Examples for 上る don't look intransitive?

Konnichi wa!

I’m referring to the Context section of this page from WaniKani.

My understanding is that intransitive verbs (which WK says 上る is, on that page) don’t have a direct agent, and so don’t use particle を, but some of the example sentences on that page use を (e.g. スロープを上る). So I’m a bit confused.

Also, some of the English translations sound transitive (e.g. I can go up to the roof, or I climbed up stairs to the 10th floor.). Those sentences sound like the have a direct agent (in both cases, “I”).

Am I misunderstanding the explanations on guidetojapanese.org?

Arigatou for any help! :slight_smile:

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Some intransitive verbs, like movement verbs, use を to say through where you’re doing the movement, afaik.


This train runs between Tokyo and Osaka.

Walk on the pavement.

Let’s take a walk in the park.

These are some things を can do.


Well, I’d say @Kazzeon covered the movement aspect of を with the post above, which I’d say is an answer to the original question.

However, I also noticed that the following quote displays a missed understanding of the idea of direct object in English, so it may be a good idea to review it.

Regarding English,

In the sentences above, “I” is not a direct object. It is a subject. Direct objects are really a syntactic feature, but they get heavily attached to semantics. The two sentences quoted are actually tricky because they can be analyzed in different ways. E.g., one could argue that the verbs are “go” or “go up” in the first, and “climbed” or “climbed up” in the second. And, due to “up” being a preposition with “go up” and “climb up” being possible phrases on their own, these sentences are complicated.

It may be better to stick with simpler verbs at first. It is not a “direct agent” that is a direct object, but more-or-less the thing on which the verb acts. Usually, one can think of the subject as doing the verb, and the object as receiving the effect. But, note that as what we’re discussing is syntactic, the thing receiving the effect as to be connected to a verb directly syntactically.

The easiest example I can think of is “I threw the ball.”. Here, “I” did the throwing, so “I” is the subject. But, “the ball” received the effect, directly, so “the ball” is the direct object. It’s usually a little clearer in English with simpler verbs because direct objects don’t have any kind of decoration other than adjectives. If a word has a preposition, it’s almost always not a direct object. (All of this has the caveat that any natural language is messy. :wink:)

However, the main reason to get the concept down for learning Japanese is because the language has a lot of transitive/intransitive pairs. That is, pairs where the choice of words is actually different between whether it is mentioned that “something acted on something” (transitive) or it is mentioned only that an “an action happened to something” (intransitive).

This is a concept that is almost, but not quite, absent from English, and because of that often gets translated in a way that doesn’t match up. Mainly, this is due to the fact that there aren’t too many transitive/intransitive verb pairs in English. And, we can often use the same verb transitively and intransitively. However, such pairs do exist in English. I’d say the easiest example is the pair of verbs “raise” and “rise”.

“The ocean rises.”
There is no object here, just the subject, “ocean”.

“Poseidon raises the ocean.”
Here, “Poseidon” is the subject, while “the ocean” is the direct object.

In English, where there are such verbs, the choice of utterance is a matter of what the person wishes to bring into focus. For many English verbs, this change isn’t necessary. And, some (many?) English verbs can only be transitive and have no pair. Thus, often passive constructions are used to produce the same semantic effect.

Regarding Japanese, I don’t really know whether the choice is a matter of effect and/or focus as it is in English, as I haven’t gotten in depth on this aspect of the language, yet. However, I do a lot of linguistics in my spare time, and have explored the syntax, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the large number of pairs that exist in Japanese are there exactly for that reason.


I believe OP is referring to agent in the linguistic sense
Agent (grammar) - Wikipedia.


I haven’t heard of a direct or indirect agent as far as I can recall, but the linguistics classes I took focused more on intersectional aspects than descriptive language methods. I don’t know much beyond the basic concepts agents, arguments, and adjuncts. So anyhow, there is a doer/agent in (のぼ)る sentences, but like others have said, the other bits are adjunct sentence parts that just create a more descriptive sentence.

Similar to how “Birds fly.” is fine in English, so is “Birds fly through the sky.” although it doesn’t make sky the direct object.

Idk if TK ever mentions adjuncts in the linguistic sense, but if he does, it’s probably better to think of these location phrases as such.

It’s good to remember too that although something might be transitive/intransitive in one language, that classification is not universal in all languages.

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Thanks for everyone’s response :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

Thanks @Kazzeon. I had no idea about those other を uses. Probably won’t remember many right now but at least now I know there are other possibilities!

@DelvinWolf, thanks for pointing out that I was using the terminology incorrectly.

