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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)