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I've heard from a Japanese native speaker friend of mine that both 間違う and 間違える are correct usage, but he wasn't able to explain the difference in nuance between them. Is there a difference, and if so, what is it?

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2 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

When we say that someone makes a mistake about something, we can use both 間違う and 間違える and there is no difference in meaning or nuance. For example, 計算を間違えた and 計算を間違った mean the same thing.

[Added remark: As repecmps pointed out in a comment, some people consider this usage of 間違う as incorrect. Someone states that this usage of 間違う was originally incorrect, but I do not know if this statement is true or not.]

When we say that something is in a wrong state, we can only use 間違う. Examples from Daijisen with my English translations:

○ この手紙は住所が間違っている。 (このてがみはじゅうしょがまちがっている。) This letter has an incorrect address on it.
× この手紙は住所が間違えている。

○ 間違った考え方 (まちがったかんがえかた) a wrong way of thinking
× 間違えた考え方

(○ denotes correct examples and × denotes incorrect examples.)

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I'm sorry but 計算を間違った is incorrect (although probably widely used). See my answer. –  repecmps Jun 29 '11 at 0:40
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Yeah, I think it has more to do with transitive v. intransitive. // You wouldn't say 間違えた考え方 unless you said something like 誰かさんが間違えた考え方について~ something something (otherwise you're implying its your way of thinking that's wrong) - but it's not incorrect, only on its own. Along the same lines you wouldn't say 誰かが間違った考え方. –  Kafka Fuura Jun 29 '11 at 1:33
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@Tsuyoshi Ito: It's funny how you feel hurt whenever I say something. I tried not to sound rude though. I'm claiming "計算を間違った" is not grammatically correct. (I thought my comment was clear). The Daijisen examples are correct. –  repecmps Jun 29 '11 at 4:41
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@repecmps: Your comments are contradictory. Daijisen states that 間違う can be used in the same way as 間違える, you claim that it cannot be, and you also claim that Daijisen is correct. You can believe that 間違う cannot be used as a transitive verb as much as you want, but you are simply wrong. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 29 '11 at 4:52
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@repecmps: Thanks for the link. By the way, have you understood that your comments were contradictory? –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 29 '11 at 5:05
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The answer is a simple point of grammar:

間違う is an intransitive verb. With no direct object, the particle を cannot be used.

ー>私が間違っている

間違える is a transitive verb, with a direct object (use of を possible as well as other particles)

ー>道を間違えた

According to the chat discussion with Tsuyoshi I understand that recent dictionaries allow the use of 間違う with a direct object, making all his examples correct.

More details in this link.

But as a grammar enthusiast, I think that using the rule above, you will always be correct.

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Prescriptivism/descriptivism aside, it's arguably more useful to attempt to maintain the regularity of transitive/intransitive verb forms in Japanese; so in that case, it would behoove us to promote this ;) (On the other hand, the regularity argument is used by linguistic analysts to explain the popularity of ら抜き, so beware the utilitarian :) –  Trevor Alexander Jan 22 at 8:20
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