Use of を with intransitive verbs

Can someone please explain the use of を with intransitive verbs? As in the sentence あとはそのまま来た道を下るだけだ。下る is an intransitive verb but isnt it taking 来た道 as an object…? Thanks

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を, when used with movement verbs, marks the route by which the movement takes place.


This is definition 3 of を here


Thanks Belthazar, are intransitive “movement” verbs the only exception?

Exception to being used for marking as an object for a verb?

I mean を好き or を嫌い(になる) are some that may fit that. を欲しい is another one you may see but I think Japanese people consider that a mistake for the most part so I wouldn’t suggest using it yourself.

You can also see を分かる for people, in the sense that you “understand them” or “get them”.

Those are the ones that come to mind for what learners might consider exceptional off the top of my head.


This is Japanese, there’s aaaalways exceptions. :stuck_out_tongue:

(Though in this case, it’s less an example of the usual “all rules have exceptions” and more a case of an alternate usage for を of which you were previously unaware.)


I think it’s one of these situations where Indo-European linguistic conventions break a bit when applied to Japanese, but I don’t think this is exceptional per-se. There are a few situations where our expectations of how transitive/intransitive verbs should behave break in Japanese, but if you ignore the conventions and focus on the logic of the grammar and the way the sentence is constructed, it’s pretty natural and obvious what is meant.

Some even argue that transitive/intransitive are improper translations for 他動詞/自動詞, I personally wouldn’t go that far because the vast majority of the time it works out and it’s a useful shorthand, but it’s also important not to forget that the map isn’t the territory and not blindly apply strict “mathematical” rules to organic languages.

Fundamentally 下る is a 自動詞 verb because it’s whatever that’s doing the 下る’ing that’s actually descending. You’re not making something go down, you, the actor, are going down. If you say “He’s descending down the path”, it’s still “he” that’s descending, so the verb is unambiguously 自動詞.

Here in Japanese you can use を to mark “down the path” but that doesn’t change anything. It’s not the path that’s descending. You’re not acting on the path.

EDIT: see also the usage notes in this wiktionary entry:

The terms transitive and intransitive are somewhat misleading in reference to Japanese. The English terms are generally used to refer to the syntax or structure of a sentence, and whether the verb in the sentence is followed by an object. The Japanese terms refer to the semantics or meaning of the verb, and whether the action of that verb is happening to or upon something else. The Japanese term 自動詞 (jidōshi) literally means “self-acting word”, and 他動詞 (tadōshi) literally means “other-acting word”, in reference to this semantic consideration.

For instance, in English, the verb ate in the simple sentence “I ate” would be considered an intransitive verb, because it is not followed by an object.

However, in the corresponding Japanese, the verb 食べた (tabeta, “ate”) in the simple sentence 私は食べた。 (“Watashi wa tabeta.”) would not be considered a 自動詞 (jidōshi), but would instead be considered a 他動詞 (tadōshi, literally “other-acting word”), as the underlying semantics or meaning of the verb 食べる (taberu, “to eat”) conceptually require an object: when one eats, one eats something, even if left unstated.

This semantic focus is the underlying mechanism by which verbs in sentences like 私は食べた。 (Watashi wa tabeta. - “I ate.”) are still considered 他動詞 (tadōshi, glossed as “transitive”) even when there is no stated object (because the fundamental meaning of the verb implies action by the subject upon something else), and verbs in sentences like 道を歩く。 (Michi o aruku. - “[I] walk the street.”) are still considered 自動詞 (jidōshi, glossed as “intransitive”) even when there is an explicit object marked with the object or accusative particle を (o) (because the fundamental meaning of the verb only implies action by the subject itself in a way that does not affect the noun marked by を).


The Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar has some good entries with examples on the other uses of を that are not “marking the direct object of a transitive verb”.

(自動詞 and 他動詞 entered Japanese as newly coined words in the Meiji era to translate “intransitive verb” and “transitive verb”, so personally I think it’s fine to consider them the same as the English terms.)


They’re also the words Japanese people use to discuss English verbs.


Yeah that’s why I think arguing about the jargon is not worth it, the key is to understand that the underlying concept is a bit different. Transitivity in Japanese is about semantics, not syntax first and foremost.

