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人の手を刺す        stab someone in the hand.
人の手に短剣を刺す     stab a dagger in someone's hand.

What's the direct object in the second sentence? Is it just 短剣 or 人の手に短剣? I ask because in the first sentence the hand is stabbed (手を刺す) and in the second sentence the hand is also stabbed but 短剣を刺す would make me think the dagger should be the one who's being stabbed(even though that would make no sense at all). So did I make a mistake thinking just 短剣 is the direct object in the second sentence or is there another explanation?

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Even in English you can say for example : He stabbed a knife into the man's chest. or He stabbed the man's chest with a knife. – Ryan Mar 18 '14 at 16:09
So を刺す by itself isn´t enough to decide whether the direct object is the staber or the stabee? It´s the context which decides the exact role of the direct object? Does that mean when I say 短剣を刺す (without any context)we just assume we´re stabbing with a dagger because that´s the most logical thing to assume instead of a dagger itself being stabbed? – user4693 Mar 18 '14 at 16:45
I don't think you'll ever come across such a vague and incomplete expression, usually if there's the slightest risk of confusion (as in a strange scenario where a dagger itself is stabbed) the author would make sure to add everything you need to reach the correct understanding. – Ryan Mar 18 '14 at 17:56
That's certainly true, but the reason I limited my example(both in context as in words) is I've been translating the same sentence (短剣を刺す) with online translation programs and I noticed the Japanese programs automatically assumed someone was being stabed with a dagger whereas English programs thought the dagger itself was being stabbed so I was wondering what a living persons view on that was. – user4693 Mar 18 '14 at 19:08
Just a minor point that "stab a dagger in someone's hand" is not grammatical English. It literally means somebody is holding a knife and you stab that knife with your knife. You probably want to say "stab a dagger into someone's hand". – hippietrail Mar 24 '14 at 7:37
up vote 10 down vote accepted

In your second example, the direct object is 短剣, not 人の手に短剣.

The direct object here can take on two different semantic roles:

花子が [ 太郎の手   短剣 ] 刺す Hanako stabs Tarō's hand with a dagger.
花子が [   短剣 太郎の手 ] 刺す Hanako stabs a dagger into Tarō's hand.

In either case, the direct object is the noun phrase marked by を. Your first example is like the first sentence above, except without the instrumental で.

In linguistics, this is called locative alternation. Certain verbs exhibit this alternation; others do not. 刺す is one of the verbs that does. See The Handbook of Japanese Linguistics p.355 for an overview.

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I'll take a stab at it... .: ba-dump ching :.

In the first sentence, the 人の手 is the direct object. "Stab someone in the hand".

In the second, the direct object is 短剣, but here 刺す more literally takes the definition of "thrust" than "stab"; "thrust (刺す) a (を) dagger (短剣) into (に) someone's hand (人の手)" → "stab someone in the hand with a dagger".

Here are a couple similar examples I found in the dictionary.

  • 柄の長いフォークにウインナーを刺す → Put a hotdog/wiener onto a toasting fork (バーベキューのときなど)
  • 指にとげを刺した → "I ran a thorn into my finger" = "I pricked my finger on a thorn"
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I am interested you found 指にとげを刺した in the dictionary: You can also say 指にとげが刺さった. My dictionary gives this as "A thorn stuck in my finger." but I think people might use intransitive as an equivalent of "I pricked my finger on a thorn." (possibly more a question for native speaker??) – Tim Mar 19 '14 at 0:41

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