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貴様、何をにやついておるのだ…?
What are you grinning at, you bastard?

This sentence (asked in this question) seemed fairly natural and simple to me...until I realized にやつく is an intransitive verb. [×]彼は私をにやついた is ungrammatical. Instead, you have to say something like 彼は私を見てにやついた.

Then why is the first sentence ever possible? Well, after some pondering I came up with a similar expression:

何をぐっすり寝ているの、早く起きなさい!

So apparently these 何を with intransitive verbs mean why rather than what. But is that really true? I found a page where one person says 何を can mark a reason/trigger. But I'm not totally convinced, since all I could find was this short comment. I'd appreciate if someone explain this or point me to a longer article/reference. Should this be considered as a fixed expression like English "how come"?

(Just to be sure, as a native speaker of Japanese, I know these examples using 何を are natural, but I'm just having trouble getting a nice grammatical explanation.)

2 Answers 2

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あまり詳しい説明ではないのですが、明鏡国語辞典によりますと・・・

なに【何】
🈩〘代〙
❸《「ーを・・・か?」「ーを・・・のだ!」など、疑問・反語・詰問などを表す自動詞文で》不審の気持ちで、事態成立の基盤を問う。また、その不当性を非難する。どんな理由で。なぜに。なんで。 「何を泣いているのか?」「何をためらうことがあろうか」「何をぐずぐずしてるんだ!」
(語法)他動詞の場合は、~ヲに対する普通の疑問を表す。「何を読んでるの?」

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  • 1
    おお、明鏡すごい!w デジタル大辞泉は探しても何もありませんでした。
    – naruto
    Mar 8, 2017 at 3:58
  • 1
    My English brain doesn't get this at all. No offense.
    – user20428
    Apr 9, 2017 at 7:39
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    @Wakisaka Why would you need to use English brain to understand a monolingual Japanese dictionary entry, when you have good command of Japanese? Your native language is Japanese and not English, right?
    – chocolate
    Apr 10, 2017 at 0:01
  • I suppose it is difficult to find the question: "Why is the 何を in first sentence ever possible?" and the answer: it is an idiom from the middle Japanese 何をか云わんや thing-ish turns into. (not direct question and answer is written in all Japanese, hard to understand for a learner dosn't know what "反語" is) again no offense, just a suggestion.
    – user20428
    Apr 10, 2017 at 4:14
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(Adding my own answer for those who may run into this problem in the future)

@Shoko's answer confirmed my hypothesis. You can use 何を with intransitive verbs, and it actually means "why", "how dare you", "what makes you", etc. It usually has some dubious/accusatory tone. You can consider it a special construction.

The following example using an intransitive verb 驚く shows the difference between 何を and 何に.

  • 何に驚いているんですか?
    What are you surprised at?
    (I know you are surprised at something, but I don't know what you are surprised at.)
  • 何を驚いているんですか?
    Why are you surprised (at this)?
    (I know what you are surprised at, but I don't understand why you are surprised. "It's no wonder", "Isn't it obvious?")

Unsurprisingly, を can be omitted in casual speech: 何驚いてるんですか?

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    あなるほど。。この「何を」は目的語じゃないことが分かりますね。「何バカなこと言ってるんだ!」とか。明鏡で「を」のページを見ると、『➍「何を」+動詞+「か」などの形で⇒なに🈩③』として、1つの項目として、他の用法とは分けて単独で載っているので、この「を」ってちょっと特殊な用法なのかな~と思いました。
    – chocolate
    Mar 8, 2017 at 12:46
  • @naruto Does this construction with 何を meaning "why" only work with volitional verbs?
    – jarmanso7
    Aug 29, 2023 at 3:23

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