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From what I understand, there are two types of intransitive verbs (might be wrong)

  1. The intransitive verb can act with a direct object or direction with the particle に

私は学校行きます。

私は友達会います。

私は道迷います。

  1. The intransitive verb is by itself, and can't be used with the に particle.

私は朝早く起きます。

私は玩具で遊びます。


But I was told that 笑う fits under 2. and is not normally used with the に particle.

For example, if I want to say "I laughed at the cat", why can't I say 私は猫に笑いました?

But why is is okay in this sentence?

彼らは皆彼の冗談笑いました。

They all laughed at his joke.

If I want to say "laughed at (noun)" why can't I use the に particle in certain cases?

And since 笑う can also be a transitive verb, why isn't を used in the sentence above?

Can someone please explain the grammar behind this?

  • 1
    Where does your premise of 笑う being only an intransitive verb come from? – l'électeur May 29 '18 at 13:23
  • @l'électeur I realized that 笑う can also be transitive. Various dictionaries online listed 笑う as intransitive, and omitted the transitive definition... – shade549 May 29 '18 at 13:33
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    As a caution, don't look at English 'laugh at' and assume that Japanese has to have something equivalent to 'at'. Xを笑う is largely equivalent to English 'laugh at X'. – Sjiveru May 29 '18 at 14:56
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笑う has several meanings (laugh, smile, grin, chuckle...) and is an intransitive verb:

声を出して笑う laugh out loud
冗談を聞いて笑う hear a joke and laugh
笑って挨拶する greet with a smile

When used with the indirect object particle に:

冗談に笑う laugh at a joke (in the sense "hear a joke and laugh" "a joke causes you to laugh")
(I think ~を聞いて笑う would be more common/natural than ~に笑う)


笑う can also be a transitive verb, and can be used with the direct object particle を. According to 明鏡国語辞典:

わらう【笑う】
🈔〘五〙ばかにする。嘲笑{ちょうしょう}する。あざわらう。「一円を笑う者は一円に泣く」

When used as a transitive verb, 笑う means "laugh at~~" in the sense of "ridicule" "deride" "sneer at~~" "make fun of~~".

人の失敗を笑う laugh at another's failure (in the sense of "ridicule / make fun of~~")
人(のこと)を笑う laugh at others (in the sense of "ridicule / make fun of~~")


Now back to your examples...

彼らは皆彼の冗談に笑いました。

It'd be understood as "They all laughed at his joke" in the sense of "They heard his joke and laughed" "His joke made them laugh".

私は猫に笑いました。

It'd probably be understood as "I laughed at a cat" in the sense of "I saw a (funny) cat and laughed/smiled" (≂「私は猫を見て笑いました。」)
To say "I laughed at a cat" in the sense of "ridiculed / made fun of a cat", you'd say 私は猫を笑いました.

  • Is it more common to use 笑う with another verb such as [Noun]を見て笑う or を聞いて笑う than to say [Noun]に/を笑う? If I said 猫に笑いました it adds the nuance that I "saw" the cat and laughed? Vs. 猫を笑いました which means I laughed directly at the cat? So に is actually を見て? – shade549 May 30 '18 at 3:13
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    @shade I don't think [Noun] 笑う is so common. I don't think 笑う is uncommon. You'd say 猫に笑いました when seeing a cat made you / caused you to laugh. 猫を笑いました means a different thing, and has a negative nuance, "ridiculed, provoked, made a fool of a cat". The に in [Noun]に笑った would be rephrased as [Noun]を見て笑った or [Noun]を聞いて笑った, depending on what caused you to laugh. – Chocolate May 30 '18 at 12:16
  • @Chocolate Great answer. I'm not sure if you fully understand the phrase 'make a fool of' though. "make a fool of another's failure" doesn't really make sense. You can only make a fool of a person, not of their actions, e.g. "He made a fool out of me when he asked me that trick question". This seems to be a good definition "trick or deceive (someone) so that they look foolish.". So can 笑う be used with this definition i.e. can the object of 笑う be a person. – user3856370 May 30 '18 at 17:03
  • @user3856370 Ohh.. I think "Trick or deceive (someone) so that they look foolish" would be closer to かつぐ or 笑い者にする. The object of ~を笑う can be either a person or a thing/action. Does "ridicule + someone's action" sound strange, too? and what about "make fun of someone's failure"? – Chocolate May 30 '18 at 23:26
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    @Chocolate I think both of those phrases would sound slightly better with a person as the object, but they both sound fine with an action as the object too. You could say , for example, 'He made fun of the fact that I couldn't whistle', or 'he made fun of me for not being able to whistle.', but you would never say 'he made a fool out of my inability to whistle'. You could say something like 'He made a fool out of me by trying to get me to whistle when he knew I couldn't' – user3856370 May 31 '18 at 21:41

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