What is the difference between and how can we explain the grammar in the expressions for "follow" in the examples below?

  1. 子供が母親のあとをついていく

 (A child is following his/her mother)

  2. 母親の買い物についていく (go shopping with mother)

  3. 彼の考えにはついていけない
 (I can't go along with his idea)

  4. 彼の後をつける (I follow/tail him-see also * below)

I wondered if this was because:

  • についていく allows the subject to "attach itself to the object" and move after it (grammatically this works well because both are intransitive)?
  • 後をつく and 後をつける are both idioms whereby:
  • つける can only be used with あと ("mark left behind") and as a transitive verb takes を to mark the object?
  • つく is intransitive so grammatically を is used "spatially" as in 信号を曲がる
  • 〜ついていく can only be used when there is continuous movement/"one journey", as opposed to say a child following its mother 24 hours a day who will start and stop/"make several journeys"?

References/notes on examples 1-4:

  1. All can be found in 総まとめ 語彙 N2-p132 (ex1-3) N1-p100 (ex4);

  2. *Example 4 also appears in the Apple dictionary as: こっそり人 (の後) を付ける|follow a person secretly / shadow [stalk / ⦅口⦆tail] a person

Or (long shot suggestion): - Is the つく verb the same in all cases? (last week I noticed that 付く is intransitive but 吐く as in うそをつく is transitive.)

Update to reflect two answers received as of 28 Aug 12:

To summarise answers received, there are two explanations:

Explanation 1:

The main difference b/w the examples can be explained by the difference b/w あとに & あとを:

  • 後に is a temporal/spatial use of を. Essentially the follower is following the same course as the object but not necessarily at the same time.
  • 跡を is a physical (or if emotionally used, metaphorical) use: the followers moves behind the object of its pursuit in "lockstep", speeding up and slowing down to maintain the same distance.

Regarding use of つくvsつける: 後をつく is ungrammatical because つく is intransitive but the ついていく in 後をついていくis thought of as independent transitive verb, taking 後 as object. (つける is a transitive verb and can take the object あとを)

Explanation 2 (Revised):

The main pts of this explanation was proposed after referring to the explanation 1 (above):

  • (~の後を)ついて行く is defined as "trail", and it classifies this usage with を as being intransitive (【自動】). It might literally be "follow someone's behind".
  • (人)の後について行く is defined as "tread in someone's footsteps"/"tread in the steps of", and ~の後について行く is listed as "follow" and classifies this usage with に as being transitive (【他動】).
  • 後をつける is used for shadowing/tailing and 跡をつける leaving traces,

Explanation 3 [Original Explanation 2]:

  • When the particle に is used the person being followed is the main actor in the sentence.
  • When the particle を is used the main actor in the sentence is unchanged.

This is similar to the difference b/w に伴う and を伴う

(Although this was explanation was replaced, I have kept it here for reference as I think it still has credibility.)

Any further comments or input are welcome.

  • possibly related: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/3713
    – cypher
    Aug 14, 2012 at 3:13
  • @cypher: I can see why you suggest a connection might exist but I can't see an answer to this question(?)
    – Tim
    Aug 14, 2012 at 5:15
  • neither could I, in fact I'm not 100% sure it is related, I just thought there was a reasonable chance it was.
    – cypher
    Aug 14, 2012 at 5:29
  • What is 「後をつく」...?
    – user1016
    Aug 15, 2012 at 14:54
  • 1
    @dotnetN00b: The exact wording might depend on the circumstances, (using 分からない/理解 etc) not necessarily a literal translation using ついていく (if that is what you are really asking). Alternatively if you want to say you don't agree with somebody's idea, then I think you might use ex#3 (あなたの考え/言うことにはついていけない...)
    – Tim
    Aug 28, 2012 at 4:37

2 Answers 2


Edit: Rewrote as I think user1205935's explanation of them being separate verbs sounded more plausible than mine.

Looking through Space ALC, there are definitions for 後をついて行く as well as 後について行く. One difference does seem to be transitivity:

  • (~の後を)ついて行く is defined as "trail", and it classifies this usage with as being intransitive (【自動】). It might literally be "follow someone's behind".

