Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Posted on 13. Mar, 2009 by in Grammar

A reader has asked me to explain the difference between verbi transitivi (transitive verbs) and verbi intransitivi (intransitive verbs), so I’ll try my best. This is always a difficult but, none the less, important topic in Italian grammar. OK, let’s start.

Transitivo comes from Latin transire meaning ‘to pass’, ‘to cross’, ‘to go beyond’, therefore it describes actions that move from the subject or doer directly to an object, without having to use a preposition such as ‘to’, ‘at’, etc. The classic example we learn at school is: io mangio la mela (I eat the apple); in this sentence io is the subject of the verb, mangio is the transitive verb, and la mela is the direct object or accusative. Of course we don’t always express the direct object, for example: la sera mangio presto (in the evening I eat early), the idea of ‘dinner’, ‘meal’, ‘food’ is implicit but not expressed. Similarly, we can say Giovanni guida la macchina per andare a lavorare (Giovanni drives the car to go to work), in which guidare is a transitive verb because it is followed by a direct object, la macchina. However I can omit ‘la macchina’ and simply say Giovanni guida per andare a lavorare, the idea of the car being implicit.

Intransitivo means ‘non transitive’, that is: the action does not pass from the subject to the object directly. Verbs which don’t express an action but rather a state or a condition, such as essere (to be), stare (to stay), divenire (to become), etc. are intransitive, as are verbs which express movement: andare (to go), venire (to come), arrivare (to arrive), etc. After these types of verbs we can add information about ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘how’, ‘how long for’, etc. e.g. sto in ufficio tutto il pomeriggio (I’m in the office all afternoon); Giovanni va al lavoro in macchina (Giovanni goes to work by car); il treno e’ arrivato in ritardo (the train arrived late). We can’t however express a direct object.

Verbi riflessivi (reflexive verbs) are considered intransitivi because the action takes place on the subject itself, therefore the reflexive verb lavarsi (to wash oneself) as in mi lavo le mani (‘I wash my hands’ or more literally ‘I wash myself the hands’) is intransitive, but lavare (to wash) as in io lavo il piatto (I’m washing the plate) is transitive!  You can find out more about reflexive verbs in last week post.

Don’t forget that verbs which are transitive in Italian may be intransitive in English and vice versa. For example ascoltare (to listen): in Italian we say ascolto una canzone (I’m listening to a song), however we don’t use the preposition ‘a’ (to) and therefore it’s a transitive verb because ascolto is followed by a direct object, una canzone (a song). In English on the other hand it’s intransitive because you use the preposition ‘to’ after ‘listening’ i.e. ‘I’m listening to a song’. Yes I know it’s confusing, but if you really get stuck a good bilingual dictionary can help you with individual verbs. When you look up a verb in your dictionary you should find that immediately after the word, and before the translation, there is a little acronym: either vt/v.tr which is short for verbo transitivo, or vi/v.intr, short for verbo intransitivo. So when you want to know if an Italian verb is transitive or intransitive always look in the Italian to English section of your dictionary. At the end of the day it is always important to listen to, and read as much of the language as possible in order to reinforce and assimilate these grammatical rules. After a while you will begin to ‘feel’ what is right and what is wrong.

But why is all of this so important? Are we just being pedantic or sadistic? I know it feels like it sometimes, but there is in fact a further very important reason for learning these grammatical rules: knowing the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs will help you to understand which auxiliary verb to use in the past tense: essere or avere?

In the past tense all transitive verbs are built with the auxiliary avere: e.g. Ho mangiato la mela (I ate the apple)

all verbs used in the reflexive form are built with essere: e.g. Mi sono svegliato alle sette (I woke up at seven o’clock)

all verbs expressing a state or condition are built with essere: e.g. Sei stata in ufficio questa mattina? (Have you been in the office this morning?) 

For the rest of the intransitive verbs you’ll need help from the dictionary as there isn’t a fixed rule! For example: siamo andati al mercato (we’ve been to the market) but abbiamo camminato fino al mercato (we walked to the market)

Buona Fortuna!

