My troubles with transitive/intransitive verb pairs and strategy going forward

I know this subject is surely not a new one on here, and I’m surely not the first one to struggle with this. However, I thought I’d put my perspective on here just in case it is helpful to anyone, or anyone would like to comment or offer advice.

I have been having a hard time with transitive/intransitive verb pairs for a while now, and finally decided to try and get to the bottom of why. I knew there was something that was tripping me up, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it.

What I realized is that it comes down to the inconsistent way in which WaniKani differentiates transitive and intransitive verbs (in the English meanings). There seem to be two main types of transitive/intransitive pairs.
The first takes the form of ‘to X’ / ‘to be Xed’, where X is some verb. For example, ‘to see’ (transitive) and ‘to be seen’ (intransitive).
The second type is of the form ‘to X something’ / ‘to X’, for example, ‘to stop something’ (transitive) / ‘to stop’ (intransitive).

The problem is that, when there is a transitive/intransitive pair, the root or simplest form of the verb, ‘to X’, is sometimes used for the transitive form, and sometimes for the intransitive form.
What was happening was that I was naturally and unintentionally learning these verbs as ‘the normal one’ (‘to X’) and ‘the other one’ (‘to be Xed’ or ‘to X something’), the problem being that this means that transitives and intransitives are all mixed up and crossed, preventing me from learning to recognize patterns that would allow me to intuitively tell transitive verbs from intransitive ones. For example, even when I consciously identified the pattern shared by 止める/止まる (to stop something/to stop) and 決める/決まる (to decide/to be decided), I got the meanings wrong because of this confusion.

Rather than try to force myself to learn in a way that isn’t working for me, I’ve decided on a plan to use going forward, which is to always learn the transitive member of a verb pair as the basic form, ‘to X’, if at all possible, with user synonyms where necessary.
This makes sense because the first type of transitive/intransitive pair (‘to X’ / ‘to be Xed’) seems to be much more common, and in most of these cases the root form of the English verb cannot be used to represent the intransitive meaning (‘to see’ can never mean ‘to be seen’). Furthermore, I find the other construction (‘to X something’ / ‘to X’) to be quite awkward and unnatural to begin with.
However, it is not as simple changing all the intransitive versions into the form ‘to be Xed’, as this is not always an accurate representation of the meaning being conveyed, especially with regards to events that occur on their own, rather than being caused by someone or something in particular (most of the cases where ‘to X’ is used as an intransitive verb fall into this category).
So, for these cases, my approach will be to either use a different word for the intransitive version (like is done by default for 上げる/上がる - to raise/to rise, and 下げる/下がる - to lower/to fall), or to modify the intransitive version of the verb in some other way to differentiate it (like is done with the intransitive verb 広がる, with its meaning being taught as ‘to spread out’ rather than ‘to spread’, making it feel more intransitive.

I am currently working my way through level 11 vocabulary, and it remains to be seen whether my approach, which I will be using starting now, will be viable and successful going forward. Obviously, the plugin which allows me to add synonyms in lessons will be useful to me. Something which would also be very useful, but which as far as I can tell does not exist, would be a user-defined blacklist plugin, which would allow me to disallow the meanings which I am not using anymore (‘to X’ on intransitive verbs). As it is, I guess it’s just honor system, and I’ll have to be careful to check after answering on verbs that have transitive/intransitive pairs.

Finally, I will list all the instances I have found in the vocabulary up to lvl 11 where the ‘to X something’ formation is used for a transitive verb, meaning I will be using alternate meanings. I have already burned some of these vocab items, so I probably won’t be reviving them, at least for now, unless I feel like I really need to.

Original meanings: To spread something / To spread out
My meanings: To spread / To spread out
Here, the intransitive verb is already differentiated, so I can simply use “to spread” for the transitive with no complication

Original meanings: To stop something / To stop
My meanings: To stop / To come to a stop
Here “to stop” was used as the intransitive version. However, I think “to come to a stop” actually conveys the intransitive meaning of “to stop” better, so I will use that.

Original meanings: To disconnect something / To be disconnected
My meanings: To disconnect, to remove / To be disconnected
The intransitive is already in the form ‘to be Xed’, plus I have been learning 外す as ‘to remove’, so less confusion there.

Original meanings: To stand something up / To stand
My meanings: To stand up / To stand
This one is a bit tricky, since ‘to stand up’ could easily mean ‘to stand’, and is in fact an accepted meaning for the intransitive verb. Furthermore, ‘to stand’ is the simplest form of the verb, not ‘to stand up’. However, I think as long as I am aware of this potential confusion, and think of ‘to stand up’ as a different verb, taking on its transitive meaning, this will be ok.

Original meanings: To let something pass / To pass
My meanings: To let pass / To pass through
This one is also tricky, since the transitive verb does not have the most obvious meaning, ‘to pass something’, but instead means ‘to let something pass’, and therefore cannot use the basic form ‘to pass’. Anyway, I think these are the meanings that will work best for me.

