To say, “sora o nobimasu” vs “sora de nobimasu,” they essentially say the same thing, but the connotation is different. “o” highlights the location, ie that it is the sky that I am flying through, whereas “de” highlights the action, ie it is indicating where the act of flying is taking place.
うちを出る is actually a different “を as location marker.”
In the Jisho entry, the meaning that the OP is asking about is #3, and the one you pointed out is #5. For instance, the one you mentioned can also be used for things like せきを立つ (stand up from your seat). Not what we would typically think of as a “motion verb.”
From what I can tell, 空でとびます sounds very unnatural. You’ll pretty much always want to use 空をとびます。
The reason is that the particle で implies that the action is taking place inside the boundaries of the specified location while the particle を implies you are passing through the location or traveling along it. (More details here) It’s like the difference between playing inside a park vs walking through the park on your way to work. In the case of flying, you are passing through the sky since the actual act of flying starts when you take off at one location and ends when you land at a different one. So を is the correct particle. 空でとびます would be more likely to be interpreted as you are using the sky to fly..
It could just be that my understanding of ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ in English is completely wrong, but I have a feeling that the words 他動詞 and 自動詞 don’t respectively map to those two English words exactly. My thinking may also be affected by the fact that I’ve studied French, in which there are verbs which are ‘transitive direct’ and ‘transitive indirect’, a concept which doesn’t seem to exist in English.
I’ll use a different example, since using 通る may feel contrived. In English, the verb ‘to exceed’ always takes a direct object. As such, it’s a transitive verb according to the definition from the Oxford Dictionary. However, in Japanese, 上回る（うわまわる) is classified as a 自動詞, even though it is always used with を and also means ‘to exceed’.
Personally, how I handle this mentally is that (although you could call this laziness or cognitive dishonesty) I tell myself, based on such observations, that the two classifications are different, and that the Japanese categories literally mean ‘self-moving’ and ‘other-moving’. That is, the question to ask is ‘who is moved or affected by the action of the verb?’ rather than ‘does it take a direct object?’ English is the language that checks whether or not there’s a direct object, not Japanese. As such, I would, just for the sake of making my life easier, call 通る a transitive verb based on how it was used in your example, while keeping in mind that that might be an oversimplification and that it’s a 自動詞 in Japanese. I prefer to juggle both definitions while making use of whichever is most useful to me at that point. In my experience, the ‘transitive/intransitive’ split is much more useful for language learners like us. The 自動詞/他動詞 split, on the other hand, as much as I find it interesting and sensible in terms of what the kanji literally mean, is completely useless. (I’m aware that I have just made a very controversial statement, but it’s a little peeve of mine that bugs me precisely because I like to consume native speaker’s grammatical understanding of their language wholesale. If anyone else has found a the 自動詞/他動詞 split helpful, I’d like to hear about it and be corrected. Thank you.)
It’s quite possible, though not necessarily wise, to shoehorn every single use of を with a verb as ‘object designation’. If we go back to your example, we might be able to say that 通る takes a direct object, and that direct object is the place that one goes through. In that case, we could translate 通る as ‘to pass through’, which we could construe as a phrasal verb that takes a direct object: the place through which passage occurs. In other words, we could just (for the sake of simplifying things) tell ourselves that Japanese contains verbs which take direct objects that the corresponding verbs in English would not take, and that those direct objects can be of a different nature from what we would expect in English. That way, you don’t have to memorise all the difference uses of を. Also, when を can be substituted with other particles, it’s up to us to try to find a nuance, like the difference between から出る and を出る, which I think is that the former indicates some sort of progression, while the latter just indicates departure from a certain area.
In any case, I’m just suggesting an alternative way of looking at things. I’m not sure if it helps.
