Am I supposed to know how verbs conjugate?

I’m currently following Tofugu’s Learn Japanese guide, which suggests waiting until WaniKani level 10 before beginning to study grammar or kana vocabulary. However, here on level 5 I’m struggling to get the meanings right on some of the verb-related vocabulary like 見る/見える/見せる. Sometimes the meaning explanations just say “it’s a transitive verb!”, which doesn’t really help me remember which one is the transitive verb.

At this stage, would it be useful for me to go study the conjugation rules for Japanese verbs, or should I just keep banging my head against the 見 and 止 gangs in WaniKani?


見る, 見える, and 見せる are etymologically related, but they are not conjugated versions of each other. They are all separate verbs. Just to clarify. So, to answer the question in the thread title… no, you don’t need to know how verbs conjugate to answer correctly.

Some tricks for remembering transitive-intransitive pairs relate to identifying the class of verb, which is a topic related to conjugation, because conjugation differs based on verb class. None of the 見 verbs are really in any of those classic pairs though, as far as I can remember.

Sorry I can’t help more in a concrete sense. For me, going and finding more examples of problem words out in the real world is how I deal with them.


As far as I understand (though correct me if I’m wrong) it’s similar to passive in english (I eat a cake vs the cake is eaten). The best you can do is create mnemonics for them. For example for this specific triplet I went with 見る being to see, because I knew that one. 見える is kinda close to that, it basically means “to be seen” which in the official translation is “to be visible” (both are accepted as answers, I believe). And for me the least like 見る is of course 見せる so that is the most different, it means to show.

As long as you internalize these, you should eventually get them. There are general rules, such as す vs る ending means, that the す verb is the transitive one (you do it to すmething), and a few like that.


Transitive and intransitive verbs are not quite like passive. Passive sentences don’t have a subject (as seen from your example). Or more properly “the subject is not the agent”.

Intransitive verbs on the other hand have no object.

“I drop the ball”. The ball is the object. Drop is transitive.
“The ball falls”. No object exists. The ball is the subject. Falls is intransitive.


Yeah you’re right, they are just similar I guess

The problem is that some intransitive Japanese verbs are most naturally translated into English as passive forms. So that definitely contributes to some confusion… as well as the fact that natives don’t really have to ever think about these concepts in their own language.


i really struggled until i watched this video.

yes the visuals are creepy. yes she talks too slow. yes the voice is creepy too… but set the playback speed to 1.25x and never mess up your transitive/intransitive pairs again!


I’ll try to provide some ideas on how you might remember the difference. This is also more or less how I remember them. Just know that none of what I’m about to say is etymologically rigorous at all, partly because I don’t have enough knowledge about how each of these verbs evolved. (I still haven’t had the time to study Classical Japanese because I’m working on becoming more fluent in modern Japanese and getting to the point that I can pass the JLPT N1 with flying colours.)

見る – I guess you could say that I just treat this as the most ‘basic’ verb in this set. It’s the shortest verb of the lot. It also happens that it’s transitive (i.e. ‘to see (something)’). I can’t really come up with a pattern you can use to remember that, but I feel like 見る is the most common of the three verbs, and so… I guess you could just consider that ‘see’ is also the shortest and most common of the three translations in English, and link them up that way? There’s actually another set of verbs like this for hearing, with the shortest one also being the transitive one: 聞く(きく)= ‘to hear/listen to (something)’

見える – it just happens that える also appears at the end of ‘to be heard’=聞こえる(きこえる), so again, the intransitive verb in each of these two very common ‘sensory verb’ sets has the same sort of ending. Here’s the thing though: 見える can also mean 'to be visible, and it happens that there’s another verb called える that’s linked to the ideas of ‘receiving’ and ‘possibility’. (I’m not going to go any further because the truth is that if you know how compound verbs are actually formed with える at the end, you’ll know that my suggestion probably messes up whether the verb is transitive or intransitive, whereas it is very certainly intransitive, and that’s important to remember.) Point is,「somethingが見える」means that thing is perceived by the eye (and therefore ‘received’), or that it can (\implies possibility) be seen. This is one way you can try to remember it: assign an ‘intransitive’ meaning to 〜える as an ending for sensory verbs, or link it to える, which is a (fairly advanced) verb that actually exists.

見せる – this is a personal theory, but I use it quite a lot, and it helps me. Verbs that have せる or す as their final syllables often carry a ‘causative’ meaning (i.e. 'to make (someone) do ‘something’). This is partly due to grammar you’ll learn eventually (〜させる and 〜(あ)せる are causative endings for two different groups of verbs), but I think it’s also linked to etymology and Classical Japanese. Anyway, for 見せる specifically, consider this: what is ‘showing’? It’s ‘making/letting (someone) see (something)’, right? That sounds causative to me. You can think of these verbs as being related to する (‘to do’) and させる (‘to make (someone) do’) in that they involve taking action and making/letting something happen.

