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I continue to be puzzled by the distinction in Japanese between transitive (“other move”) and intransitive (“self move”) verbs. My understanding is that the primary determinant is the extent to which the grammatical object (if one exists) is affected by the action described by the verb. That understanding is undermined by a sentence such as:

本を 忘れました (I forgot the book)

Of course the act of forgetting may have consequences for the book but they would be indirect. Can indirect consequences have a bearing on transitivity (in Japanese)? In any case there must be plenty of instances where the act of forgetting has no consequences (such as “I forgot the king’s name”).

Can someone please explain the rationale, or is it simply another of those things that one must accept without satisfactory explanation?

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    'Forget' is a transitive verb in English too
    – Angelos
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 10:49
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    I've never heard of this idea of transitivity. As noted above, shouldn't "forget" give you the same concerns in English? Also "know," "remember," and others?
    – Leebo
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 11:02
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    @Angelos: but that's consistent with the principles of English grammar, for which the existence of a direct object determines transitivity
    – justerman
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 11:04
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    I guess I'm not aware of a situation where a 他動詞 in Japanese couldn't take a direct object. As an aside, Japanese learners of English do use the word 他動詞 to talk about transitive verbs in English, so it's not something fundamentally about those kanji (他 other, 動 move) that determines it.
    – Leebo
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 11:14
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    Depends on how you say it. The verbs 欲しがる and 欲する are transitive. Structuring a sentence in Japanese with 欲しい as an adjective takes the issue of transitivity out of the equation in a sense. Since it's not a verb.
    – Leebo
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 11:22

2 Answers 2

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Unfortunately, this is something you have to simply accept. While you can usually judge the transitivity of a verb easily based on the knowledge you already have, the transitivity of many verbs are not straightforward. In quite a few cases, the transitivities of verbs with exactly the same meaning are different between English and Japanese. Ultimately, you have to remember which are tricky verbs one by one.

See this questions for examples of tricky verbs: に vs. を in "to pass a test"

(By the way, after dozens of years of learning English, I still don't get why "to see" and "to hear" are transitive but "to look" and "to listen" are intransitive. All I could do was stop wondering and learn them by rote.)

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    "I still don't get why "to see" and "to hear" are transitive but "to look" and "to listen" are intransitive..." - this may have something to do with the fact that 'seeing' and 'hearing' are both passive actions. That is, they happen whether you like it or not. 'Looking' and 'listening' on the other hand, are actions that one consciously decides to do, i.e. "I heard an explosion" but "I listened to music". This at least puts them in different categories, and may be linked to their transitivity. But really, as you sort of say, it's pretty much purely idiomatic. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 11:09
  • @user19642323 Maybe, but watch and sniff are transitive...
    – naruto
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 12:09
  • good counter examples. There is probably no link then. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 12:19
  • I had the idea that transitivity was a problematic issue before posting, but I thought that, however often apparent exceptions were identified, there was some underlying semantic rationale. (A view supported by Zeljko Cipris & Shoko Hamano in “Making Sense of Japanese Grammar”.) Surely there is/was some principle that explains Japanese transitivity. Your response here, and especially the other answer you cited, tells me that, if there ever was, that principle has been lost from sight. That’s disappointing, but thank you for putting me right.
    – justerman
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 13:48
  • @justerman Well, as long as you don't mind that it doesn't help you learn Japanese efficiently, such exploration is indeed interesting. You may want to wait for an answer that gives us more academic insights.
    – naruto
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 14:09
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My original answer was wrong, so I'll summarise what I've learned from the comments and from researching a bit more, with thanks to Eiríkr Útlendi.

In English, we usually talk about syntactic transitivity, which has to do with whether a direct object is present. “I eat a sandwich” features a transitive verb, but “I eat” is intransitive, because no direct object is present.

In contrast, Japanese has a notion of semantic transitivity. サンドを食べる features a transitive verb, which is still transitive in the sentence 食べる, because the verb affects something else.

It does not seem to me to be particularly important whether a verb is semantically transitive if we are using it with no object or anything else attached. However, knowing whether a verb is transitive is definitely important when it comes to using the correct particles.

We have seen を as a direct object marker, but there are other direct object markers than を, and を is not always a direct object marker. In “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” by Makino and Tsutsui, direct object marker を is marked as o¹, while, for example, o² is “a particle which indicates a space in/on/across/through/along which s.o. or s.t. moves”.

Your question seems to be about how to determine whether a verb is transitive or not. It seems to me that this can often be inferred from usage. In サンドを食べる, を is used as o¹, a direct object marker. In 道を歩く, を is not a direct object marker, but rather spatial marker o².

Of course, some ambiguity remains. Which usage of を do we see in マラソンを走る? It's o² according to this answer, but that isn't clear from just looking at the sentence.

Therefore, my best attempt at answering your question is to say that, when one wants to determine the transitivity of a verb, one should take cues from how it is used grammatically in examples such as the above, while consulting the different possible meanings of identically-written particles such as を. “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar”, which I mentioned above, is useful for this.

Here are some additional resources I found useful:

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  • Unfortunately, no, transitivity (or more specifically 他動詞-ness) in Japanese is not just a matter of whether the verb takes an object marked with を. Consider: 道を歩く. The verb 歩く is forever a 自動詞, as the action only directly involves a change for the subject, the actor. Verbs of motion and passage of time are generally 自動詞 and can often take an object marked with を to indicate the space or time in or through which the action happens. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 19:02
  • Whether an object is present or not involves syntactic transitivity, based on the syntax of a sentence. English grammar is generally explained syntactically. In "I eat a sandwich", the verb "eat" is described as transitive since there is an explicit object, "a sandwich". In "I eat", the verb "eat" is described as intransitive, since there is no explicit object. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 19:05
  • Meanwhile, the Japanese verb classes of 他動詞【たどうし】 and 自動詞【じどうし】 involve semantic transitivity, based on the meaning of the verbs. In simple terms, if the action only happens to the actor, the verb is a 自動詞 (literally "self action word"), and if the action happens upon something else, the verb is a 他動詞 (literally "other action verb"). In Japanese, the verb 食【た】べる ("to eat") is always a 他動詞 or "semantically transitive verb", whether we have an explicit object as in 「サンドを食べる」, or an omitted and implicit object as in the one-word sentence 「食べる」. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 19:07
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    Thank you @EiríkrÚtlendi, I was not aware of the distinction between syntactic and semantic transitivity in Japanese. I've updated my answer based on your feedback and some additional reading, though it is certainly still lacking. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 19:11
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi - It’s not that I disagree with you but I’m wondering, if the transitivity of a Japanese verb is determined purely based on its meaning, why 会う shouldn't be considered a transitive verb. It's something you always do to another person and the closest English verb “to meet” indeed takes a direct object. Syntactically too, 会う requires an argument for the person you meet as much as 食べる does for the thing you eat. The only significant difference seems to be that argument is not marked with を but に, but this is syntax.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 2:58

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