I don’t think translating 自動詞 as “self move verb” is any more useful than translating 自転車 as “self rotating car”. While it is true that English and Japanese are very different languages, the field of linguistics has very specific terms for things, and I think you are essentially redefining “direct object” to be something so broad and vague that it no longer really means anything. To be clear, you can use を with verbs that are considered not only intransitive by English terminology, but also 自動詞 by Japanese definition (at least as far as I’m aware), and when it is used with those verbs it has some of those meanings that people have already brought up. Many particles in Japanese have multiple meanings or usages. と and に are other great examples. The と used as a quoting particle isn’t the same as the と used to link nouns together, and the に used to indicate an indirect object is not the same as the に that marks the agent in a passive sentence. It would make sense that native speakers would find these ideas similar, and I also tend to kind of lump all of the different usages of a particle into the same sort of “box” in my mind, if that makes sense but… I don’t think it’s bad for people to want to know how to distinguish them, especially when they’re first learning and may be confused by different usages.
Everyone learns differently so I’m sure there are multiple valid ways to approach these ideas but that’s just my view on it, I hope this didn’t come off as overly adversarial. If so, I apologize.
In dictionary definitions of 自動詞 and 他動詞, (after the part where they lay out the basic definition) you’ll see explicit references to English words as 自動詞 or 他動詞, even as they note that 他動詞 in English can behave differently than 他動詞 in Japanese. So they clearly don’t see those words as magical entities unique to Japanese. It’s fine to say “intransitive verb” and “transitive verb” if you are using English to talk about Japanese. It’s fine to say 自動詞 and 他動詞 if you are using Japanese to talk about English.
Complete and utter TLDR: OP can and should use whatever he/she finds most helpful in order to understand this less-intuitive use of を. All I wanted to do was to propose a mental shortcut that would avoid the risk of getting hung up on exactly which usage is present, which can be very difficult and frustrating to determine, and also clarify the way that the intransitive-transitive split works in Japanese, which isn’t as obvious as it is in English and certainly doesn’t work the same way. If it was useful, I’m glad to have been of service. If it was useless, well, at least it works for me. My suggestion was not meant to be linguistically correct, and was only meant as an aid to learning new verb constructions and producing correct sentences. That is all.
Original full post
It did sound rather adversarial, and I mean, I literally accused myself in advance of potential ‘cognitive dishonesty’, ‘laziness’ and behaviour that is ‘not necessarily wise’ to make it clear I wasn’t claiming any sort of technical validity, let alone validity by the standards of linguistics. What I put forward was just a way of thinking that is helpful for me, nothing more. Perhaps my proposition caused some sort of visceral irritation to stir within you, leading to your defence of the specificity of the terms of linguistics and of learners’ right to distinguish different uses. I have such moments as well. However, I see it wasn’t your intention to sound hostile, so I’ll stop being petty and try to explain my rationale, and raise a few points since it seems you have a background in linguistics, which I do not and do not claim to have: I simply know some technical terms because I’ve studied a few languages and have needed technical terms to help structure what I learn.
As I said, it’s quite possible that my personal definition of ‘intransitive’ or ‘transitive’ is completely wrong. However, I was simply noting that the English and Japanese terms don’t seem to match perfectly, based on my understanding of what they mean. If we return to my example of 上回る, I’d say that regardless of how we translate it (‘exceed’, ‘surpass’, ‘be above/greater than’ (this last one having a grammatical structure that doesn’t allow for a direct object)), 上回る is a verb that inherently requires a basis for comparison that something ultimately goes beyond. It inherently needs that sort of ‘input’ in order to be meaningful, and in the English words used to translate 上回る, that ‘input’ takes the form of a direct object. Therefore, by my understanding, it is possible for a verb to be both ‘transitive’ and 自動. That’s the reason I proposed a different translation. It may not be useful, but it helps us avoid confusion between two different concepts. If, however, my understanding of transitivity is utter rubbish, I would appreciate it if you explained your understanding of it. As far as I can tell, the Japanese 自動詞・他動詞 classification is not based on the presence or absence of a direct object, which is how transitive and intransitive verbs are distinguished in English according to the definition I found in the Oxford Dictionary. I am not doing this for the sake of being contrarian: I greatly appreciate the precision of technical terms, but I couldn’t help but notice the differences.
