WaniKani verbs: transitive vs intransitive

I’m fairly certain I understand the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs regardless of language, but please correct me if I’m mistaken: transitive verbs take a direct object, and intransitive verbs do not. So like, “throw” is a transitive verb because you throw a ball; but “live” is intransitive because you can’t live something, you simply live.

So by that definition, there are a couple of Japanese verbs that I’ve run into that WaniKani labels intransitive that I would have assumed were transitive. Here are the couple that are confusing me:

  • 分かる - you could just say “I understand,” but the it is implied; or you could say, “I understand the instructions,” etc.
  • 生む - in English, you would give birth to something, so “birth” in English is not transitive; but the definition of this Japanese verb is “to give birth to,” or “to produce.” That requires an object, no? Sorry, I suffer from intermittent retardation.
  • 通る - similar to the previous, in that the English version “pass through” has a preposition attached, but the Japanese seems to kind of include that as part of the verb, so would need an object, right?
  • 合う - but doesn’t “suit” require an object? I.e., something can suit you, but it can’t just “suit.”

I kind of really love grammar, so I know this question is super nerdy. I’m hoping there are some other grammar geeks out there who’ve already thought about this and can explain it to me. :nerd_face::sweat_smile:


You seem to have a handle on it, so just don’t expect the two languages to agree with each other. They don’t have to, and often don’t.


To pick on one example:

I guess picture it as the verb “birth”. “She birthed a child”. That’s really archaic English, though, which is why “give birth to” is the usual translation. The intransitive pair for this is 生まれる.


I found Cure Dolly’s explanation very helpful. From what I understood from her, is that the Japanese “transitive” and “intransitive” differs a bit from the Western understanding of transitivity, and thus she instead uses the terms “self-move” and “other-move”.
Also, for verbs like 分かる, it may help to understand exactly what the subject (what’s doing the verb) is. For example:

ぼく には彼女かのじょ うことが かった。

Note that 僕 is not the subject of the sentence, but こと is as it is marked by が. A literal translation could then be

“To me, the thing she was saying was understandable.”

A more natural English translation might be

“I understood what she was saying.”

Notice that in this more natural translation, the subject of the sentence has shifted from the thing she said to “I”. But that is not how it was in the original Japanese sentence, where the “thing she was saying” was the subject, and thus also what was being “self-moved” by 分かる. Thus, わかる is less “to understand” and more “to be understandable”.

I find reading the example sentences or searching up sentences very helpful to understanding how the verbs should be used.
also I was totally Leebo’d


Those would be the Japanese terms translated into English. 自動詞 and 他動詞.


That’s the point I was (inarticulately) trying to make: intuitively, 生む seems like it ought to be considered transitive, but it’s not!

Yes: this is the explanation I was looking for!! Assuming this principle applies to the other three verbs, 今は私にこれが分かります!!(I did that right, right?)

Thank you, @tkyk !!!


It’s transitive…


Ah, I must have made a mistake when I looked that one up. Sorry!

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This one doesn’t really match in terms of translations. While yes it means you understand, what it really translates to is ‘to break down’. So it wouldn’t be “I understand Japanese.” As opposed to “Japanese breaks down for me, therefore I understand it.”

Nothing is making it break down, it just happens. If it helps, think less of it as “Understand” and more “Makes sense”.

I hope that helps.


Good explanation, thank you!

I kind of wish these nuances were included in WaniKani’s definitions. I imagine these specifics aren’t helpful or interesting for everyone, but for some-- i.e. me-- it’s a big part of how I learn.

Do you have a source for that definition? I’ve seen the definition of 分かる reworded as ‘to realize’, ‘to grasp’, ‘to come to light’ or ‘to be identified’, etc. but I’ve never seen any use ‘to break down’. It’s mostly for my curiosity as I’ve yet to come across that definition.

There’s the old root verb 分く that could mean to break or separate, but I’ve never seen 分かる defined that way.

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Yeah, I’d be curious as well. But intuitively it makes sense, as 分 can mean “separate.” “Break down” isn’t too much of a stretch.

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Sure, but that meaning seems to have been more carried over into the word 分ける not 分かる even though both are etymologically related to the old Japanese verb 分く which did mean to separate or break. I’ve scoured well beyond the normal JMdict derived dictionaries and don’t see of them using that meaning. As I said, it’s more of a curiosity as none of the sources I can find use that meaning.

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Fair enough. We’ll see what the @NerdyWizard has to say. :nerd_face::+1:

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I got that explanation from an app called Human Japanese. Highly recommend it for grammar studies and for a bit of extra vocab =)

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If I remember from HJ is more a “mnemonics” and not a definition, if we think that in English " to make understandable " is somewhat similar to breakdown, dissect, analyze (there is some stretch here) than 分かる as a transitive verb becomes more natural.


That makes more sense. Like I said, it just wasn’t a definition I had come across before. Thanks!


Gotcha, thanks for the reference. Going to try that app out, grammar is what I need help with! Can I get away with just Human Japanese Lite, or am I basically waiting my time if I’m not planning on purchasing the full version?

The Lite is just the first few chapters so its a way to try it before you commit to buying :slight_smile:


It’s dangerous to try to apply English geammar rules to Japanese. English has many verbs that can be both transitive and intransive. You said live is intransitive. Yes, it can be. But it can also be transitive. I live my dream every day. For example, She swims every day. There is no object here, so the verb swim is intransitive. She swims 20 laps every day. Now the verb has a direct object: 20 laps. This time it’s transitive. Japanese doesn’t do this. There are different words for transitive and for intransitive words. Consider ageru, which means to raise. You raise a curtain, a hand, an objection, a stink. Ageru is a transitive verb. Now agaru. It means to rise. The moon rises, the tide, the curtain, the noise, the flood. There is nothing that gets “rised.” Agaru is the intransitive verb. The signal is the E changing to the A. E is used in transitive verbs, the A in intransitive verbs.

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