Treatment of intransitive verbs

Apologies if this has been brought up before. I did a quick search of “intransitive verbs” and didn’t find anything in the feedback section already.

The treatment of the English meaning for some intransitive verbs seems to be inconsistent. Sometimes the English translation can be used as both a transitive and intransitive verb and this is accepted e.g. 戻る and 戻す both having an accepted meaning of “to return” since “to return” can be both transitive or intransitive.

However there are some verbs that require the intransitive verb to be translated as “to be X” e.g. 移る only has an accepted meaning of “to be shifted” even though “to shift” can also be intransitive in English.

I understand that “to be shifted” and “to shift” have different nuances, so it is entirely possible that “to be shifted” is the more accurate translation. In fact it could be argued that “to be shifted” and “to shift” in many cases have entirely different meanings simply because “to shift” somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean something else did the shifting (transitively). I also understand that the WaniKani accepted meanings are meant to be short and to the point, so they will often be approximations of a more accurate translation that could potentially require paragraphs of explanation.

I just want to point out that this seeming inconsistency exists on the off-chance that this seeming inconsistency is actually a bug. I noticed 移る particularly (and I think there are likely others with the similar property of only having the “to be X” translation) since I keep forgetting to write “to be shifted” instead of “to shift” and it has been a leach as a consequence. After writing this post, I probably won’t forget XD.


It’s definitely not a bug, but I also find the use of the English passive voice to mark intransitive verbs to be a bit… odd to say the least. I get the idea behind it, but when I hear “to be shifted” I think of the passive voice, rather than transitivity. You’d typically say “the [noun] shifted 3 centimeters to the left” or whatever, and if you used “the [noun] was shifted” then that would be the passive voice, with an unspoken agent, which is not a thing with simple intransitive verbs. Typically I either use the ignore script or add a synonym for these kinds of words on wanikani without the “be” in there just because it’s very unintuitive to me, that could perhaps be a solution for you as well. To be fair, I do agree with the idea that there should be some way to tell in the English translation whether the original word was intransitive or transitive, but honestly I feel like using the passive voice is not helpful, and I think if you study Japanese outside of WK, you tend to pick up the transitive-intransitive patterns and if you aren’t sure whether a word is transitive or intransitive, you can easily look it up in a dictionary.


Perhaps there are some intransitive verbs that can’t be translated into English without using ‘to be’? And I guess the good thing about using ‘to be’ is that the verb can’t be interpreted as transitive (provided that’s the only translation given). However, I agree that ‘to be ~’ is ultimately closer to the passive voice, and so it doesn’t always convey the same idea as a similar intransitive verb that doesn’t involve an agent (as you mentioned). Perhaps it would be nice if one could optionally add an additional ‘transitive/intransitive’ tag for the sake of practice during recall, which might help with verb pairs like 動く・動かす? It’s probably not as helpful or essential as picking these things up through Japanese sentences encountered through media though.

Something like 続ける and 続く share the same english definition ‘to continue’ and using something like ‘to be continue(d)’ for intransitive sounds so cluttered and could even be misleading.

I’m not really hung up on the english for intran/tran items here because 1) I wouldn’t use WK as a single resource for a grammar point like this 2) english isn’t always helpful…IMO best to loose the direct translations since they break down and learn context sentences. I really don’t want the inside english translation voice in my head for these type of points at all.

For WK reviews, I just want to be able to recognize the kanji, know if ichidan/godan, intran/tran for specials cases, understand the basic meaning but leave the nuances in other areas of study’ as there is a serious lack of synonyms on WK, particularly for intransitive verbs…and that’s ok, I’m just here to master the kanji and kunyomi reading. The example sentences can be helpful though.


Thank you - it didn’t occur to me to use the “add synonym” feature, but I will use it now.

Almost all verbs can be both transitive and intransitive in English - the purpose of the “to be X” structure is to make certain that you’re aware the verb is instransitive. If you could answer “to shift” for both, you may never learn which of them is transitive - the inconsistency here is that there are transitive/intransitive pairs in WaniKani that do allow you to give the same answer for both.

The meaning explanation for one of those is “there’s a difference between these, but who on earth knows what it is? *shrug*”. I know what the difference is: opposite transitivity.


I think つかまる (to be caught) is a good example of an intransitive verb that really does need to be passive in its English gloss, even though the Japanese verb technically is just a standard intransitive.


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