EDIT: The Japanese definition from 大辞林 clearly sees them as the same thing, so perhaps I need a more expansive definition that can encompass all languages, and not just a definition meant for an English-speaking audience:
The Japanese definition seems to fit the bill: ‘a verb that expresses the subject’s own movement/change of state, without the action or operation it expresses extending to others’. However, the final sentence of the definition points out the same sort of difference that I noticed: ‘In Western European languages, the transitive-intransitive difference appears clearly through things such as whether the verb takes an object or not. In Japanese, it is not necessarily clear.’
In conclusion, the two definitions are related, but it might be best to use the definition I just translated in order to have common ground, while noting that using the direct object as a basis for distinguishing the two is not necessarily possible in Japanese.
I’d like an example, because I can’t think of a verb that is both ‘intransitive’ in the usual English sense and a 自動詞 in Japanese.
Firstly, as I noted in my 上回る=‘exceed’ example, English also contains cases in which something does not in fact receive the action of the verb (e.g. a benchmark that is exceeded is unchanged after it has been exceeded) and yet is a direct object. In this particular case, the ‘object’ of ‘exceed’ is in fact a simple basis of comparison or a point through which the subject of ‘exceed’ passes while on its way to something greater. The ‘broad[ness]’ and ‘vague[ness]’ of the direct object in English means that some of its functions overlap with those of words marked by を, and the role of the direct object really depends on how the verb is defined. I am not claiming that を always designates a direct object, but I think it’s possible to shoehorn things into such an understanding. I did specify that this may be unwise, and I am by no means claiming that everyone should adopt this approach. I simply brought it up as an option available to the OP.
Secondly, I’d like to contest the idea that my proposed ‘broad and vague’ conception of を as the ‘catholic (i.e. all-encompassing) object particle’ ‘no longer really means anything’. I proposed it as a means of keeping sentence formation in order. It’s a practical approach, nothing more. With such an idea, I can simply learn verbs as ‘taking an object designated by を’ or ‘commonly uses を in its constructions’, and I can then learn what the word designated by を represents. If you prefer, I’ll call these things を-complements in order to avoid rendering the words ‘direct object’ utterly meaningless. I feel that this approach is useful for Japanese learners who above all need to learn how to construct Japanese sentences properly, even if they don’t necessarily know the proper technical terms. It is by no scholarly standard a ‘correct’ approach, but it gets things done. For that matter, I’m not sure that the concept of a ‘direct object’ is all that useful in Japanese, since it simply serves as a term for classification that does not have an explicit marker, unlike in English and other European languages. In fact, here’s a comment from the 大辞林 definition of 客語, which is another word for 目的語=‘object’:
My translation (do correct me if I’m wrong): ‘the “object” is a concept based on Western European grammar, and in Japanese grammar, it is considered as a declinable-word modifier, and is often not specially distinguished from that category.’ It seems that I’m not the only person holding such an opinion.
I understand that and I agree that those usages are different. Also, I do a similar thing with lumping different usages together, as you can tell from my approach to を.
I didn’t say it was bad, but I felt that it might be simpler for some people (like myself) to simply lump everything together instead of trying to distinguish one usage from the other. It’s fine to want to learn about the different usages of a word or particle, but I feel it’s acceptable to do so just for the sake of awareness, as opposed to attempting to learn every single usage of a particle in order to identify when it is being used appropriately in an unfamiliar sentence. Certain people tend to get very hung up on knowing which usage is present in a sentence and end up extremely frustrated, when to native speakers, it’s very likely that many of those usages are present at once, since each of these words and particles carries multiple connotations. Just as the meaning of the て-form is often vague to English speakers when they initially learn Japanese, so too is the meaning of を relatively unclear: it’s quite possible to broadly interpret it as an indication that a word is somehow or other being acted on by the verb, and that it’s up to us to figure out how from experience and context.
