When I learnt Japanese I was taught that a transitive verb in its "te form" followed by the verb "iru" represents a continuous action. However, this is not the case with intransitive verbs which instead represent a state when used this way;

Therefore 開けている means that a subject is opening the door, the action of opening is taking place and perhaps the subject has its hand on the handle of the door and is pulling it. However, 開いている means that the door is open rather than an action in which the door seems to be "automatically" opening.

This creates a confusion in my mind for example, 死んでいる means dead rather than a thing in the process of dying but not yet dead.

Why does the meaning differ so much for the two type of verbs? So, how does one represent continuous actions when using intransitive verbs?

Also, using ところ with a verb, one can present an action which is taking place "this instant". Does the transitive verb in "te form" not do this already?

  • 2
    It looks like things were simplified considerably for your class. Although there's definitely a correspondence between lexical aspect and transitivity, they're actually two different things, and at some point it'll probably help you to learn what the difference is, if you'd like a more accurate description of how -te iru works.
    – user1478
    Jan 26, 2015 at 21:49

2 Answers 2


I guess we cannot directly translate English into Japanese and vice-versa. I think that is a common mistake made by a lot of English speakers. You have to think in Japanese instead. Let me use some of your examples and provide some examples:

  1. ドアを開けている。
  2. ドアが開いている。
  3. 犬が死んでいる。
  4. 飛行機が飛んでいる。
  5. 彼が笑っている。

As a general guide, the thinking process for te-iru forms is "being in the state". For 1, it is very direct. Transitive verbs in the te-iru form can be directly translated into V-ing. Hence, I am opening the door. You can think of it as, "I am in the state of opening the door."

For 2, similarly, think of it as being in the state. So you will get, the door is opened, it is in the opened state. The next question is, how to express "the door is opening (by itself)?" That would be just, 「ドアが開く」. Remember, do not think in English. If you think in English, you will be confused. 「開く」just means open, the act of opening. Hence, naturally「ドアが開く」can be processed as "the door opens". However, it also means "the door is opening"! You should know by now that Japanese depends heavily on context. So, let's put this into context.

The elevator just arrived. ドアが今開く。 The elevator's doors open now/are opening now.

If you really want to express the continuous form, to emphasize on the continual action, then you could also say ドアが開いているところです。

Let's move on for more examples.

For 3, similarly, thinking of the state, the dog is in the state of being dead. For 4, it is translated as the plane is flying... now why is a "V-ing" used here? It is because flying is the state of being in flight! Hence, it makes perfect sense!

And lastly for 5, "He is laughing"; he is in the state of laughter.

Allow me to emphasize the point of being in context again. For example, 「私が怖い」can mean "I am a scary person" or "I am afraid". 「猫が怖い」can mean "I am scared of cats (私は)" or "Cats are scary". So Japanese language is actually very ambiguous and depend heavily on context. Take some time to ponder over it and you will eventually get it!


Although the original question is from years ago, I will leave this here in case someone might find it helpful.

The above answer from user @chun-kiat states, though only in passing, a verrry important thing for English (at least) speakers learning Japanese: the sooner you give up on trying to draw parallels and correspondences between English and Japanese, the sooner you will begin to make real progress in your studies. I also upvoted that answer because somehow it had a -1 rating. Not sure what minus ratings mean...

I'm a native English speaker, studied French in college, and did a year-abroad thing in France. Because French and English are syntactically and etymologically related, I could lean heavily on my internalized knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary to springboard my way into French. Although there are of course notable and tricky differences -- for example, French wants to be more precise with all its crazy verb tenses and modes.

And, after hearing in my linguistics classes how "Japanese is so different" and "Japanese is a total outlier" and "Japanese is the hardest language to learn" etc, I was like "hold my beer" and signed up for a 1-year exchange program language course in Japan.

Based on my prior success with French and my cross-referential approach to language learning, I approached Japanese with the same mindset. And for six months I pursued dead ends and rabbit holes and got more and more frustrated when I could not get it to just "fall into place."

I'm not sure how or why, but at some point it clicked for me that I would just have to swallow the thing whole and take it on its own terms. Once I stopped trying to make Japanese act like I wanted it to I began to make real progress and the experience got a lot more fun and fascinating.

Of course this will be easier to do if you are in the country and surrounded by the language all the time. If you have the opportunity to do it that way it's definitely the best way to go.

But be careful of falling into the trap of trying to find "hooks" and similarities where there are none. It's like holding on to preconceived notions in general. You just end up holding your own self back from making progress.

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