Transitive Verbs in Japanese / English

I was doing a vocabulary lesson, and I came across 有る (to have), which can also mean “to exist” if you’re talking about inanimate objects. WaniKani describes this as an intransitive verb. I understand why it would be intransitive when taking the ‘to exist’ meaning, but wouldn’t the ‘to have’ meaning be considered transitive?

Example: マヨネーズなら、まだ少し有ります。
We still have a little mayonnaise.

Also, I’ve recently learned about stative verbs in English, and I understand that “to have” is a stative (non-action) verb, meaning that it technically takes a subject complement as opposed to an object. Transitive verbs are defined as taking objects. However, based on my research it seems that “to have” is a transitive verb in English despite being stative. This is confusing for me and I think I’m misunderstanding something with the definitions.

Firstly, thinking about the transitivity of the English isn’t really going to help. You can never say [something]をある. It can’t possibly take a direct object. It has to be [something]がある. Therefore it is always intransitive, no matter how you translate it into English.

The verb “understand” is transitive in English, but the verb 分かる in Japanese is intransitive. WaniKani will correctly label 分かる as intransitive, even though “understand” is transitive. Transitivity across translations is not directly related.


Also, in this sort of context, “to have” is simply the verb that we would use in English in the same situation, rather than a direct translation. If you want to be literal, the meaning of マヨネーズなら、まだ少し有りますis more like “If it’s mayonnaise, a little bit still exists (in this house)”.

On a side note, ある is basically always written in hiragana.


Thanks, that example really helped clear things up.

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Thank-you :slight_smile: That is helpful.

Ok, so, your post prompted me to read up about the definition of stative verbs and subject complements in English. I see that a stative verb is something that describes the state or condition of the subject, and that a subject complement is something that defines the state of the subject via the verb. The counterpart of a stative verb is a ‘dynamic verb’, which is something that describes an actual action, and not a state. I’ve had a similar discussion with my friend about certain verbs in Japanese with regard to the use of the progressive ている tense in Japanese.

I think the issue is that ‘transitive/intransitive’ is in fact a different categorisation altogether from ‘stative/dynamic’. I believe that ‘subject complement’ is just a term used in the context of the ‘stative/dynamic’ classification. Something that is a ‘subject complement’ can be an object, but sometimes, that’s not possible. For instance, in ‘The toast smells burnt’, ‘burnt’ would be a subject complement, but not an object, since it’s not a noun. It would best be described as a sort of adverb since it modifies the verb ‘to smell’, which is intransitive here. On the other hand, in ‘I have a car’, ‘a car’ is at once a subject complement (since it defines my state) and an object (since it is acted upon directly by the verb ‘to have’). In this sentence, ‘to have’ is transitive. Like I said, the two systems of classification are completely unrelated.

As for Japanese verbs… well, translations help us all in the beginning, but after a while, in order to wrap our heads around more advanced Japanese, we’re going to have to know what verbs actually mean in Japanese, and not just how they’re usually translated. ある is one example of this. It actually means ‘to exist’, but mainly for inanimate objects. (There are a few cases for which ある can be used for animate objects, including people, and I believe that’s in the cases where only presence is emphasised, not activity, but never mind that for now: I myself haven’t got a handle on it all.)

In essence, in order to figure out whether a verb is transitive or intransitive in Japanese, you just have to see if it can be given an object with particle を. If it can, it’s transitive. This might be an oversimplification, but it works well in general. If you’ve only ever seen it working with が, then it’s very likely intransitive. The only way you can do this is with example sentences, since most EN-JP dictionaries give the closest English word, which is not always a direct translation (since that’s often impossible). If you need a dictionary to supplement the now-famous with example sentences, you can try typing your Japanese/English word into the search bar at It will spit out a set of example sentences along with their translations. You’ll be able to compare how English verbs and their Japanese counterparts function in a sentence, and thus figure out whether the Japanese verb is transitive or not (regardless of what type of verb it has an equivalent in English).

Final thought: be careful when you come across the Japanese terms 自動詞 and 他動詞. At first glance, it seems they respectively mean ‘intransitive’ and ‘transitive’ verbs, but that’s not always true, even if it is often the case. The Japanese classification works like this: what does the verb ‘move’ i.e. change or affect? The verb ‘to exceed’ in English is a transitive verb, because you always have to ‘exceed’ something. However, in the Japanese classification, it’s a 自動詞 because when you exceed something, only you change (you improve, you advance, you develop…); the object is left untouched.

I hope that helps. I know it was quite long, so if you need any clarifications, don’t hesitate to ask. I promise I’ll try to be more concise in any further explanations if that makes things clearer for you.