Original meanings: To advance something / To advance
My meanings: To advance / To move forward, To go forward
For this pair I think the best approach is to use the more literal meaning for the intransitive verb.

Original meanings: To lack something / To be lacking
My meanings: To lack / To be lacking

Original meanings: To roll something / To roll
My meanings: To roll / To tumble
“To roll” could be either transitive or intransitive, but the alternate meaning for 転がる is more clearly intransitive, so I it makes sense to use that for the intransitive meaning.

So anyway, that’s it, sorry for such a long post. Like I said earlier, I’ll have to see whether this turns out to be a good idea in the long run. Perhaps it won’t, and I’ll just have to accept that WaniKani isn’t really the place to learn grammar concepts like transitive vs intransitive verbs.
Also, I’m not necessarily advocating for anything to be changed, or for other people to adopt this approach, it’s just something I think might work for me.


Ah, the fun one is 続く in level 19 and 続ける in level 21, which are defined as “to continue” and “to continue”. The latter one even says in the Explanation section “Unfortunately, there’s no good way to differentiate the two “continues” using just the meaning”. Well… yes there is - one of them is “to be continued” and the other is “to continue something”. You managed to distinguish them for the other verbs, WaniKani, so why’s “continue” giving you so much trouble?


I’ve seen you mention that same thing a few times. What did they say about it?

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Bold of you to assume that I’m at all proactive. :stuck_out_tongue:


That is an interesting approach, and quite different (almost the opposite? :joy:) from how I tend to imagine when differentiating the pairs. For me, for instance, the idea of translating a verb as “to X something” is absolutely perfect to covey the sense of transitivity, while “to X”, as a much broader concept, feels intransitive to me (I feel like the approach of WaniKani for intransitive verbs is very weird. “To be Xed” sounds outright just the transitive verb in passive voice.)

見る = to see something, to look (at) something (as in “I looked at the wall”)
見える = to look/seem (as in “this looks special”)

止める = to stop something (as in “I stopped the car”)
止まる = to stop (as in “I stopped before it was too late”)

立てる = to stand something up (as in “I tried standing him up, but he was too heavy”)
立つ = to stand (up) (as in “I stood up”)

And so forth (excuse me if some of these quick “examples” are wrong. I’m always learning :sweat_smile:).

Besides, I think that our “analysis” of the pairs changes a lot depending on what languages we are used to. I’m not a native English speaker, so the way I see some of these verbs change considerably whenever there are better ways of translating them into my mother tongue.
At the end of the day, it’s been a quite confusing thing to me as well, but I like to believe it all comes down to practice and getting used to the language patterns little by little.


One thing that I found helpful is learning that verbs that end in す are transitive and verbs that end with a kana in the あ row + る are intransitive. There might be some some exceptions but they are few are far between. Once you know this and you know the pairs, it becomes much easier to know which is which.

This article talks about it more in depth (if do watch the accompanying video… Be warned that Cure Dolly is an acquired taste :rofl:. But the info is good!)


I can’t speak for OP, but the Japanese transivity isn’t the issue for me. It’s the WK translation and whether they want “to verb”/“to be verbed” or “to verb”/“to verb something”. I know whether the Japanese is transitive or not. What I can’t remember is what WK lists/accepts as the translation.


So true. I’ve lost count of the number of reviews I failed solely for that reason. It took me ages to memorize what they wanted me to answer for 代わる vs. 代える (and the difference between these remains kind of blurry). For whatever solution WaniKani found to differentiate the pairs, I wish it were kept with thorough consistency, although I understand/imagine that some verbs in Japanese just don’t work the same way as in English.
I guess this topic inspired me to input my own synonyms to the verbs and stick to a “formula” that makes more sense to me.

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To expand on this, these one, as far as I could find out, are always one or the other:

Transitive - 他動詞

Intransitive - 自動詞

  • かる
  • まる
  • わる

I think there are aru ones that are transitive.
I recently had a huge list with transitive and intransitive verb pairs, but I couldn’t find it right now.

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I wonder why WK is so strict with verb forms if it’s really only a Kanji-learning platform like everyone says, and not at all meant for vocabulary or grammar :thinking:

It’s easy to see how vocabulary helps reinforce Kanji readings, but do the verb forms help with that?

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Do you mean English verb forms or Japanese? Because wanikani doesn’t teach any verb conjugations…

I do agree with OP in that the way it tries to distinguish transitive/intransitive in the English answer it’s looking for is not the best. I usually just use the ignore script because most of the time I did know whether it was transitive or not and I just wasn’t sure which English phrase they wanted, and even when I was actually wrong about it, I do prioritize learning kanji on WK rather than transitivity for verbs. I tend to pick that up through native material anyway.

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Transitive/intransitive English answers, maybe verb forms is the wrong term. IMO it’s much easier to understand if something is transitive/intransitive from context rather than in isolation in an SRS anyway.

