Note from the OP: The original phrasing of the question was very unclear so, after thinking this over a few times, I decided to rewrite this completely. Please see here for the new question

In other words, is it ever acceptable to use the を particle with an intransitive verb? (**other than in the exception mentioned below)

For example, the verb "to run" is usually an intransitive verb (just like the verbs walk, sleep, jump, grow, etc.), but it has a direct object in the phrase "run a marathon" or "run a race".

So, in Japanese would it be correct to say 「マラソンを走る」 or should one say 「マラソンが走る」 or「マラソンで走る」 or something else?

There are other examples which (in English) might not be technically correct but could be used in casual speech, for example "to jump a jumping jack" (vs. "to do a jumping jack")

In Japanese, would, for example 「ジャンピングジャックを跳ねる」 (as opposed to 「ジャンピングジャックをする」) be acceptable in casual speech or would it sound extremely unnatural?

**I know that there is a different meaning of を, where it doesn't indicated direct object but functions similarly to に or で, for example:

公園を走る ~ run around in the park.

  • 1
    Your re-write completely changes the scope of the question. I would suggest leaving the question as it is, and creating a new question for users to answer.
    – ajsmart
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 13:12
  • @ajsmart Thank you for the suggestion. I did this because it seems that stackexchange in general frowns heavily on "duplicate questions". I'll follow through with your suggestion; hopefully people agree the new question is different enough.
    – Aqualone
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 3:22

3 Answers 3


The post by ajsmart makes some good points.

I'd like to add to that, since I also note that there's a key difference in terminology here that may be causing confusion.

English transitive / intransitive

In English, a transitive verb must take an object, and an intransitive verb must not take an object. Also, transitivity is usually described in terms of syntax -- the structure of a particular sentence. A verb that has a direct object in the sentence is transitive, and a verb that has no direct object in that sentence is intransitive.

  • An English intransitive verb appears in the sentence "I eat". The verb "eat" here is an intransitive verb, without an object.

  • In contrast, an English transitive verb appears in the sentence "I eat an apple". Here, the verb "eat" is a transitive verb, with "an apple" as its direct object.

Japanese "transitive" / "intransitive"

In Japanese, the Japanese term most often used as a rough equivalent for "transitive" is 他動詞【たどうし】, and for "intransitive" it's 自動詞【じどうし】. However, the Japanese terms describe not the syntax of how a verb is used in any given sentence, but rather the semantics of what a verb means inherently. That's why I put "transitive" and "intransitive" in quotes in the header here -- these are not quite the correct words to use for Japanese, strictly speaking: a verb is a 自動詞 or a 他動詞 regardless of whether an object is included in the sentence.

  • A Japanese "intransitive" verb is described as a 自動詞【じどうし】, or literally a 自【じ】 "self" 動【どう】 "acting" 詞【し】 "word". The action of a 自動詞 primarily affects the agent of the verb, the person or thing doing the verb.

  • In contrast, a Japanese "transitive" verb is described as a 他動詞【たどうし】, or literally a 他【た】 "other" 動【どう】 "acting" 詞【し】 "word". The action of a 他動詞 primarily affects something other than the agent of the verb.

Object marking with を

Given the difference in how verbs are described, it can catch English speakers a bit off-guard when they first encounter sentences like 道【みち】を行【い】く, where the "intransitive" verb 行【い】く suddenly has a direct object. The agent of the verb is the one affected by the action of 行【い】く, which is why this is described in Japanese as a 自動詞【じどうし】. But we can still talk about the "where" of the action, which is how this を is used. The 道【みち】 in some ways is a kind of object, conceptually speaking, only in English, we would need to use locational prepositions to make this grammatical, as in "[I] go on the street" or "[I] go along the street".

Meanwhile, we must also note that the verb in 彼【かれ】は食【た】べる is still a 他動詞【たどうし】 even without an explicitly mentioned object, since the action of the verb happens to something other than the agent.

  • 1
    European linguistics not fitting the Japanese language strikes again.
    – user40476
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 21:15
  • This doesn't really address the question at all. The confusion was never about 道を行く-type sentences.
    – Aqualone
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 18:17
  • 1
    @Aqualone, your question confuses several things related to transitivity and 自•多動詞. Even if you yourself are clear on the distinctions, the wording in your posts here could confuse others. Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 5:10
  • @EiríkrÚtlendi Perhaps it does; I am sorry if that is the case. I have edited the question in the hope of making it more clear.
    – Aqualone
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 5:43

If you are simply trying to have an object with an intransitive verb, the answer is no. Intransitive verbs do not take on direct objects, and therefore will never be used in conjunction with を marking the direct object.

Using を with intransitive verbs will most definitely sound unnatural. I got called out on it a lot as I was learning.

You can, however, use を to indicate a space traversed, or a location to pass. を is not exclusively limited to only one function. You can learn more about other functions here.