That’s basically how I think about it. These aren’t things that I knew from the beginning, but I used them as intuitions and ‘convincing guesses’ fairly early on just to help myself find some structure and remember things. Working out the truth of how these verbs came about can come much later, but by then, you’ll probably already know how to use them. :slight_smile:

Would you mind explaining which verbs you mean for this one, along with their readings? 止 is a little troublesome because it actually has quite a few readings, probably with slightly different meanings (that I haven’t teased apart entirely myself), but two of the three ‘verb readings’ I know sound alike, so they’re not hard to remember once you know one of them.

My guess is that you’re looking at とめる and とまる. Am I right?


That is just a suggestion. Personally, I don’t think there’s much merit to it, you can start with something like Genki (or any other resource) from level 1 if you like (I started Genki when I was around your level). Knowing Kanji is not a prerequisite for learning vocab and grammar, but most textbooks teach Kanji sooner or later, and most do it in a far worse way than WK, so that’s why it’s probably useful to have a certain head start, but waiting for 10 levels seems excessive to me.

1 Like

To add to what you said, transitive and intransitive refers to an intrinsic characteristic of a verb (although many verbs can be used in both ways, so it would be more proper to refer to a particular use of a verb as transitive or intransitive). The verb to kill is usually transitive and the verb to die is usually intransitive.

But at least in European languages, passive is just a verb form (in English it’s constructed with an auxiliary verb, but in e.g. Latin it’s just a regular conjugation). We can understand it as a valency operation, i.e. an operation that changes the argument structure of a transitive verb. The argument that used to be the subject disappears, but can be reintroduced optionally with some special marker (by in English, in Latin it’s using some particular case, but I don’t remember which one). The argument that used to be the object becomes the new subject. Since the clause now has no direct object, it can be thought of as an intransitive construction, albeit a derived one.

That’s why using the passive in English often can end up having a similar meaning as a particular intransitive verb in Japanese. But what we really need to realise is that Japanese is often able to do lexically (i.e. by using a different verb) what is often only possible by using a passive construction in English and/or where English just uses the same verb both as a transitive and an intransitive one.


Yes, these are the ones I had in mind.

I’ve since realized that I can apply a “rule” that in these kinds of verb pairs, the one that ends in an あ sound followed by る is intransitive. (I’m not sure whether this is actually a rule or whether it just happens to be true for 止める/止まる, 上げる/上がる, and 下げる/下がる.)

From my understanding, if you only know one verb it’s usually not enough to tell whether it is transitive or intransitive (e.g. you can’t say “if it ends in える it’s (in)transitive”, as both cases are possible).

However it does seem to me so far that if you know both verbs you can usually guess which one is transitive and which one is intransitive. Maybe there are exceptions but so far my intuition seems to work there. ある/える seems to be one such type of pair, another such type is す/る (e.g. 返す/返る).


If I remember correctly, it is a rule of sorts, or at least a pattern. There are three main sorts of transitive/intransitive pairs:
〜う/〜える (e.g. 切る/切れる, 折る/折れる)
〜す/〜る (e.g. 倒す/倒る, 直す/直る)

@Fryie already mentioned two of them, and the one I added is the one in the middle. I’m not sure if I’ve missed anything else, but I don’t think so? It’s a fairly common question on these forums, and I’m pretty sure I made a table in some other thread at some point… you can also take a look at what else people have said on the topic, since I don’t know everything either.

I guess one thing to note is that not all of these patterns consistently work, and I think the main one that tends to break is the second one (i.e. the one I just added). For example, 付く is intransitive and means ‘to be attached’ or ‘to attach oneself’, whereas 付ける is ‘to attach (something)’. That’s the other way around. In other words, you might want to treat the second case something you’ll learn pair by pair as a matter of habit, even if I think the pattern I just mentioned is what you’ll see more commonly.

1 Like

Well, wouldn’t you know, apparently Cure Dolly (RIP) has an article explaining exactly these rules, although it’s important to remember that they apply only to verbs in pairs (e.g. the rule that す is always transitive is not true otherwise).

Can’t judge if it’s all true (and I don’t agree with the criticism of the terms transitive/intransitive), but the article appears well argued.


I think the article actually says otherwise for this particular rule, because it says it’s true whether it has ‘an intransitive pair or not’. I can’t think of a 〜す verb that’s intransitive anyhow. (Do tell me if you have an example in mind though.)

I also have a feeling that the 〜ある rule also works in general… OK, no, it doesn’t. はかる is transitive. So this one applies only to verb pairs, yes. So I’d say that (as the article itself seems to say) the rules apply only to pairs except for the 〜す rule, which works in general. (I’m not surprised though, because I believe that す actually is related to the classical form of する, which is す. (I’ll only know for sure once I have the time for my book on basic Classical Japanese grammar.))

