Japanese · SLAP (Speak Like A Person) Exercises

SLAP#7 “Connected to the internet?” “Passed a test?” “Got a call?”… how Japanese people use intransitive verbs in EVERY aspect of life.

So far, we’ve looked at situations where Japanese people use the passive voice and the potential form when we wouldn’t. To wrap up this mini-series on verbs, let’s now look at when Japanese native speakers use intransitive verbs! (when we wouldn’t! do I even need to keep saying that?)

For example, just the other day, I heard a Japanese friend say the following:

I got a call from my client and…

電話【でんわ】 = telephone
電話(を)かける = to make a call
電話(が)かかる = a phone call is made
Verb in て-form + くる = indicates direction, in this case that the phone call is *coming* to you

In English, we say “I got a call from so and so,” using the transitive verb “to get”. In Japanese, they say “A call was made from so and so.” Funky, right?

For more examples of 電話がかかってくる

[Review] What are “Transitive” and “Intransitive” verbs?

A good way to remember this difference is: TRANSitive verbs TRANSfer their actions onto other things.

Transitive verbs: 
“I eat cake” “He ran a marathon” “They walked the dog.”

Intransitive verbs:
“I laughed,” “He ran to school,” “They walked.

I don’t know about you, but before learning Japanese, I didn’t know that verbs could be “transitive” or “intransitive.” I think that’s because in English, many transitive verbs (like “run” and “walk”) also function as intransitive verbs.

Transitive & Intransitive Verbs in Japanese

Unfortunately, it’s not this easy in Japanese. Many Japanese verbs though do have transitive and intransitive variants that share the same kanji or root. For instance, 落ちる [ochiru] means to fall or to drop (intransitive) and 落とす [otosu] means to drop something (transitive). For instance, if you see that someone dropped something on the street, you could say both of the following:

  1. 何か(を)落としましたよ! = (You) dropped something!
  2. 何か(が)落ちましたよ!= Something dropped!
何か [nanika] = something

The second option, “Something dropped,” sounds weird to me. If someone said that to me with accompanying hand gestures, I would understand them. But from the sentence alone, it’s not clear if I dropped something or if something dropped by itself (e.g. from the sky). Yet in Japanese this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Most likely because they’re used to omitting subjects. It’s common sense that you, the person being spoken to, dropped something. From this example, we already see an instance where Japanese people would use an intransitive verb where we wouldn’t.

Why the Intransitive Verb?

In the situation above, both the transitive and intransitive versions sound natural. However, often there is a preference for the intransitive verb. Especially when the completion of the action involved may be outside your control. 

Like understanding that bolded sentence. Isn’t it confusing? Are you thinking わからない…?


If so, give yourself a high-five, because you’re using an intransitive verb. I know in Japanese class we learn that わかる means “to understand,” but actually it means “to be understood.” For instance, 日本語(が)わかる? is not actually “Do you understand Japanese?” but “Is Japanese understood (for you)?”

Because in Japanese, things *are understood*. Whether or not we reach that state of understanding is not up to us.* That’s kinda humbling in a philosophical way…. and at the same time kinda depressing.

*If you’re thinking, well what about 理解する? If you were asking somebody if they “understood” something, it’d actually be 理解できた? Refer back to the last SLAP exercise.

Your Turn!

Anyways, let’s get some practice to wrap our heads around this weird, weird concept. Think about how you would express the following thoughts in Japanese. All are things that are somewhat out of your control. [T = Transitive and I = Intransitive]

  1. Are you connected to the internet?
    – “internet” is ネット or インターネット
    – “to connect” is つなげる (T) and つながる (I)
  2. I found my bag!
    – bag is かばん
    –  “to find” is 見つける (T) and 見つかる (I) | 見【み】
  3. I won the lottery!
    – the Japanese equivalent of the lottery is 宝【たから】くじ (literally “treasure lot”)
    – “to win” in the context of being lucky and winning something is 当てる (T) and 当たる (I) (literally “to be struck”) | 当【あ】
  4. I got into my dream school!
    志望校【しぼうこう】meaning “first choice school” would be a close equivalent to “dream school”
    – In Japan, you aren’t “accepted” by schools, you pass their entrance exams. The words for this are 受ける (T) and 受かる (I) | 受【う】

“The Answers”

In “”‘s, because there can more than one answer, but I provide one.

  1. Are you connected to the internet?
    Clunky Japanese: ネットにつなげて(い)る?
    Native Japanese: ネットにつないで(い)る?
  2. I found my bag.
    Clunky Japanese: カバン(を)見つけた
    Native Japanese: カバン(が)見つかった!
  3. I won the lottery!!!
    Clunky Japanese: 宝くじに当てた
    Native Japanese: 宝くじに当たった!
  4. I got into my dream school!
    Clunky Japanese: 志望校に受けた
    Native Japanese: 志望校に受かった!

NOTE: These examples are all about the completed state of things (being successfully connected to the internet, successfully finding your bag, etc.). If you’re talking about the incomplete state of connecting to the internet, it seems that you can, barring certain idiomatic expressions, use both, e.g. ネットにつなげたい and ネットにつながりたい (“I want to connect to the internet”). I’m not aware of any differences between these, but I’ll keep you posted if I do 🙂

Your Turn!

As you can tell from the diversity of examples in this SLAP exercise, this concept applies to MANY aspects of daily life, from connecting to the internet and understanding things, to dropping your keys and getting a call!!! So it’s crucial to get better at using intransitive verbs.

To be honest, I still struggle and make mistakes with this too. After observing native speakers, the best way to learn is to practice, make mistakes, and get corrected! If you don’t have a tutor or language-exchange partner, I recommend getting one and/or making use of HiNative and WordReference for your questions/corrections. Good luck SLAPping!!!

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