I agree, based on the Japanese definition I found, that it’s fine to use these terms in either language when discussing any language in which these distinctions exist. However (and I address this to both @phyro and @Leebo), I don’t see why it was wrong or problematic that I point out the differences in classification between the two languages – even if the definitions in each language are ultimately related – since @mguerre1’s confusion stemmed from a particular conception of ‘intransitive’ as ‘not taking を’, which I strongly believe could be related to how we classify transitive and intransitive verbs in English. I’m aware that even in EN-JP dictionaries, intransitive=自動詞 and transitive=他動詞 are given as equivalences, and so, far from making it into a question of ‘magical entities’ unique to the great 大和言葉, I wished to make it clear that in Japanese, the concept of verb transitivity is thought about differently from how we’re used to doing it in English. Should I not have done so? And since @mguerre1 already seemed to have such a mental model in place, was it so improper to propose the use of a general (and intentionally vague) classification system based on whether or not a verb takes an を-complement?
Ultimately, I am by no means suggesting that traditional, useful linguistic terminology be replaced by what I brought up. Even if I sometimes find them unnecessary, I think you can tell from the way I write and the words I use that I’m quite a fan of technical terms. What I am proposing is a mental shortcut that has worked for me. The human brain is doubtlessly capable of hanging on to two models at once while designating one as the ‘formally correct’ model and another as a personal cheat sheet, which I dare say is what I’m doing. I am by no means going to attempt to speak to linguists in a formal setting using the words ‘を-complement’ and ‘self-moving verbs’, particularly since such terms would not be necessary given their awareness of the multiple nuances that words such as ‘intransitive’ can carry in various languages. However, for the layperson learning languages, it might be best that someone explain the differences between the languages concerned, lest confusion arise as things are lost in translation due to discrepancies in common usage.
It seems I definitely was more biting than I intended to be, and you have every right to feel upset about it. I’ll try and be more tactful in the future. I’m not upset or trying to defend anything, I just felt that something was off about what you said, and wanted to express my disagreement on it. I don’t think I have the energy to respond to everything but there’s a few things I wanted to mention.
I don’t actually have a linguistics degree, I just have read up about it a little bit and I have a friend who does have a degree who I sometimes have conversations with. You can feel free to disregard my opinion on the matter if you wish. ^^;
The example I was thinking of was things like 空を飛ぶ, which is an expression that means “fly through the sky”, where を is indicating that the object marked is a medium through which the verb actuates, rather than a direct object. 飛ぶ is listed as “intransitive” in J-E dictionaries, and while I haven’t been able to find an online Japanese dictionary that explicitly lists whether a verb is 自動詞 or 他動詞, I did find one definition in 大辞林 that included “「飛ばす」に対する自動詞〕” at the end. In other words, 飛ぶ is the intransitive pair of the transitive 飛ばす. And normally you would say e.g. 鳥が飛ぶ, which to me indicates that it’s intransitive. But it may be that native speakers of Japanese don’t really view it the same way, that is certainly something I’d be interested in hearing about in interviews or studies.
When I was talking about redefinition, I very much only meant “direct object.” を has a lot of meanings and I wasn’t trying to say that you were redefining what を meant or how it was used. I was only objecting to you trying to say that in this kind of example that e.g. そら in 空を飛ぶ was a direct object. I could be wrong, but to my current understanding, I don’t think it can be a direct object. It is certainly an object that is related to the verb though, which is what you were getting at, I think.
