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In English, there are many verbs that can behave both transitively and intransitively without appreciably changing the meaning of the verb. Just off the top of my head

I ate a sandwich. (vt) -- I ate at noon. (vi)

I'll write a book (vt) -- I'll write in a book. (vi)

There are also verbs that can only behave transitively (requiring a direct object to make sense) or intransitively (do not make sense with a direct object):

I am sitting. (vi only)

I opened the door. (vt only)

My questions are:

  1. Is it possible for a single verb in Japanese to have both transitive and intransitive uses?

  2. If a verb is marked transitive in a dictionary, is that a guarantee that the verb has a specific object (that would be marked with を, か, or と) somewhere within the context of the conversation (it may be unstated).

This question was brought on by an answer I received to Transitive verbs where the direct object is a clause. In the answer, it was implied that my sentence fragment 本に書いた was unnatural (or not grammatical) and suggested that I used 本に落書きした instead. It occurred to me that this might be due to 書く a transitive verb, being used without a clear direct object.

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The question of transitivity can get tricky, especially when discussing and using languages as different as English and Japanese.

First, some background.

Kinds of transitivity

Syntactic

Most English grammars appear to discuss "transitivity" in terms of the syntax or wording of a sentence. A verb is deemed to be "transitive" if it is followed by a direct object.

  • I eat an apple. → Transitive, as the verb "eat" is followed by the direct object "an apple".
  • I eat. → Intransitive, as there is no direct object explicitly included in this sentence.

Semantic

Most Japanese grammars appear to discuss this concept differently, where the transitivity of a verb is considered in terms of the semantics or meaning of the word. The Japanese terms for the verb types are 他動詞 (literally "other-moving / other-acting word") and 自動詞 (literally "self-moving / self-acting word"). A verb is deemed to be a 他動詞 if the action of the verb involves the actor (the "subject" of the verb, in English grammar terms) performing some action that affects another noun (the "object" of the verb). Importantly, this applies regardless of whether that object is explicitly included in the sentence.

  • 私はリンゴを食べる。 → Transitive in syntactic terms, as the verb is preceded by the direct object リンゴを. Also transitive in semantic terms, as the semantics (meaning) of the verb 食べる requires the existence of an object: one cannot "eat" without eating something.
  • 私は食べる。 → Intransitive in syntactic terms, as there is no direct object explicitly included in this sentence. However, this is still transitive in semantic terms: the verb 食べる is a 他動詞, even when the object is left unstated.

Your questions

Now that we've established a framework for discussion, let's look again at your questions.

  1. Is it possible for a single verb in Japanese to have both transitive and intransitive uses?

    In terms of syntax, Japanese is famous for the degree to which various portions of a sentence can be omitted. As such, pretty much any 他動詞 verb in Japanese can be used syntactically transitively and syntactically intransitively. Some 自動詞 verbs in Japanese can also be used both syntactically transitively and syntactically intransitively (more on that below).

    In terms of semantics, single verbs that have both transitive and intransitive senses were much more common in Old Japanese; over time, different conjugated forms became more widespread to express one or the other. Take 付く, for instance. This was both a 自動詞 and a 他動詞 in older Japanese, but now, the root form 付く is 自動詞. The 他動詞 senses historically used the 下二段活用 (lower bigrade conjugation) pattern that became the -eru ending in 付ける. Another example is 広ぐ. The root form is no longer used, while the 自動詞 senses are expressed by 広がる, and the 他動詞 senses by 広げる.

    There are still a few verbs in modern Japanese that can be used as either 自動詞 or 他動詞. Most of the ones I'm aware of are Sino-Japanese (kanji terms read with on'yomi and followed by する), such as 完成する.

  2. If a verb is marked transitive in a dictionary, is that a guarantee that the verb has a specific object (that would be marked with を, か, or と) somewhere within the context of the conversation (it may be unstated)?

    I assume that you're describing Japanese-to-English dictionaries. I believe these all base their "intransitive / transitive" descriptions on the 自動詞・他動詞 distinctions in Japanese. If my understanding is correct, then yes, a "transitive verb" in this case would have an object, either explicitly included in the sentence or left unstated and implied (as in the "eat / 食べる" example above).

"Direct objects" in Japanese

Note that the presence of a direct object in Japanese (a noun marked with を) does not necessarily indicate that the verb is a 他動詞. Consider the sentence, 私は道を歩く。 This is literally "I walk the road." Syntactically, this could be considered a transitive use of the verb 歩く "walk". However, semantically, the action of 歩く-ing does not affect the road in any way -- it affects the actor, 私, instead: so 歩く is still a 自動詞, even though this sentence includes a direct object.

This is similar to how 向く works, as described in snailplane's answer to your other question.

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    完成する is not a good example because how it's actually used is heavily inclined to intransitive unlike many other する verbs. A typical example that has both usages is ひらく. – user4092 Mar 18 '17 at 6:53
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In Japanese verbs are usually not ambitransitive. There are uses where the direct object is omitted leading to a construct where a transitive verb appears as intransitive.

An example is:

今夜飲みに行きます。
Tonight I'm going out drinking

Where the part お酒を is implied, such that the verb "drink" is can only refer to the act of consuming alcohol unless otherwise stated. Instead many verbs have transitive/intransitive pairs, where the ending is changed to reflect the different usage, such as:

開く 開ける
乗る 乗せる
決まる 決める
... etc

There are some pure ambitransitive verbs though as pointed out below, even though they are less common, such as 回る、吹く、持つ...

See (5)自他同形の動詞について in this link: http://w01.i-next.ne.jp/~g140179870/jita.html

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    Regarding ambitransitive verbs, what about verbs like 回る, which seems intransitive, and yet can be used in the form ”を回る” – Locksleyu Mar 17 '17 at 16:36
  • What about 実現する? – Blavius Mar 17 '17 at 16:44
  • Interesting, that is contrary to what I have learned so I didn't think about it, but there are apparently ambitransitive verbs in Japanese. I'll update my comment. – bjorn Mar 17 '17 at 16:58
  • Related perhaps: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/24090/… – Herb Mar 17 '17 at 17:26

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