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Italian Transitive And Intransitive Verbs Posted by on Jun 30, 2017 in Grammar

Why is it so important to understand the difference between verbi transitivi (transitive verbs) and verbi intransitivi (intransitive verbs)? Read on to find out …

Siamo rimasti a Verona per due giorni. Photo by Geoff.

What are Transitive and Intransitive verbs?

The word transitive comes from the Latin transire meaning ‘to pass’, ‘to cross’, ‘to go beyond’, therefore it describes actions that move from the subject or doer directly to the object, without making use of prepositions such as di, da, per, a etc.
The classic example that 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.
It’s not always necessary to express the direct object, for example: la sera mangio presto (in the evening I eat early). Here, the direct object would be ‘dinner’, ‘meal’, or ‘food’, but it is implicit rather than expressed.
Another example would be: Giovanni guida la macchina per andare a lavorare (Giovanni drives his car to go to work). Here, guidare is a transitive verb because it is followed by the direct object, la macchina. However I could also omit ‘la macchina’ and simply say Giovanni guida per andare a lavorare.

When using intransitive verbs, the action does not move directly from the subject to the object but makes use of a preposition such as di, da, in, a etc.
Some important intransitive verbs are those which don’t express an action but rather a state or a condition, such as essere (to be), stare (to stay), divenire (to become), or movement such as andare (to go), venire (to come), arrivare (to arrive), etc. When using these verbs we frequently add information, such as ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘how’, ‘for how long’, and so on.
il treno è arrivato in stazione (the train arrived at the station). Here, il treno is the subject, è arrivato is the intransitive verb, in stazione is the indirect object introduced by the preposition in
sto in ufficio tutto il pomeriggio (I’ll be in the office all afternoon)
Giovanni va al lavoro in macchina (Giovanni goes to work by car)

Italian and English, Different Rules

A common cause of confusion is that verbs which are transitive in Italian are sometimes intransitive in English and vice versa.
Take the transitive verb ascoltare (to listen) for example: in Italian we say ascoltare una canzone (literally: to listen a song, without the proposition ‘to’). In English, however, we say ‘to listen to a song’, making the verb ‘to listen’ intransitive.
A good bilingual dictionary should help you to identify whether verbs are transitive or intransitive. When looking up a verb in your dictionary you should find that it is followed by either vt (also which is short for verbo transitivo, or vi (also v.intr) short for verbo intransitivo.

The Importance of Understanding the Difference between Transitive and Intransitive

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 have eaten the apple), Abbiamo visto un cinghiale (we saw a wild boar), Avete finito i lavori sulla casa (have you finished the work on the house?)
  • All verbs in the reflexive form are built with the auxiliary essere: e.g. Mi sono svegliato alle sette (I woke up at seven, literally: I am woken at seven), Ti sei lavato le mani? (Have you washed your hands?)
  • All verbs expressing a state or condition are built with the auxiliary essere: e.g. Sei stata in ufficio questa mattina? (Have you been in the office this morning?, literally: Are you been in the office …?), Siamo rimasti a Verona per due giorni (We stayed in Verona for two days)

For all other intransitive verbs you’ll need to use your dictionary as there’s no fixed rule.

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