Thanks, that nice and clear for me now. The TK website bringing in the term ‘agent’ was I think adding a layer of confusion for me haha.

Gotcha, thank you.

So, basically now I just want to ask: Is there any rule in terms of which particle/s can or can’t be used with transitive versus intransitive verbs. Because from TK/Guide to Japanese seems to say it’s very clear cut i.e. “something acted on something (transitive) = use を”. “An action happen to something (intransitive) = use が”

Examples from guidetojapanese.org

  1. 私が電気 つけた。
    I am the one that turned on the lights.
  2. 電気 ついた。
    The lights turned on.
  3. 電気 消す。
    Turn off the lights.
  4. 電気 消える。
    Lights turn off.
  5. 誰が窓 開けた?
    Who opened the window?
  6. どうして開いた?
    Why has the window opened?

Is there actually no such easy distinction?

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Fair enough. And, if I’m honest, I likely know less than someone who took a class, since most of my linguistics knowledge comes from studying it to create con-langs. That said, having the knowledge that I do have, I believe that direct/indirect objects are supposed to refer to syntax, while most of the terms mentioned here are supposed to refer to semantics.

And, if, that’s the case, then I would also argue that mixing syntax with semantics to try to explain direct objects is why it gets confusing. (That, and the fact that English doesn’t mark direct objects in any way except by word order.)

You’d have to ask someone more advanced than me to get any certainty. From my limited experience, I suspect this is virtually true due to my belief that it is a syntactic concept. But, don’t trust me when talking Japanese grammar. I’m very much still a begginer there. English, I could while away on, though. :slight_smile:

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I would agree with you. “Direct object” would typically be used more as a description for the grammatical (you’d say syntax), not the semantical role. It is marked in different languages by different means. Because English lost its case markings (mostly), it may look hard in that language to tell different kind of grammatical objects apart. The word “whom” is one of the remaining marked words for direct objects. Sadly, English doesn’t have a similar word for “what” (“wham”).

But then there is the concept of transitivity/intransitivity. It’s only an approximation to say “lacks a direct object”, because transitivity/intransitivity is not about grammar, but about semantics. So actually we’d have to go from the words subject/object to the pair agens/patiens, which in English and most European languages coincides just accidentally with the grammatical subject/(direct) object distinction. A transitive verb is one, which demands to have something to act on, whereas an intransitive verb doesn’t (and of course there is a grey area, depending on how poetically you’d want to express yourself, i.e. “a bird flies the skies”, using the intransitive verb “to fly” transitively makes it sound like it is doing something to the sky).

I’d say don’t beat yourself up to much about how to define this distinction as long as you have some kind of mental picture in your mind. Sadly, WK doesn’t always use transitive translations for transitive verbs either, but it’s gotten a lot better with the “to xxx something” translations.

Some interesting aspects (in Japanese) are: transitive verbs in the progressive aspect (-te iru) often indicate an ongoing action (誰か木を倒している)while its intransitive form focuses on the result of an action. also, transitive verbs can often made to appear intransitive, when they are about “reciprocal actions” (someone talking to someone else and someone else is talking back) by adding the auxiliary あう (話し合う、議論し合う、etc.) - in all those examples you see very clearly that transitivity/intransitivity is mostly about semantics, not grammar. Grammar just comes into play when it is about the realization of different meaning in different languages, and this differs from language to language.

So, in your example - スロープを上る, slope is actually used as a direct object as indicated by the case marker. But it is not meant to be a patiens, so 上る is not a transitive verb. Those verbs are often called volitional intransitives (because intransitive verbs often imply a non-volitional actions, i.e. not controlled by human will, and “climb” of course, does not). In English, “to climb” can be a transitive verb (your doing the climbing to the mountain; the mountain suffers your climbing it)


This is the way I think about it:

  • If the verb is transitive, then it is expecting to take an を-marked direct object, and even if that clause has been omitted from the sentence because it’s “obvious” in context, it’s still there in the meaning. 僕が開けた is “I opened it” (the door, the window, whatever), not “I opened”, even though there’s no を in the sentence.
  • Intransitive verbs don’t take を.
  • I treat “を with verbs of movement” (which is expressing movement through, from, etc, and only happens with verbs with this meaning) as an exception, and don’t think of this を as marking a direct object or making the verb transitive. There are other ways to analyse it, but this one works for me, because it lets me keep my simple understanding from the first two bullet points.

You might like to read the Tofugu article about を, which talks about the verb-of-movement stuff at the end.

