being or riding on a train

Riding on the train between Four-Trees (四ツ木 Yotsu-gi) and Standing-Stone (立石 Tate-ishi)

As a teacher there are times when you are called upon to explain a linguistic pattern which is based on native speaker preference, as we see in the example where

  • “you must be very tired after being on a train”

is preferable to

  • “you must be very tired after riding on a train”.

Let’s look at the contrast between BEING and RIDING, beyond the formal aspects.

Of course, you can say “you’re riding on the train”, but when you say “you must be tired after riding on a train for 10 hours”, it sounds a bit strange because

  • RIDING is too active;
  • BEING is more passive, and more accurate in this situation since you’re just being there:

You’re not riding on the train, you’re just stuck there.

RIDING is more active because that is what you do with horses or motorbikes. You don’t have lots of control when you (just) are on the train (for a long time), so people prefer “being on a train” in this situation.

Why do we use RIDE at all, then?

“Catch a ride on the train”. This also sounds quite passive, after the initial active spurt: You just catch it, a verb which refers only to the original movement onto this thing or animal (a horse).

After you catch a ride on something, that object or animal can take you where you want to go.

We use to have much more control when we were riding horses, because you can control a horse much more directly than you can control a train. With the train, you might have to transfer to catch a bus.

How about a cart drawn by a horse? Again, you could steer it very easily. When you have a herd which you’re supposed to control, you’re called a driver.

Are we then driven when we ride on the train? Are we driven like cattle?

For the English-speaking psyche, being controlled by another person (as you’d be on the train by the conductor) involves losing some control over what you can do up to a point where after 1 or 2 hours a different verb needs to be used, because it sounds more natural.

On the other hand, it sounds quite okay in Japanese. You could say quite naturally in Japanese:


“You must be very tired after riding the train for 10 hours”.

If you use BEING, it sounds unnatural (=not well-formed) in Japanese.

Does this mean that Japanese people relinquish more control and are more comfortable being herded, driven, as a group?

We see here the insistence not just on how much control we are (un)willing to relinquish, but also on what’s actually happening around us.

Notice the Japanese tendency to state the immediate:

We are riding on the train, things are moving around us.

  1. We have chosen (in the past) to (catch a) ride &
  2. we know where we’re going even when we relinquish (some) control, but
  3. no matter how long this event extends in time, it still involves you moving at a much more accelerated pace through life than you would normally move, &
  4. at any moment something else could happen, so
  5. it’s important to describe the immediate reality as accurately as possible

even if it means that you’re ignoring for-the-time-being the more abstract issues of control, herding and so on.

Even if your personal freedom happens to be curtailed by the fact that you are in a train.


The attitude we have towards our trains can give you a pretty good measure of how we ordered our wor(l)ds. Isn’t it?

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