For my short quiz on Japanese particles, there was one question which was not answered correctly nearly half the time. In this article I’d like to go over that problem which appeared as #3 in the quiz.
(For those who want to take the quiz before reading the answer and explanation, you can do so here: testmoz.com/449328)
The question goes like this:
For the above sentence, which of the below particles fits the best?
Your first instinct for this question may be to choose ”を”. After all, it does appear the tree acts as an “object” to the cat’s climbing.
However, the correct answer is actually “に”!
This is related to the fact that に is often used to indicate a direction for an action (ex: ”西に走る”, “run west”) , whereas を refers to an object as a whole.
Generally when talking about an action like tree climbing, the particle に is the most appropriate because the tree is considered in terms of a direction for the action. In English you can see this idea from the phrase “climb up the tree”.
However, there is a some cases where を would actually be more appropriate (taken from here). For example, in the famous story “Jack and the Beanstalk” Jack decides to climb the tall tree he has discovered (technically a vine) to it’s tallest point to discover what is at the top. Jack doesn’t want to just climb “up” the tree, but he wants to climb the entire tree in its entirety.
In this case it would be natural to use を, as in:
This is quite a contrived example, but if you do a search for “木を登る” online you’ll find many many uses of it by native Japanese speakers.
Honestly, although it’s best to answer “に” if you see this question on a test, I feel that this is a subtle distinction and “を” isn’t technically wrong, it’s just not as good of a fit. Whether you choose to use を or に here, I’m sure the person you are speaking with would understand. Because of this, for my quiz question “を or に” would also be an appropriate answer.
If you want to check out a good set of sample sentences with English translations, see this page. The に particle is used the most commonly, but a few of the examples use を.
I used the kanji 上る (のぼる）for climbing in the original quiz question but it turns out the kanji 登る (also pronounced のぼる）is used more commonly for when talking about climbing something like a tree. See here for a bit more detailed explanation in Japanese.