So, in Japanese would it be correct to say 「マラソンを走る」 or should one say 「マラソンが走る」 or something else?

In this case, it is actually 「マラソンを走る」. This is because を is not actually marking a direct object. The marathon in this sentence is not the object you can do things to, but rather a measured distance. We can consider it a space to be traversed. As you have noted, 公園を走る is grammatically correct. You can also use it to indicate other places or distances you've run. This is the same function for を marking a space to be traversed or a location passed.

「マラソンが走る」 is not grammatically correct. In literal translation, it's something to the effect of "The marathon is running (using its legs)." It doesn't work, because marathons aren't nouns that can do actions.

「マラソンで走る」is also not grammatically correct. で has several uses including marking the place of an action or the means an action is done. In this case, the noun marathon is not a place, and it is not a means of running (though 道 (path) would be). The other uses for で wouldn't really fit here either.

In Japanese, would, for example 「ジャンピングジャックを跳ねる」 (as opposed to 「ジャンピングジャックをする」) be acceptable in casual speech or would it sound extremely unnatural?

「ジャンピングジャックを跳ねる」Would be an unnatural phrase for two reasons. 1) Using an object with an intransitive verb is not grammatically correct. 2) 跳ねる tends to be more prancey and frolicsome. Jumping jacks aren't prancey or frolicsome, so it would sound a little strange. I must admit that someone frolicking or prancing doing jumping jacks would rather amusing to watch though.

I think it is best to stick with「ジャンピングジャックをする」to avoid being potentially confusing.

  • I agree that "marathon" is not a thing you do stuff to (like a cake you eat), but linguistically isn't "marathon" the direct object in "to run a marathon"? Like "trial" in "to undergo a trial." Clearly the を inマラソンを走る is not the same as the を in 公園を走る. In English and at least several other languages the former translates to "run [marathon=object]" while the latter translates to "run IN [a/the] park". The only argument I can imagine is a technical one where one just declares "in Japanese 走る is an intransitive verb, therefore the を before it by definition does not denote a direct object."
    – Aqualone
    Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 22:27
  • Clearly the を inマラソンを走る is not the same as the を in 公園を走る I'm actually stipulating that they are the same を. You'll want to read the other answer, which is more linguistically rigorous, but both 公園 and マラソン are objects of 走る, just not the same as a direct object that you throw or kick, but rather an object that you run (on).
    – ajsmart
    Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 22:55
  • Sorry if I wasn't clear. I mean to say that marathon/マラソン is a direct object, whereas "park/公園" is an indirect object. You do literally "run the marathon", as "marathon" in this context refers to the abstract concept of running (like the noun "run" in "go for a run"), not the roads or physical 26 mile course. (I think the ideas here are language-independent. AFAIK at least in English, Spanish, and Chinese, "marathon" in "run a marathon" is clearly a direct object, but in Japanese perhaps there can be confusion arising from the multiple definitions of を).
    – Aqualone
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 0:27
  • Never mind, on second thought I see what you mean. "to run a marathon" is perhaps properly interpreted as short for "to run in a marathon", which makes "marathon" the indirect object.
    – Aqualone
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 1:54
  • 1
    @Aqualone, you're getting confused by English grammar when you're trying to parse the Japanese. In English, "run a marathon" has "marathon" as the direct object of "run" as a syntactic argument of the verb. It's a direct object as there are no prepositions. But again, English transitivity is about syntax or sentence structure, whereas Japanese "transitivity" is about semantics or the underlying meaning of the verb. So while both マラソン and 公園 are marked as objects in your samples (both take を), neither of these are the semantic objects of the action of the verb. Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 18:04

Intransitive verbs can never be used with を, except for expressions like 「公園を歩く」, and at least one other exception, that of the abstract object, also known as cognate objects in linguistics.

In general, there are cases where a semantically intransitive verb (e.g. to live, to die, to exist, to sleep) can take an "abstract object". In English, for example, this occurs in the expression

"to die a painful death",

where the abstract concept "painful death" is the object of the usually-intransitive verb "to die". These are called cognate objects since the object is etymologically related to the verb.

In Japanese, it seems that cognate objects are more rare that in other languages like English, but examples do exist.

At least, it seems that the phrase「死を死ぬ」exists, even though 死ぬ is an intransitive verb. For example, there is a song with the title


"I want to die my death"

Another example is 「人生を生きる」"to live life"

In the song "Aruite ikou" by Ikimonogakari, there is the line


I'm going to go live "the present"

Or more idiomatically, "I'm going to live in the present"

Note that not some cognate objects are merely normal objects of transitive verbs. For example in "to sing a song" or 「歌を歌う」, both "song" and 「歌」are cognates of their respective verbs, but "sing" is a transitive verb.

Conversely there are cases where an intransitive verb takes an abstract object that is not cognate to the verb, such as 「人生を生きる」

(So "abstract object" is the more appropriate terminology but I'm not sure if there is a proper linguistic term for that.)

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