  • (人)の後について行く is defined as "tread in someone's footsteps"/"tread in the steps of", and ~の後について行く is listed as "follow" and classifies this usage with as being transitive (【他動】).

    Here I do think that ついて and 行く being separate when used with is likely. In a separate listing, you can see (人)のすぐ後について行く as "follow someone to heel". Here I think the ついて means "attach", so maybe in this usage it might tend to be used to indicate following closely to someone.

This page lists 後をつける and 跡をつける together, so I think the two might sometimes be interchangeable (this page says 後をつける is used for shadowing/tailing and 跡をつける leaving traces, so maybe one might be more appropriate than the other depending on context, though it seems Daijirin and Daijisen both include "shadow/tail" as one of the meanings for 跡をつける.)

That page includes こっそりと後を追うこと in the definition so it does seem that 後をつける/跡をつける also include the nuance of stealthy/secret pursuit. This seems to also be backed up in the second Daijirin definition for 跡をつける: 後ろからひそかについて行く ("Stealthily follow from behind").

The fact that definition includes について行く also might mean について行く doesn't include the nuance of stealth.

This Chiebukuro page also seems to back up that the Kanji for ついていく is 付いていく, so I think they both use , though I think it's frequently written with Hiragana.

  • cypher & @user1205935: Thanks - as both your answers are quite long I'll read them slowly again and watch for anyone else's comments.
    – Tim
    Aug 21, 2012 at 9:45
  • cypher & @user1205935: Thank you both very much for your answers. I have tried to summarise the main points at the end of my question (you can see the parts I still want to ask you) although you may feel I have skipped some details. As for bounty, I am afraid at can't choose b/w you - both seem equally plausible but (I think) even if I do nothing one or both of you will receive at least part of it. Please feel free to comment further.
    – Tim
    Aug 25, 2012 at 8:38
  • cypher & @user1205935: Thank you for both of your extensive input. I have summarised the main points of your revised answers in my question. I had no idea this question would be as deep as it is and to be honest I struggle to choose b/w your answers (although I am inclined to agree with Cypher's suggestion that を in ついていく is technically intransitive) but will find the expressions to easier to use in future. The fairest way to award the bounty is to allow other more expert users of this site than me to add their up-ticks to the answer they see best. Hope you can agree. Thanks again.
    – Tim
    Aug 28, 2012 at 2:06

Rather than looking at the verb つく, this may be best explained by focussing on あと. Compare


The あと from the first example is a spatial or temporal following, whereas the あと from the second example is more like a metaphor for a physical following, as in 足跡「あしあと」»footprints«, indicating an emotional following. That the second あと is sometimes written with 後, rather than 跡, is as subtle a decision as distinguishing between 診る and 看る (or 見る and 観る), with a preferred 漢字 for a specific context, but no clear right and wrong. In order to be able to distinguish between あと as spatial/temporal concept (written 後) and as physical concept (written 跡), however, the preferred 漢字 for your fourth example would be 跡.

Lastly, it shouldn't be upsetting that the verb ついていく allows both intransitive and transitive uses.

The meaning of "follow", is thus spatial/temporal in 後についていく and physical (or by metaphor emotional) in 後をついていく.

Here the difference between spatial and physical is a matter of distance/time. Following spatially could mean following the same path, no matter when or at what speed. Following physically mean as best as one can at the same speed at the same time, with as little distance as possible.

I hope this answers at least part of your question.

EDIT: In response to your edit, I will write some more about つく, ついていく, and つける. After some discussion with the locals, I think it is best to think of ついていく in


as two different verbs. Let me explain.

The ついていく in


is thought of as independent transitive verb, taking 後 as object.

The ついていく in


is thought of as a compound of the intransitive verb つく and 行く, where 後に is the indirect object (is this the correct term?) for つく.

One can say


because つける is a transitive verb, but not


because つく is intransitive...

P.S. The 漢字 for つく is in all cases 付.

  • Thank you. Please see edits to question and simgle comments to both you and cypher above.
    – Tim
    Aug 25, 2012 at 8:39

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