I think it’s true that the notions don’t seem to match up across English and Japanese: I was very surprised to learn that 上回る=‘to exceed’, which usually appears as 〜を上回る, was intransitive. However, I think all it really means is that we can’t use the definition of ‘transitivity’ that’s specific to English (it appears in Oxford, for example), which is about ‘taking a direct object’. The distinction is still useful, regardless. I don’t really know what the more general definition of ‘transitivity’ is in linguistics though.

1 Like

Yeah the article says that, but she contradicts that statement further below in the comments with the example of 話す, which can be used intransitively.

Yes, the usual definition of “transitive” is “takes a direct object”.

Where did you find it written that 上回る is intransitive? I don’t know where best to look but both Wiktionary and this page list it as 他動詞.

The argument that Cure Dolly presents against “transitive” is the verbs 従う and 従える, but I don’t think the argument is sound because it rests on the meaning (“surely you must be obeying someone?”). Yes, true, but that someone is marked by に and not を, as far as I know.

Moreover, the insistence on the terms “self-move” and “other-move” has this tinge of “you can only understand the Japanese language structure if you use Japanese words for it”. Disregarding etymology (“transitive”, of course, also has an etymology), 自動詞 and 他動詞 seem to mean essentially the same as transitive/intransitive. At least, that’s what the JP Wikipedia seems to think.


Loved this video.
Very good explanations.

I first came across it in a video meant for N1 level students:

And in fact, it does highlight the fact that these verbs are used with を even though they’re intransitive.

As for other sources, I had some trouble finding dictionaries listing transitivity at first as well, but I stumbled upon this site that has a huge number of monolingual dictionaries, and the ones that do provide transitivity information say 上回る is 自動/intransitive, including this 広辞苑 entry here:

It’s the same for all the entries in the dictionaries listed as 日国, 学国, 明鏡 and 新明解.

Yeah, I don’t like this argument either because, even if we set particles aside, it’s too reliant on English translations. We can’t guarantee that even the closest English translation works exactly the same way syntactically as its counterpart in a given language.

I mean, I don’t think that’s true – of course you can explain something in another language – but it is true that there were things I didn’t realise or fully understand about French until I studied them in French, and that’s because certain terms are untranslatable or at least quite rare in English.

That aside though, at least if the definition I have of 自動詞 from 大辞林 is to be trusted, apparently the distinction can be slightly different in Japanese?

Perhaps they’re not exactly the same things, even though they’re very similar and typically are used – even in very respectable reference works – as translations for each other. That aside, I have a feeling that it might have to do with Japanese envisioning the role of what comes before を differently in some cases: for example, in the case of 空を飛ぶ (‘to fly in the sky’), the sky is just the place where the flying happens, or the context. Perhaps with 上回る (if its classification as ‘intransitive’ really is the standard/most widely accepted one), the thing ‘exceeded’ is also simply seen as a context or reference point, and not an object receiving the action of the subject? What I’m suggesting is that what comes before を may not necessarily be the object in Japanese.


Well fair enough. I don’t have a good understanding of how the Japanese think about their own language. I was under the impression that Japanese linguistics would use the terms similarly, but maybe not. My Japanese is also shit, so I can’t exactly consult native resources just yet. That said,

This definition is so vague that I find it not very useful for anything. It’s true that in Japanese it’s not always clear whether there is an object because it can be left out, but you can still test whether an object can be added without changing the meaning of the verb. But what kind of “test” do you apply to the criterion “does not reach anything”?

Grammatical descriptions should fit some purpose. “It takes a direct object” tells me something about the grammatical structure, “it reaches other things” doesn’t (and it also tells me little about the meaning).

That is correct, otherwise you’d have to classify too many verbs as transitive. を can also generally refer to “an area traversed” etc. Not sure that’s really the case for 上回る, but it’s also possible that this is one instance where, for some reason, dictionaries or teachers would disagree for some reason. I can find further google results that list the verb as transitive, but no idea if they’re authoritative.

edit: And to be clear, I’m not hating on the Japanese here. Linguistics is not an easy discipline and when describing European languages, lots of people (including people in positions of authority) also take the easy way out by using vague and non-descriptive terminology. Even something like “passive” is massively misunderstood by way too many people.

1 Like

I think this is quite abstract, but at least to me the definition is telling :slight_smile: . When thinking if an action is intransitive one has to consider whether the action and the thing performing it can exist on their own or do they imply that the action has to be performed on something specific even if that something is not explicitly mentioned:
鳥が飛んでいる - The bird is flying.
It’s just the bird (the actor) and flying (the action). Nothing else is needed.

鳥が空を飛んでいる - The bird is flying through the sky.
We add the medium through which the bird is doing its flying, but that doesn’t change the relationship between the bird and its action.

There are other verbs like 面白がる which seem to take something “like” a direct object, but that doesn’t change the fact that the object is not strictly required for the verb to work.