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超{こ}える, 越{こ}える and 過{す}ぎる are said to mean "to pass through" in the "edict" dictionary, but I don't fully understand the difference between the three.

How does their usage differ please? Can anyone provide any relevant examples?

One example that I'd like to express, but don't quite know how to, is how to say "to pass a peak of a mountain" or "to pass a peak point on a graph", but I'm not even sure these are the right words to do that.

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You might want to add 越【こ】える to that list. – istrasci Oct 14 '11 at 14:22
BTW, "pass a peak of a mountain" is a textbook example for 越【こ】える: 峠【とうげ】を越【こ】える – istrasci Oct 14 '11 at 14:27

sawa gave an excellent post already, but there are a couple of cases where I've found exceptions. I'd also like to elaborate on the differences between 超{こ}える and 越{こ}える a bit using the Microsoft IME as a reference.

One exception to sawa's post is passing mountains or obstacles seems to use 越{こ}える instead of 過{す}ぎる. sawa also commented that when 過{す}ぎる is added to verbs and adjectives (e.g. 高{たか}すぎる) that it means "exceed" instead of "pass" like it would by itself. However, it should be noted that 通{とお}り過{す}ぎる means "to pass" or "pass through". As istrasci has noted in the comments though, this is not an exception but a separate verb in it's own right.

越{こ}える is used for:

  • Passing a mountain: 山{やま}を越{こ}える
  • Passing obstacles: 障害{しょうがい}を越{こ}える
  • Exceeding a point: 点{てん}を越{こ}える
  • Exceeding time: 時{とき}を越{こ}える

超{こ}える is used for:

  • Exceeding an amount: 数量{すうりょう}を超{こ}える
  • Exceeding a standard or reference: 基準{きじゅん}を超{こ}える
  • Exceeding a limit: 限度{げんど}を超{こ}える

Also, here's some some other words similar to those listed using Daijirin as a reference:

  • Passing a place: 場所{ばしょ}を通{とお}る
  • Passing days or months: 経{た}つ and 去{さ}る
  • Passing months or years: 経過{けいか}する
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通り過ぎる is not an exception. It is a verb by itself, not one meaning "go through exceedingly". It's corresponding 熟語【じゅくご】 verb is 通過【つうか】する. You often hear 通過【つうか】する announced at train stations when the upcoming train is not going to stop. – istrasci Oct 16 '11 at 3:50
@istrasci I was wondering about that possibly being the case, but I think maybe it should still be noted given it ends with 過{す}ぎる. I'll add your added info to the answer, thanks – user666 Oct 16 '11 at 3:54
up vote 4 down vote accepted

過{す}ぎる implies the process of passing though. 越{こ}える and 超{こ}える mean 'exceed'. In this example:

× 20kgを過{す}ぎる荷物{にもつ}は機内{きない}に持{も}ち込{こ}めません。

the weight of a luggage is a static property, and a luggage does not grow, so 過{す}ぎる cannot be used. In this example:

△ 目的{もくてき}地{ち}を超{こ}えてしまった。

過{す}ぎる is more appropriate than 超{こ}える because there is no inherent notion of excess among locations (unless a context is set such as to provide the origin of measurement). Rather, the process of passing through is the intention of this expression.

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@DavidMorrissey I think so. In that use, you can use 過ぎる for stative properties: 高すぎる. – user458 Oct 15 '11 at 16:12

Another difference is that 過{す}ぎる is one of the super-useful suffixes, as you can attach it to any verb or adjective. As a suffix I believe it generally takes on the sense of excessivity, but I think there may be other senses for it as well.

For verbs you use the 連用形{れんようけい} (i-form):

五段{ごだん}:飲{の}む → 飲{の}みすぎる
一段{いちだん}:食{た}べる → 食{た}べ過{す}ぎる
サ変{へん}:勉強{べんきょう}する → 勉強{べんきょう}しすぎる

It attaches directly to na-adjectives:

変{へん} → 変{へん}すぎる

But you have to drop the い for i-adjectives:

怖{こわ}い → 怖{こわ}すぎる

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