In the Duolingo courses I came across the sentence:


translated as:

Please tell me the meaning of this word.

The thing is 答える is an intransitive verb (自動詞); and in other sentences things like 質問に答える are being used.

So the question about why on that particular sentences it uses を...

I am familiar with the use of を for intransitive verbs of motion.

  • 学校に行く : to go to school (に marks the purpose, the goal)
  • 公園を歩く: to walk in(across) the park (を marks the medium by which the walking is done)

So I suppose it is something similar:

  • 質問に答える : answer to a question (に marks the purpose, the goal)
  • 意味を答える : answer "with/by" a meaning (を marking the "medium" by which the answering is done: trough the meaning)

Note that that last point is just a speculation of mine.
While there are various examples of ~を答える to be found, even in dictionaries; I haven't seen so far an explanation of it (for 答える; for verbs of motion yes, a lot), and so I am not fully confident my interpretation is correct.
Advice from a native speaker of more knowledgeable would be welcome.

  • 2
    Preposition mismatches between languages are pretty common, especially for expressions that have multiple related forms like “respond to” and “respond with”. There is no real equivalent of that “with” in Japanese (the instrumentive/means で is similar I think, but it never gets used figuratively like the English IMO, only literally) so I’m not surprised that meaning gets aligned to the direct object in Japanese. – Darius Jahandarie Feb 8 '20 at 3:06

答える is a transitive verb, too.

明鏡国語辞典 says:


So in your examples:

「質問答える」 ← the 答える is intransitive
「意味答える」 ← the 答える is transitive

As a side note, verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive include:

[開]{ひら}く -- 「ドアが開く」「傘を開く」
[閉]{と}じる -- 「つぼみが閉じる」「目を閉じる」
[終]{お}わる -- 「戦争が終わる」「授業を終わる」
[増]{ま}す -- 「食欲が増す」「水かさを増す」
[引]{ひ}く -- 「腫れがひく」「辞書をひく」
[吹]{ふ}く -- 「風が吹く」「笛を吹く」
[触]{ふ}れる -- 「脈が触れる」「手を触れる」

  • Oh, I thought that in Japanese a verb was either one or the other; that's new for me! – Pablo Saratxaga Feb 8 '20 at 8:00

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