Japanese language & culture blog

Verb transitivity, similar to valency, indicates whether a verb takes direct objects, or not. Unlike English, which is fairly lax in its rules on transitivity and allows ambitransitive verbs, the Japanese language divides most verbs into two groups: transitive and intransitive.

Intransitive: He slept till noon.
Transitive: She lifted the bag.
Ambitransitive: I broke the cup. and The cup broke.

Intransitive verbs are used according to the pattern S + が + V, whereas transitive verbs take on the pattern (S +) DO + を + V.

Intransitive: 会社のパソコンが壊れた。— The company computer broke down.
Transitive: 彼女が私のケータイを壊した。— She broke my mobile phone.

The only time you’ll see を used with an intransitive verb is when a location is the direct object of a motion verb.

Intransitive: ラーメン屋を出た。— I left the ramen shop.

As you can see in the examples above, there are two Japanese verbs for the English verb break; the intransitive 壊れる (こわれる) and the transitive 壊す (こわす). You can check out more examples in the following table:

to exit 出る
to take out
to grow 生える
to cultivate
to get up 起きる
to wake sb
to get dry 乾く
to dry sth
to open 開く
to open sth
to board 乗る
to take on board
to return 返る
to put back
to break 壊れる
to break sth
to hang 掛かる
to hang sth
to burn 焼ける
to bake
to be visible 見える
to look
to enter 入る
to put in

While this makes it easier to understand how to use each verb, it also makes it important to learn the differences between them. To make the process more fun, you can learn Japanese verb pairs with NihongoUp, my Japanese study game which now includes a new Transitivity grammar mode.