Mastering Japanese verbs so that you can use and understand them fluently requires a good grasp of the concept of transitive vs. intransitive verbs. Transitive verbs are those which perform an action on an object (i.e. つける、たてる). You can think of these as “targeted”. The object is typically specified using the particle を。 On the other hand, intransitive verbs are those that do not act upon an object, rather the subject is doing something on its own (i.e. つく、たつ), or “non-targeted”. Often the subject is followed by が or は, though these may be omitted sometimes in informal language.
First lets look at a simple example of these two types of verbs:
Transitive (targeted) verb: たてる => to stand up (something), or to create
- The job of building (= standing up) a building is very rough.
Intransitive (non-targeted) verb: たつ => to stand (yourself or itself)
- There are many trees standing here.
This dichotomy can be confusing for native English speakers because in English typically the same verb is used (here “standing” in both cases) and the surrounding words indicate whether it’s being used as transitive or intransitive.
かける／かかる is a pair of verbs which have a large number of uses, including “to spend” (time, money, etc.) and “to start”, with its meaning sometimes differentiated in writing by the kanji used. In the next example I’ll use both the transitive and intransitive forms in a single sentence.
- I try to start the engine, but it won’t start.
Can you tell if the first usage is the transitive or intransitive?
Sometimes there are places when translating from English to Japanese when the intransitive will replace the transitive. Another way to say this is that in Japanese sometimes the intransitive is more natural. One such case is with the pair みつける／みつかる which mean “to find”. For example:
- I can’t find my Japanese textbook.
It wouldn’t be strictly incorrect to use the transitive “みつけられない” (“I am unable to find”) here, but ”みつからない” is more commonly used and in this example literally means “The Japanese textbook cannot be found.” Using the transitive would put more an emphasis on the person not having the ability to find the textbook. There is a nice post (in Japanese) on this difference here.
つける／つく is another verb pair with many meanings, including “stick”, “apply”, and “turn on”. Here is an example using the intransitive (つく) which can be a little difficult to translate in English.
- Unless you practice it yourself, it will be hard to learn the related skills.
Remember than ”を身につける” is an expression that means “to learn”, and literally means something like “stick to the body”. In the above example the transitive form of this, “身につく” is used because the thing not being learned is emphasized instead of the one doing the learning.
Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, the intransitive form sounds a lot like the passive form”. Though it can may seem similar, there is a distinct difference in meaning. Let’s compare all three forms:
- ライトをつけた [Transitive]
- (an undefined subject) turned the light on.
- ライトがついた [Intransitive]
- The light turned on (itself).
- ライトを（or が）つけられた。 [Passive]
- The light was turned on (by someone).
One thing to watch out for is that in certain cases intransitive verbs can still use を to refer to an object. For example the intransitive verb まわる, which means to spin, can be used with を in the following fashion:
- The moon spins around the earth.
The list of the transitive/intransitive pairs is long and unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule to distinguish them. You just need to memorize them case-by-case. Here is a list of a few more of them, with the transitive verb first.
- とく／とける to solve/melt
- はなす／はなれる to separate (typically written with 離す since 話す means ‘speak’)
- たすける／たすかる to save (someone in need)
- みる/みえる to see
- とばす／とぶ to skip (a section in a book, etc.), fly, or jump
- おこす／おきる to wake up/get up (from bed)
Here is a page (also in Japanese) which has a long list of these verbs, plus a table of common misuses. If you’re going to try and read through this you’ll need to know the Japanese words for transitive (他動詞) and intransitive (自動詞). I feel that these two words are easier to understand and remember than their English counterparts, assuming you know the meanings of each of the kanji used.
Memorizing all these verb pairs will be a large step towards a more completely understanding of Japanese . Sometimes you may even be able to infer the meaning of expressions you have never seen, or discover new ones by using these verbs creatively. For example, if you know that “元気をだす” means to “cheer up” or “feel better”, and でる is the intransitive form of だす、can you guess an expression for “I don’t feel good”?