It makes sense too given how aggressively Japanese likes to leave things implicit. That makes it difficult to argue transitivity purely based on whether a direct object is or isn’t written down in the sentence, the way it’s usually done in English.

“I take” it’s not a correct sentence in English because to take is a transitive verb that needs an object. “私が取ります” is a correct full sentence in Japanese and it doesn’t have any explicit direct object, but that doesn’t make 取る an intransitive verb.

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It seems the same as English to me, really. Yes, Japanese lets you omit implicit objects, but that doesn’t change that some verbs take an object and some don’t, which is just a property of those verbs rather than something deducible purely from their meaning, same as in English.

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But what about the numerous counter examples in this thread? In Japanese so-called transitive verbs can be used intransitively and vice-versa. This isn’t true in English.

I mean it’s not a big deal in the end, once again I just think it’s better to focus on getting a “feel” for the language than memorizing arbitrary rules and laws.

What prompted my original comment was the idea that OP’s sentence showcased an exceptional use of を that wouldn’t work the way it usually does. I believe that it just overcomplicates things for the sake of having the Japanese grammar fit in western-made boxes. You only need the exception if you insist that Japanese transitivity must be the same as English transitivity and 下る can never accept a direct object.

To me, the fact that 私が取ります can be uttered without feeling unnatural is merely about what is acceptable to omit in Japanese. It’s not fundamentally changing anything about the verb. The person will take “something” when they perform that action, even if they didn’t say it.

Sure but that’s precisely the point, the distinction is semantic, not syntactic. 取る is intrinsically transitive in Japanese, the way it’s used doesn’t matter. That’s not how English transitivity works.

Consider “I see.” vs “I see it.” in English. Here the meaning changes depending on transitivity. That’s the crux of the difference between the two languages.

Anyway I feel like we’re running in circles here, anybody struggling with transitivity in Japanese either has their answer by now or they’re more confused than when they started…

I guess you’re arguing that the omitted thing isn’t so much omitted (that is, understood to be present even if unspoken) but actually not present at all? Maybe my image of “omitting” is different, so to me that’s the only way I can make sense of what you’re describing.

But I suppose it just goes back to semantics.

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Exactly, my argument is that it’s really a matter of interpretation, and which mental model is most useful to understand and learn the language. Introducing exceptions and complicated rules for the sake of coming up with a comprehensive model is certainly useful for linguists, but not necessarily for language learners.

A sentence like “道を歩く” is, IMO, completely clear, intuitive and unsurprising unless you start getting hung up on somewhat arbitrary grammatical classifications. “I walk the path”. There. Done. Does it mean that “walk” is transitive in this case? Maybe, maybe not, ask Chomsky, I have bad shonen manga to read.

To me and dictionaries that’s a different usage of を than anything having to do with transitive or intransitive though. Just like there are multiple ways to use と, there are multiple ways to use を and only one of them has to do with transitive and intransitive.

I feel like nothing gets complicated if you just leave it at that.


If that model works for you it’s absolutely fine, I just wanted to contribute a different approach on the topic. Personally I find that many of the accepted meanings of を (and と for that matter, with the exception of the quotation maybe) are really just the same underlying concept and it’s simpler for me to just unify all that in my brain instead of coming up with edge cases, dictionaries be damned, but I’m not pretending that mine is the one true way.

I think it’s my software dev brain, I just love “factoring” similar patterns into abstract, generic models instead of specialized functions.

For instance if you look at the definition of English ‘of’ you also find 11 distinct definitions, but wouldn’t you agree that in the mind of a fluent speaker of English all these meanings overlap a lot? Should a learner of English really consider these 11 meanings distinct and unique, effectively completely different words that happen to be spelled the same way? Personally as a non-native English speaker that’s certainly not how I think of it, and that’s not how I think of を or と but again I’m willing to accept that other people approach the topic differently.

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I’m all for what youre about, but in this particular case it seemed that the Japanese and English just happened to work well since to walk a path makes sense in English.

But what if it was 空を飛ぶ or 席を立つ? Then it feels like it doesn’t work as well.

Curse you, I stumbled upon 席を立つ while writing a previous comment and cowardly omitted it because I thought that it didn’t work so well.

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