Another general note: although mostly Japanese and English transitives/intransitives line up (because they’re expressing the same underlying meaning), they don’t do so 100% – occasionally the natural way to say something uses a transitive verb in one language and an intransitive in the other. One common example is わかる, which is intransitive, in contrast to English where you can say “I understand something”. So concentrate on whether the Japanese verb you’re looking at is transitive or not, not on whether its English translation is.


OK, while Tae Kim’s guide is pretty decent in general – or at least, that’s my impression of it – but it’s known for containing errors or using controversial terminology. If you’d like some examples, you can take a look at this old post:

If it helps you understand, great, but definitely take certain things inside it with a pinch of salt. The main things that are good about Tae Kim’s Guide are

  1. It provides a fairly linear set of steps that you can take to study Japanese grammar. That helps if you don’t know what to learn first, especially if you’re a beginner. I’m not saying that set of steps is given in the best order possible; it’s just one possible order, and having it means you don’t need to think about what order to use yourself. However, well, I think a lot of textbooks also provide an order for Japanese grammar. Still, the other difference is that
  2. The Guide is free. If you’re not yet able/prepared to pay for Japanese resources, this is one of those you can use.

Honestly though, I’d much rather recommend Maggie Sensei or Wasabi Japan. They’re good. Japanese Ammo with Misa is good for all its examples and thorough explanations, but Misa’s videos can get a little long. Real Japanese with Miku is more succinct, but of course also a little less detailed. You can also try Imabi, but it’s often very technical, in some places thoroughly overcomplicated (for an example… see the article on が, I think?), and honestly, while I know the author is putting in lots of serious work, I never know what the most ‘authoritative-sounding’ comments are based on, because there are no sources. It’s like listening to someone giving a doctoral thesis defence without knowing if they’re even qualified or if their sources are reliable, and I don’t appreciate that.

Anyway, that bit of resource-related advice aside, let’s get back to your question:

The issue with this is that, well, no, there is no necessary link between which particle to use and what sort of verb we’re looking at. I’d argue that (especially in English) what’s ‘transitive’ or ‘intransitive’ is very much linked to syntax/grammar/word order (because they determine what we’re used to thinking of as ‘transitive’), but it’s fundamentally a matter of semantics i.e. meaning, like dadadavid said here:

If we define を as ‘the particle that (always) marks the object’, then yeah, we could try to use that as a basis for transitivity/intransitivity if we’re using how things work in English as a standard. That’s how Oxford defines ‘transitive’ after all. The problem is that that ignores the fact that there are many types of things that can be marked by を (you’ll notice that Japanese dictionaries list way more functions for を than just ‘marking the target [=対象]’, which is roughly what we call ‘the direct object’ in English), and it doesn’t line up with what Japanese people call ‘transitive verbs’=他動詞 and ‘intransitive verbs’=自動詞. One example that shocked me back when I was still working this out: in English, ‘to exceed’ is definitely transitive; in Japanese, 上回る, often translated as ‘to exceed’, uses を to mark what is exceeded, and yet… it’s a 自動詞 (intransitive verb). Why? It’s a matter of two things, in my opinion

  1. 上回る is a compound that includes 回る, which is a movement verb, and those are often used with を without the を-marked element being considered an object.
  2. ‘Exceeding’ – if we think about it, especially if it’s considered as a movement – doesn’t require any change on the part of the standard/thing being exceeded. It’s the position of the exceeding thing or person that changes. Therefore it’s intransitive because the action of the subject (or if you prefer, the ‘agent’ i.e. the person/thing performing the action) applies to the subject.

Transitive verbs involve the subject affecting something else through an action; intransitive verbs involve the subject affecting itself through an action.

In other words, this explanation of what ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ mean is acceptable,

but those associations with the respective particles aren’t consistently correct.

If you want a practical general rule, I’d say

  • most transitive verbs – を for the thing that’s affected
  • most intransitive verbs – が for the thing that’s affected (which is also really just the subject)
  • movement verbs, which are intransitive – を, but for marking the area/zone/location through which movement occurs

Honestly though, I’d say that the issue of what ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ mean is far more important. You will work out which particles are needed as a matter of habit and experience. Case in point: compound verbs usually use the same particles as the final verb in the compound. However, you’ve got words like 思い付く(おもいつく, to hit upon, to suddenly recall), which uses を even though 付く (‘to attach oneself’) is intransitive and usually uses に. These concepts are just tools for your understanding. Learning what particles themselves often mean and where they tend to turn up is what’s going to allow you to use Japanese in the long term.


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