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14 Responses to “Transitive and Intransitive Verbs”

  1. jimmy 5 February 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    Hi,

    I’m currently learning Italian and last lesson we went over intr/tr verbs briefly, so i looked around and found your article. It definitely clears things up a big, i guess you just have to practice the intr and tr verbs and just drum them into your head.

  2. Serena 6 February 2012 at 9:53 am #

    Ciao Jimmy, yes, it’s just a matter of practice. Take every opportunity to speak Italian and listen to native speakers and it will gradually become natural. Ci vuole tempo e pazienza.

    Saluti da Serena

  3. jdk 6 February 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    i understood very well
    thanks

  4. Josephine Fucile 5 March 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Thank you Serena, I find your blogs on grammar very very helpful. You put things very clearly and easy to understand, it is hard to learn the many different ways in Italian language compared with the English.
    Thanks again.
    Josephine.

  5. Nathan 14 March 2012 at 11:25 pm #

    I appreciate your article. While I’ve gone over and over the Transitive/Intransitive in class and on my own, this has cleared it up even more for me. Thanks again.

  6. Janet Thomas 16 May 2012 at 1:00 am #

    Hi Serena

    I have really wrestled with transitive/intransitive verbs. Initially I thought I had it figured out, then became more confused. Your explanation is very clear and I have just sent in my email address to subscribe to your blog website. I have been studying Italian for 6 months now and am heading to Florence in September to do a month at the Istituto. I want to be as well prepared as possible.

    Thanks so much for your help.

    Janet

  7. Jackie Thomas 15 June 2012 at 3:26 am #

    Grazie Serena, you make it very easy to understand :-)

  8. Kathryn 25 October 2012 at 4:58 pm #

    Now I know why I insert extra “di”s in sentences where they don’t belong and no one is there to explain it to me. (Just me and a cd in the car). Thanks :-)

  9. Susana Pasciullo 8 February 2014 at 2:59 am #

    Gracias Serena, mi lengua materna es el español, vivo en Buenos Aires, Argentina, pero las mejores explicaciones de la gramática italiana las encuentro en inglés, especialmente en vuestro sitio.
    Nuevamente, grazie, thank you, gracias, merci.
    Susana

  10. Lesley 8 February 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    Grazie Serene, adesso ho capito meglio i verbi!

  11. RITA KOSTOPOULOS 8 February 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    SERENA,
    DA PARTE MIA E DEI MIEI STUDENTI DELLA SCUOLA PER ADULTI IN LONG BEACH ISLAND,N.J. PER TUTTI I BLOGS CHE ARRIVANO COME LA MANNA DAL CIELO. SONO DI GRANDE AIUTO PER TUTTI. IO MI SONO LAUREATA IN LINGUE E DOPO 38 ANNI D’INSEGNAMENTO NELLA SCUOLA PUBBLICA ME NE SONO ANDATA IN PENSIONE MA IL DESIDERIO E L’AMORE PER LA MIA LINGUA NATIA MI SPINSE A CONTINUARE LA MIA VOCAZIONE PRESSO THE FOUNDATION OF THE ARTS AND SCIENCES NELL’ISOLA. I MIEI STUDENTI,BENSI DI UNA CERTA ETA’, SONO MOLTO ETUSIASTICI E BRAVI ED IO SONO MOLTO CONTENTA DEL LORO PROGRESSO. ANCORA UNA VOLTA, MILLE GRAZIE E TANTI AUGURI ANCHE PER GEOFF I BLOGS.RITA SGRO’KOSTOPOULOS

  12. Geoff 9 February 2014 at 9:51 am #

    Non c’è di che!

  13. Geoff 9 February 2014 at 9:52 am #

    Grazie Susana per il tuo gentile commento :-)

  14. Serena 9 February 2014 at 4:34 pm #

    Salve Rita, grazie infinite per i complimenti. Mi fa sempre molto piacere sapere che i miei articoli sono utili. Complimenti per il tuo italiano e tanti auguri per la tua classe.

    Saluti da Serena


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