One thing I feel I should mention is that just because words are transitive in English or some other language, that doesn’t mean they’ll be transitive in every language, and same for intransitive. I think you know this already but I just felt I should bring it up. This definitely adds to beginner confusion with things like 分かる being intransitive as opposed to the transitive English gloss, “to understand (something).” I think another issue is that, like with this word, many verbs in English can be either transitive or intransitive. (you can say “I understand” or “I understand that”) Whereas in Japanese, there is typically a transitive-intransitive pair, or there is simply only one and you have to grammatically construct the sentence differently.
P off topic, but I just wanted to say I love the WaniKani community because even “arguments” are handled with civility. It rly feels like I’m connecting with adults and not baby-adults. Anyway, bless up.
I found this while searching earlier, and now that you mention it, I think it’s a good example. We could of course say that ‘fly through’ is analogous to ‘pass through’, but ‘fly’ and ‘pass’ are both intransitive on their own when used to refer to movement, and 飛ぶ itself definitely doesn’t carry the sense of ‘movement through a medium’, even though it doesn’t exclude the possibility either.
After seeing how the discussion went, I guess I should have been clearer about what my conception of を was. I first learnt Japanese using a course that would substitute particles with keywords designating their functions, and for を, the marker was ‘[object]’. Thus, to me, を is simply some sort of universal object particle. That’s not very clear, but to me, it simply means that the thing in question (I think the correct technical term is ‘complement’, but I’m not certain) is subject to the action of the verb. How exactly is something we can only know from context and experience. Thus, I wasn’t talking about ‘direct objects’ specifically. I have to agree that, at least based on the English and Japanese definitions I have, 空 certainly isn’t a direct object in 空を飛ぶ.
Certainly, and the example you bring up (分かる) is a good illustration of how things change between languages. In fact, this was my point in saying that direct objects have a broad range of functions in English as well, and that it really depends on the verb used and how it’s defined. It’s completely possible that, in some language, ‘sky’ is the direct object of a verb that can be translated as ‘to fly’, but only because, say, that verb expresses the force exerted on a medium by an entity for locomotion, and is also the verb used for swimming or walking in that language. My point was that perhaps there’s a broad category of ‘objects’ or ‘complements’ with a certain set of common characteristics, and that category can be marked by を, just like how we label certain words as ‘direct objects’ in English.
I definitely think you’re right about 飛ぶ being intransitive. As for the views of native speakers, I agree that they would be very interesting to hear, particularly since that might offer some insight into why を is so incredibly flexible as a marker. One thing which I did find, and which I mentioned earlier, is that it seems that even Japanese dictionaries acknowledge that it is not always clear whether a Japanese verb is transitive or intransitive. Another example of a method used for distinguishing transitive and intransitive verbs that was mentioned in 大辞林 was the idea of converting a sentence into the passive form. This method works in English and various European languages, because a transitive verb can take the passive form in English, whereas an intransitive verb cannot. In Japanese, however, this test doesn’t work because we can also say 子供に泣かれた (=‘the child cried on me’), even though 子供が泣く would be the active voice construction and would not allow for any direct object. I’d also be interested to know if Japanese native speakers find the transitive-intransitive split practically useful, or if they simply see it as a tool for classification and for describing their language.
In any case, thanks for clarifying things, and for giving me a nice example to think about (飛ぶ). I think that the truth is that, regardless of which approach we prefer (i.e. whether we prefer to learn about different usages and list them, or to lump things together in a block with a few vague unifying characteristics), the only way to achieve satisfaction that we know what we’re doing when using Japanese is by taking the middle ground: it’s probably best to know a few of the ways that a word or particle can be used, while also being aware of the unifying features present across all of those usages. Without this sort of dual awareness, we’ll probably get caught up in splitting hairs, or have difficulty understanding a sentence because of a lack of clarity stemming from an excessively vague conception of its components.
You’re right, I suppose. Hahaha. But at least in English, it gives a name to the feeling called ‘I think I can stick a noun behind this verb without any issues’. In Japanese, I’m not sure if you can do anything like that. To put it another way, I’m not sure if the two types of verbs really work differently in a visible/obvious way in Japanese.