This is very detailed/comprehensive while still being easy to understand :blush:. Thanks very much!

Actually, only for people, and also that is written 在る in kanji, and not 有る.

Googling for 在る 有る 違い gives several discussions on that topic.
This one has a nice table that sums it up):

「ある=在る」・・・人に、使える。 (他の生物には、使えない)
「いる=居る」・・・人に、使える。 (他の生物にも、使える)

Verbs of motion can use を (こうえんをあるく, みちをわたる, etc), but it’s usually not characterized as being a direct object marker in that case.


I think the Japanese definition fits perfectly: self-move and other-move.

@Leebo got it, but here’s a page with more info to help illustrate it:を-intransitive-motion-verbs

Basically, in that case を is acting as a place noun marker for the thing you’re moving through, around, etc.

I walk through the park.

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I stand corrected. I only had vague memories of what I had read in the dictionary when I wrote that post, since such nuances usually only appear in monolingual Japanese dictionaries. Often, the trick to being right even when you’re not sure is to be general, but I guess that didn’t work out in this case. :stuck_out_tongue: It’s true that as I run through the dictionary definitions, the only animate subjects I see are people. However…

Apparently, it’s not that simple. There are some cases (possibly just one) in which 有る can have people as its subject. When stating whether or not someone has family, relatives, friends and so on, 有る can be used, as in 「妻子の有る身」. (That’s a dictionary example.) Similarly, while the first reply on the page you linked to says 在る, when used for people, tends to have a nuance of ‘being alive’, 在る can be used for people. I’m not really sure how to explain the difference though. I find that the nuances mentioned by the dictionary I use mostly correspond to the nuances each of the kanji express in Chinese, but I’m not sure I can summarise the differences because these two kanji are ubiquitous in Chinese and the difference between the two is something more easily learnt through experience… Nonetheless, I will try.

What follows is only for those interested in the nuances of ある when it’s used for people, which is generally quite rare anyway. I’m writing most of this as I read my dictionary, because I didn’t read the entry in detail the first time.

The difference between 有る and 在る

Firstly, here's what my dictionary says in the section on differentiating the two kanji.

I’ll only translate the explanations, not the examples:
有る: to exist. To have/possess. To occur. Also often written in kana.

在る: to exist. To live/survive. To be/find oneself in a certain state. Normally written in kana.

The most surprising examples above are probably「妻子の有る身」, which I already discussed earlier (and which corresponds to the possessive sense of 有る), and 「責任が在る」, since we often say that somebody ‘has’ a certain ‘responsibility’. With some thought, we might deduce that this use of 在る is based on its ‘existence’ nuance. However, both forms of ある seem to share this nuance, so how do we tell them apart?

According to the relevant definitions (which I will translate below) and based on the examples given for those definitions (these examples are often more elaborate versions of the ones in the kanji differentiation section), when ある means ‘(for an object) to exist’, the difference is that
有る: (when it’s a question of whether something exists) to exist
在る: (when the fact that the object exists itself is self-evident, and location is the question) to be located/situated

Secondly, here's (roughly) what each kanji is about (based on my experience in Chinese).

有 is usually translated as ‘to have’. However, it’s also used in matters of existence and truth. For example, 他有来吗? (literally ‘he have come [yes/no question]?’) means ‘did he come?’, but the focus of the question is whether or not that event occurred, similar to 彼は来たことがあるか in Japanese. It’s almost like a question of truth, as opposed to a question that simply asks if somebody has come (i.e. is that a past event or not?).

在 in Chinese usually means ‘to be in a certain place or state’. The equivalent of the continuous tenses in Chinese is formed by adding 在 before the verb, turning it into something that means ‘to be in the state of [verb]-ing’. Similarly, someone is present (在) in a particular place. In other words, 在 is about presence or existence in a particular context.

Thus, 有 deals with matters of simple existence, possession and occurrence (‘taking’ – and thus having – ‘place’). 在, on the other hand, deals with presence in a location or in a certain state, in particular when the existence of the person or thing in question is already clear. The nuance of ‘surviving’ or ‘living’ is covered by both of these: a living person is present in the land of the living (which is a location, as opposed to the afterlife often referred to in Japanese and Chinese traditions) and is currently in existence (a state, as opposed to the state of death).

In summary, 有る deals with existence/occurrence and possession, whereas 在る deals with presence in a given context. Just thought I’d examine this very common Japanese intransitive verb. In all honesty though, it’s much easier to just write ある in kana all the time, and to reserve いる for animate objects. That won’t allow you to use the extra nuances of ある when it’s used for people (or personified animals/objects, I guess), but it will prevent errors and confusion.


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