Verb transitivity and it's relation to objects

Continuing the discussion from Re: 代わる vs 代える:

Thanks again to everyone that helped out in that thread. What I’m stuck on now is the repeated reference that に is marking an indirect object.

But an indirect object is an object that receives a direct object, and a verb that takes an object (i.o. and d.o., d.o. only, or i.o. with implied d.o.) would be transitive.

In the Imabi article linked it states “Transitivity Note : 歌う is a transitive verb because birds sing songs. There is intrinsically always a direct object implied.”
My takeaway from this is that even if an object is dropped, as long as it’s implied, it still means the relevant verb is transitive.

So if there’s an indirect object, doesn’t that mean the verb it belongs to is still transitive? Using one of the 代わる context sentences 「もしよければ、かわるましょうか。」and @Leebo 's breakdown of it:

I don’t understand how this is still operating as intransitive?

The most likely breakdown I can think of, is that for some reason indirect objects in japanese don’t actually imply a direct object? but this contradicts my understanding of the definition of an indirect object. And I tried to dig through imabi for a definition but I missed it if it’s there.

Also sorry! I don’t want to be difficult, I really appreciate anyone’s time in attempting to explain this to me. And I definitely realize that knowing practically no Japanese can make explanations harder to provide.

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The complete sentence with nothing omitted would be もしよければ、私が (subject) あなたに (indirect object) 代わりましょうか

I, the subject, took the place of you, the indirect object, which is precisely what it means to do something intransitively. The subject did the action, rather than acting directly upon another object.

As long as you keep in mind what the subject is doing, you can see the transitivity. Did they themselves do the action or did they act on some other object.

A transitive “replace” with 代える involves the subject acting on something and causing that thing to take the place of yet another thing.

I tried making a diagram as well.

Here we can see わたし and あなた and あなた is in a specific spot.


Now, if わたし moves into that spot in place of あなた, あなた is replaced but わたし did not directly act on あなた, just moved into that spot.


It’s not really important where あなた ended up.

Let’s look at a transitive example.


Here, 私, the subject, manipulated the objects and changed one with the other.

I don’t know how helpful these diagrams are, if at all, so your mileage may vary.


It’s not necessary for there to be a direct object just because there is an indirect object. Maybe that’s where your confusion is stemming from?

I’m not really an expert in English grammar (that’s not to say I’m an expert in Japanese grammar either. I’m just not an expert, period :slight_smile: ). Whenever I use a grammar term in these explanations, assume it is with regard to Japanese grammar and the definition of that term within that scheme.

It’s important to ignore any rules you have in your head about what makes an English word fit those categories.


This is why I really prefer to think if Japanese transitivity in the Japanese way.

自動詞じどうし - self-move verb - intransitive
他動詞たどうし - other-move verb - transitive

自動詞 can never directly act upon an object, because it inherently about the subject of the sentence doing something - “moving itself.”. The action of the verb can be aimed at another, and に is used to mark the ultimate target of an action or transformation (among other things, that’s not the only thing に does).

他動詞 means that the subject is acting in a way that impacts that outside of itself. So that can be an action done TO something else - acting upon an object.

KawaJappa Cure Dolly talks quite a bit about how English transitivity laws ALMOST work one to one with Japanese, but not entirely. I’m not sure, but she may even mention exactly what is happening here right now: that looking at it through an English framework can make it seem like what Japanese particles do will change sometimes, depending on the sentence.

I’m also pretty terrible at conveying grammar stuff, so I suggest for her to explain it instead of letting me do it. :joy:


Perhaps it would help to classify what each category entails.

A transitive verb can take a direct object, and usually would not make sense without one. When there isn’t one in the sentence, it is typically implied. In English, we use pronouns like “it” to fill in implied or referenced information.

An intransitive verb cannot take a direct object. If you see an intransitive verb in a clause with an を, that is usually an alternate meaning of を.

Indirect objects are not the same as direct objects, nor do they require a direct object. They can be used with either transitive or intransitive verbs. In English, verbs can often behave as a transitive or intransitive verb interchangeably, but in Japanese most verbs fall strictly into one or the other category, often with a corresponding transitive or intransitive counterpart.

Transitive examples:
(Explicit direct object) りんごを食べた “I ate (the) apple.”
(Implied direct object) 食べた “I ate it.”
(Explicit direct and indirect) お母さんに手紙を送った “I sent a letter (d.o.) to my mother (i.o.)”

Intransitive examples:
(No indirect object) 走った “(I) ran.”
(Alternate meaning of を; not a direct object) 鳥が空を飛んでた “The birds flew/were flying through the sky.”
(Indirect object) 駅に走ってきた “I ran to the station (and am now here).”


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