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In 初級を教える人のための日本語文法ハンドブック (pg. 24), an attempt is made to distinguish between ~を出る and ~から出る (also applied to 出発する or other "leaving" verbs), but the description seems inconsistent:

「を」vs.「から」

離れる対象を表す「を」と「から」は、次の場合、どちらも使える点で似ています。

「その船は2日前神戸港{を / から}出発した。」

しかし、「大学を出る」のように物理的に離れるのではない場合にはカラ格は使えませんし、次のように無生物主語の場合にはヲ格は使えません。

「煙が窓{x を / ○ から}出ています。」

The second part clearly states that sentences with inanimate objects as subjects must use 「から」as the particle for "leaving" verbs, but the first part says that either 「を」or「から」can be used for a sentence with 船, presumably an inanimate object, as the subject. This seems contradictory.

What am I missing here?

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    The first example is about 出発する, the second about 出る
    – mic
    Dec 11 '19 at 17:04
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Short Answer
を marks the point of departure of a person (or an inanimate object involving the movement of people). から is used only for inanimate subjects.

Long Answer
Your example brings up what is sometimes called a "special use of を". Usually, を marks the object of a transitive verb, but in this case, it is appearing with the intransitive verb 出る. This is important because it is the key to understanding the difference between から and を. According to 'Intermediate Japanese: A Grammar and Workbook", the use of を with 出る marks a point of departure which involves the movement of people. This seems to include things like ships and airplanes too. Even though they are technically inanimate objects, they get subsumed into the animate category because they are carrying people from a point of departure. The same is true of other cases in which を is used with an intransitive verb - e.g. 公園を通る, 歩道を歩く, 橋を渡る. In all cases, it involves the movement of people from one point. The use of を is acceptable in these examples. But when the sentence involves something inanimate (like the smoke in your example) which doesn't involve the movement of people, then から is the correct choice.

On a side note, I have occasionally heard native Japanese speakers referring to trains, planes or ships using いる instead of ある (船がいる). This might be related to the concept here, since the involvement of the people aboard may change the category of the noun to animate, at least in informal speech.

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  • I figured it had something to do with how the Japanese defined "inanimate", so thanks for the confirmation.
    – Hikonyan
    Dec 11 '19 at 18:46
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    BTW other examples of "animated objects" are taxis and buses and sometimes other moving things: nihongo-c.co.jp/blog/blog-entry-42.html Dec 11 '19 at 19:57
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    In Japan, a Japanese teacher also pointed out another difference: 「部屋を出る」 means I exit the room and go somewhere, while 「部屋から出る」 implies I exit the room and stop outside (or the opposite; I'm quite sure it's so, but not 100%).
    – Mauro
    Dec 11 '19 at 22:08
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the first part says that either 「を」or「から」can be used for a sentence with 船, presumably an inanimate object, as the subject.

Word's animacy in Japanese

As you may know, nouns in Japanese has a category animacy, which is decided by whether the object is "sentient" or "animal-like", and affects verb choice and numerous grammatical phenomena. What should be noted is, however, that a noun is not always considered animate or inanimate by nature, but judged on a case-by-case basis.

A car cannot move by itself, but when a driver is in, it (as a whole) can travel freely as if has a will. Thus an attended car is animate. This is naturally true for all transportation and other manipulated moving machines (including those commanded by AI). To be more specific, judgment toward those objects of non-evident animacy relies much on the observer's attitude and expectation. For instance, even you can't see the driver clearly, a taxi coming down the street with "for hire" sign is probably animate; even it is moving, your car rolling because you have forgotten to set the parking brake is presumably inanimate; a dead body is inanimate, but it is safer to assume a lying corpse animate in a zombie outbreak; and so on.

In this case, a ship obviously piloted is animate.


~を出る vs ~から出る

Verbs that mean going out or leaving can have its place of origin marked by particle を or から. The difference is that with から, the place is imagined as a real location, with extent and boundary, while with を, it is more like a conceptual point than a physical place (like a station shown on a timetable or a route map). English also has a similar distinction that lets you say you are "at the airport" or "in the airport"; an airport is a big facility, but the former ignores the geospatial details and focuses on the fact that you are "functionally" at the point accessible to what it provides and not to what another place does, unlike the latter means you are somewhere in its premises.

As a result, ~を出る means that you "conceptually" leave the place, or to say, you go out of that place with a clear orientation (if not intent) toward elsewhere. ~から出る simply means out of the boundary, including when you accidentally put your foot one step out of the border. Thus in most cases, what can do ~を出る is something animate, but it is not a hard requirement. 銃口を飛び出した弾 "bullet discharged from the barrel" and 湖を出た川 "river flowed out of the lake" are perfectly normal, because they are directed by fixed courses. On the contrary, as the handbook says, 大学を出る "graduate from college" is only an abstract idea irrelevant with walking out of the campus site, so you can't replace it with ~から.

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