Is 怖がる transitive or intransitive?

Hi all,

I’m a bit confused about 怖がる. Looking on and on Wanikani, I see it’s an intransitive verb. However, in Wanikani example sentence you can find:


It looks like it’s taking a direct object. What am I getting wrong?

Thanks a lot!

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My Kojien dictionary lists it as both.


Thank you Leebo!

I believe that although Japanese does draw a clearer distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs than English does, many actually lie on an ambitransitive spectrum.

There are some verbs that are used very often without a direct object, and therefore are regarded as intransitive, but giving them a direct object is still valid.

For example, both the Japanese 走る and the English “to run” are commonly regarded as intransitive, but both can take direct objects, such as in マラソンを走る (“to run a marathon”).

I believe some would argue that 走る is still intransitive, and that being transitive isn’t exactly the same thing as taking a direct object … but that is usually what we are concerned with.

Furthermore, as far as I’m aware, any transitive verb can be used intransitively. Some might be a bit weird, such as just saying 持つ。 (“I hold.”) without having at least an implied object, but it’s still grammatically correct.

In that way, Japanese really isn’t all that different from English. What sets them apart is really that English has a lot of ergative verbs, where the role of the subject changes depending on whether or not the verb takes a direct object (as in “I stopped, dropped and rolled.” vs. “I stopped, dropped and rolled the ball.”)


How does this not have an implied object? Just because there’s no context doesn’t mean it’s not there; it’s just unknown to us.

That’s fair. I guess what I should say is that the object is generic/unknown.

However, it’s true that this is probably an example of a verb that is semantically transitive, even in cases where it is not used in a syntactically transitive way.

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In the English at least, I think that’s a bad example. Would’t “a marathon” really be a preposition? I ran (in) a marathon, or I ran (for 26 miles in an organized event with other people) (shorthanded to “a marathon”)?

On the other hand, “ran” as in “organized and managed” could make sense with an object. If “I ran a marathon” meant you literally made the marathon happen, hired the staff, did the timing, etc. But I think that would be 営む

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No, in this instance marathon would be the object of the verb. Even if you were to write the sentence like “I run in a marathon,” marathon is not the preposition. In that sentence, “in” is the preposition, “a” is an article describing “marathon,” and “marathon” is the object of the preposition “in.” However, in the sentence “I run a marathon,” “marathon” would be the object of the verb “run.” No implied prepositions or anything like that. “Marathon” is a noun in both of these cases, the only difference is whether it’s the object of the verb or the object of the preposition. So マラソンを走る would be the same as “to run a marathon” in English

Many dictionaries treat it as an object. For example, Merriam-Webster lists the meaning “to enter, register, or enroll as a contestant in a race” as a transitive use of “run”. and also have similar entries.

Yup, although then we’ve gone beyond ambitransitivity and into ergativity; not only are we using the verb transitively, but the transitive form is essentially the causative of the intransitive.


Sure, I was imprecise. What I meant was ‘(in) a marathon’ is a prepositional phrase, or maybe acting adverbially, how I ran. The verb still doesn’t become transitive. On the other hand, “run a marathon” by long common use may have become it’s own verb unit separate from the more general “run”. And it would still be intransitive. As you can tell, I’m not an English grammar expert, but it doesn’t make any sense at all that “run” can take an object, common set phrases notwithstanding.

Or maybe “run a [race of some kind, like an election, marathon, etc]” in the sense of compete, could be a transitive verb, but it’s only a coincidence that a marathon involves actual physical running.

I don’t believe other kinds of competitions are used as a direct object of “run”, though, except perhaps metaphorically. You run in an election, but you don’t run an election.

This also happens in other languages that are closely related to English, including at least one (Swedish) where the word corresponding to “run” is restricted to the actual physical activity, so taking a detour through a broader definition of competition doesn’t seem to be necessary.

Swedish: Jag springer ett maratonlopp.

German: Ich laufe einen Marathon.

French: Je cours un marathon.

It seems the Latin verb currō could also be used transitively, and the object was then declined into the accusative:

Qui stadium currit, contendere debet quam maxime possit, ut vincat.
“He that runs a race, should strive all he can to win.”

I think perhaps the reason it seems unreasonable that “run” should take an object is that your running does not actually impact the race; you merely experience it.

As such, “a marathon” is not the patient of “run”, but rather the theme.
In that sense, it’s similar to “I watch the game.” or “I read the book.”, where the action does not really change the state of the object.

I don’t believe the definition of a transitive verb normally distinguishes between a patient and a theme, though. After all, we treat “read” as transitive.


I think also in English it’s not as big of a deal whether the verb in the dictionary is transitive or intransitive, so much as how it’s being used in the sentence. There’s no problem at all with saying that in the sentence: “I run to the store,” “run” an intransitive verb, and then in the sentence: “I run a marathon,” it’s a transitive verb. If “run” appears to have a direct object in “I run a marathon,” then it does have a direct object and is a transitive verb. There’s no hidden grammar rules that prevent it from being transitive in this case just because it’s intransitive in other cases.


怖がる is really just a verb form of the adjective 怖い.

Here’s a link to the JLPT website explaining it: N4 がる・がっている

Tae Kim also explains it here in his grammar guide: Showing outward signs of an emotion using 「~がる」

Similarly to how you can use 怖い to talk about something being scary (クモが怖い the spider is scary) or your own state of being scared (私は怖い! I’m scared!), you can use 怖がる to say that someone is scared, or that someone is scared of something.
ボブさんは怖がっている Bob is scared
ボブさんはクモを怖がっている Bob is scared of the spider.


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