is formed by an unaccusative verb and a lexical causative verb. An unaccusative verb is one whose subject is a patient, rather than an agent. Some Japanese ergative pairs are formed by so-called "unergative" verbs, whose subjects are agents instead:
  • Tarou ga naku
    Tarou cries.
    • Tarou - subject, agent.
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo nakasu
    Hanako makes Tarou cry.
    • Hanako - subject, agent, causer.
    • Tarou - object, causee.

English has very few ergative verb pairs. Japanese has hundreds of ergative verb pairs. This causes a lot of confusion to people learning Japanese, and to Japanese natives learning English.

For example, the English verb "to break" is ergative, but it's represented by an ergative verb pair in Japanese:
  • Tarou ga kabin wo kowasu
    Tarou breaks the flower-vase.
  • kabin ga kowareru
    The flower-vase breaks.

The verb kowasu is transitive, the verb kowareru is intransitive, but both verbs will be listed in the dictionary as "to break.

Consequently, a beginner may end up making the mistake of using the transitive verb as an intransitive verb or vice-versa, emulating how the ergative verb works in English:
  • *Tarou ga kabin wo kowareru
    (ungrammatical because kowareru is intransitive.)
  • ?Kabin ga kowasu
    ?The vase breaks [something]. (nonsensical, but grammatical: the sentence sounds elliptical as kowasu is transitive and the direct object is missing.)

Some examples of intransitive-transitive verb pairs include:
  • mieru; miseru
    To be seen; To show.
  • deru; dasu
    To leave. To put out.
  • hairu; ireru
    To enter. To put in.
  • noru; noseru
    To get atop, to board (a train). To place atop.
  • ochiru; otosu
    To fall. To drop.
  • naoru; naosu
    To heal. To cure.
  • atatamaru; atatameru
    To warm up. To warm [something] up.
  • kieru; kesu
    To disappear. To erase.
  • kaeru; kaesu
    To return. To be returned. (people to their homes.)
    • kaeru; kaesu
      To be returned. To return [an object back to its owner].
  • tsuku; tsukeru
    To arrive [somewhere]. To make [a vehicle] arrive [somewhere].
    • tsuku; tsukeru
      To be attached to. To attach [something] to.
  • nobiru; nobasu
    To grow longer. To make-or-let [something] grow longer.
  • nigeru; nigasu
    To escape. To let escape.
  • horobiru; horobosu
    To be ruined. To ruin.
  • fueru; fuyasu
    To be increased. To increase.
  • osowaru; oshieru
    To be taught. To teach.
  • shinu; korosu
    To die. To kill.
  • naru; suru
    To end up so. To make [something] so.

The article about ergative verb pairs covers these verbs' usage in more detail.


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  1. As far as I'm concerned can passivize "park". Prescriptive grammarians may complain. It sounds awkward when the passivization serves no purpose but I think "The park was driven to by John with the car" is generally comprehendible. Consider "The park was driven to by the defendant with the car during the time we received a high volume of noise complaints along its access road" for a park-focused sentence.

    Because of that, I think it's easier to define object in English syntactically: if the relation between things is conveyed with solely the verb and noun phrases: "I sent you the gift," then what is not the subject is the object. Further still, if there are two objects, the verb offers a ditransitive contract and the object that can be dropped with retained meaning is the indirect. That is: the drive-park relation fails to be verb-object because "John drove the park the car" fails rather than because "The park was driven a car by John / To the park was driven the car by John" fails.

    From this perspective, classifying clauses into semantic recipient and destination categories in an attempt to identify phrases that are easily passivized seems roundabout. It's easier to think that verbs which offer a ditransitive contract are easily passivized around their indirect object, and that this models a semantic passive verb-dative noun relation that translates well into japanese.