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Personally, I find it is a positive thing that it is “strict”, in the sense that WK does introduce us to these transitivity pairs. (If this is done right with the inconsistent approach to the matter, that’s a whole other story.)
Learning kanji is “useless” unless we apply it in real vocabulary. Of course, knowing the characters by itself can be useful since we can start to guess readings and meanings of unknown words. So, while people say WK is here “just to teach us kanji”, I find it hard to believe that we aren’t all here to ultimately learn real words. It is true that at the end of the day, native material is where things will start making more sense instead of just memorizing random, sometimes very abstract words. :slight_smile:

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This one?

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Huh, check it out. I was just going through my Genki book that I’d previously never finished and it has a section on transitivity pairs. Their explanation seems pretty simple, so I thought I might post it to see if it helps anybody and/or they wanna use it for user synonyms. It’s a basic [verbs something] vs [something verbs].


  • 開ける open something
  • 閉める close something
  • 入れる put something in
  • 出す take something out
  • つける turn something on
  • 消す turn something off
  • 壊す break something
  • 汚す make something dirty
  • 落とす drop something
  • 沸かす boil water


  • 開く something opens
  • 閉まる something closes
  • 入る something goes inside
  • 出る something goes out
  • つく something goes on
  • 消える something goes off
  • 壊れる something breaks
  • 汚れる something becomes dirty
  • 落ちる something drops
  • 沸く water boils

Also, some have been previously pointed out, but just in case (in “matching” pairs)



Quite a bit of them work similarly, but it’s difficult to do 1:1 for many due to what I would call an inherent limitation of English. The 代わる/代える pair is especially tricky, I agree.

代わる - Xは/が代わる (the subject X changes/replaces itself, either in general or with something else)
代える - XはYとZを代える (the subject X changes/replaces Y with Z)

The かわる/かえる verbs also differ in the core kanji used depending on what kind of changing/exchanging/replacing is being done, whether it involves an item, a person, etc.

And this I would also wholeheartedly recommend :slight_smile: .

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Pretty nice link!! On that page they also noted that’s a newer version at:
What’s the difference between hajimeru and hajimaru?

(I’m saving both links just in case:))

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Ok so I learnt a thing recently that makes these make a WHOLE load more sense to me. I dunno how well I can describe it but I’ll give it a try!

In addition to the rules already mentioned (that verbs that end in す are always transitive and verbs that end in ある are always intransitive) a whole bunch of transitivity pairs work with an ‘える opposite’.

向く (to face, intransitive) → 向ける (to turn towards something, transitive)
切る (to cut something, transitive) → 切れる (to be cut, intransitive)
育つ (to be raised, intransitive) → 育てる (to raise, transitive)
点く (to be lit, intransitive) → 点ける (to light something, transitive)
整う (intrans) → 整える (transitive)
入る (intrans) → 入れる (transitive)
取る (transitive) → 取れる (intrans)
付く (intrans) → 付ける (transitive)
欠く (transitive) → 欠ける (intrans)

受かる (intransitive) → 受ける (transitive)
上がる (intransitive) → 上げる (transitive)
止まる (intransitive) → 止める (transitive)
決まる (intransitive) → 決める (transitive)
下がる (intransitive) → 下げる (transitive)
固まる (intransitive) → 固める (transitive)
高まる (intransitive) → 高める (transitive)
重なる (intransitive) → 重ねる (transitive)
代わる (intransitive) → 代える (transitive) (because there’s no ‘we’ kana, わる verbs go to える)

Basically the hanging hiragana after the kanji ‘shift’ to end in a える to make the opposite transitivity. And like 60-70% of verbs operate with this える structure where there’s a ‘normal’ version of a verb (with whichever transitivity the Japanese think is the ‘natural’ one for that verb), and an える version which signals “you know the transitivity that’s normal for this? do the opposite!”.

So whenever you see a verb like “曲げる” but you can’t remember if it’s transitive or intransitive, then it helps a lot to know that chances are there’s either a “曲がる” or a “曲ぐ” paired with it, so if either of those ring a bell then that helps a bunch (especially if the one that rings a bell ends in ある, because then this version has to be transitive to match that intransitive version!)

Also, it just helps my brain a lot to be able to sort a lot of verbs into a “normal version” and an “える opposite version”.


Agreed, one of the big downfalls of WK is that it’s very poor at providing context. You need a script to get example sentences to appear on reviews, and even then so many of them are not level appropriate so they’re impossible to read due to grammar or words that use kanji that haven’t been introduced yet. Example sentences that aren’t set for N2/N1 learners with clear context would be a huge help for cementing transitivity pairs.


I usually say out loud if a verb is transitive or intransitive before I enter in my answer. And then if I got it right but didn’t exactly express how WK wanted me to, I will usually just give it to myself. There are some verbs that aren’t listed as either where this kind of falls apart but that seems rare.