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Transitive and Intransitive Verbs Posted by on Sep 13, 2012 in language, Russian for beginners

Back in August Rob did a post about Russian анекдоты (jokes). One of the jokes went like this:

 

– «Ну, и чем вчера закончилась твоя ссора с женой?»
– «О, она приползла ко мне на коленях…»
– «И чего сказала?»
– «Вылезай из-под кровати, подлый трус!»

– “So, how did your argument yesterday with your wife turn out?”
– “Oh, she came crawling to me on her knees…”
– “And what did she say?”
– “Climb out from under that bed, you low-life coward!”

David, our sharp-eyed reader and an occasional contributor, asked why in the third line of the joke the genitive чего is used instead of the accusative что.

Let’s see if there’s a grammar rule that tells us when to use accusative case and when to use genitive after verbs. First, a short quiz (not graded and totally voluntary).

Look at the pairs of sentences below and try to determine which ones are grammatically correct and which ones aren’t:

Я читаю книгу or Я читаю книга – I am reading a book

Он каждый день ждал новостей or Он каждый день ждал новости – Every day he waited for the news

Я жду трамвая or Я жду трамвай – I am waiting for a streetcar

Я жду трамвая №3 or Я жду трамвай №3 – I am waiting for a #3 streetcar

Что ты от меня хочешь or Чего ты от меня хочешь – What do you want from me?

Ты хочешь поесть суп? or Ты хочешь поесть супа? – Do you want to eat soup?

Не забудь купить буханка хлеба or Не забудь купить буханку хлеба – Don’t forget to buy a loaf of bread

Налейте мне красного вина or Налейте мне красное вино – Pour me some red wine

Ok, I think it’s enough now. You get the picture. Sure, the first one, Я читаю книгу, is easy. But the others seem like they can go either way. In fact, you will hear all of the above frequently in both daily conversations and more official communications. Yet just as Я читаю книга is grammatically incorrect, one of the sentences in each pair also does not conform to the rules of Russian grammar.

Intrigued? Confused? Want to know more? Read on…

The rule that governs the use of genitive and accusative cases after verbs is actually very simple:

If a verb is transitive, then use the accusative case.
If a verb is intransitive, then use the genitive case.

Isn’t it just about the easiest rule in the whole entire Russian grammar? Well, if it were, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Let’s see if there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Some verbs are easy:

Любить (to love), не любить (to not love), недолюбливать (to dislike) are all transitive. When we love or loath, we love or loath something or someone, an object of our love or loathing. According to the above rule, this object must be in accusative case:

Я люблю детективы – I love crime fiction novels
Она любит мороженое – She loves ice-cream
Он недолюбливает тёщу – He somewhat dislikes his mother-in-law

Бить (to beat) is also transitive and needs an object which must be in accusative case:

Я целый день бью баклуши – All day long I am dawdling (lit. beating or striking wood chips).
Мишу побили в школе – Misha got beaten up at school. (Misha is the object here)
Мальчик разбил окно – A boy broke a window

Ехать (to go), идти (to go), сидеть (to sit), on the other hand, are intransitive since you can’t “go something”. Instead you go “somewhere”. Most verbs of motion are intransitive, they have no object on which they act or which they transform.

Returning to the quiz:

Читать (to read) is transitive, therefore accusative must be used:

Я читаю книгу.

Есть (to eat) is also transitive, therefore

Ты хочешь поесть суп? is correct.

Купить (to buy) is transitive and we should say

Не забудь купить буханку хлеба.

Хотеть (to want) is transitive, so the correct choice is Что ты от меня хочешь?

And налить (to pour) is also transitive, so the correct answer is Налейте мне красное вино. Or is it? Apply breaks here because that’s where the simple rule “transitive verb = accusative case” gets a bit more complicated.

If a verb is transitive, then use accusative case UNLESS the object is a part of a large whole OR you are using negation in which case use genitive case.

Usually, when we ask someone to pour us wine, we mean a glass of wine which is a part of a larger whole (a bottle). So we will need to use genitive. Compare:

Налейте мне бокал красного вина (Pour me a glass of red wine) – Here the object is бокал (glass) which is in accusative.

Налейте мне красного вина (Pour me some red wine) – Wine is the object and since we are asking for some wine, not the whole bottle or barrel, we’ll use genitive.

Разлейте вино по бокалам (Pour wine into glasses) – Here wine is again the object, but the implication is that the entire quantity is being poured into glasses. So we’ll use accusative.

And finally, we have only the sentences with the verb ждать (to wait). Well, ждать is transitive… but (you knew this was coming, didn’t you)…

… but, if the verb is transitive , use accusative UNLESS the object is abstract or has some degree of uncertainty about it, in which case use genitive.

Consider:

Он каждый день ждал новостей – Every day he waited for news (any news; we’re not sure what kind of news he was waiting for)

Я жду трамвая – I am waiting for a streetcar (any streetcar)

Я жду трамвай №3 – I am waiting for a #3 streetcar (a particular streetcar)

Going back to the joke, сказать is transitive, so the proper way of phrasing it would be и что сказала (and what did she say). Using the grammatically incorrect чего here adds to the humorous situation.

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Comments:

  1. David Roberts:

    Fascinating! It occurs to me that although when we learn a foreign language we learn nouns and pronouns in the nominative and then (if a declension-based language) learn to decline them, when you learn Russian from childhood you more often than not first hear a noun in another case (statistically, most likely to be genitive).

    Although we have transitive and intransitive verbs in English, we can of course ignore this rule when it gets in the way, so you can walk the dog, talk the hind legs of a donkey…itd So in Russian, would ” Я гулял собаку” be wrong but authentic or something that no native speaker would ever say?

    • yelena:

      @David Roberts David, what a great question. Stand by as I’m actually going to do a follow-up post next week 🙂

  2. Robert:

    That last example (about the трамвая) actually makes sense to me (I’m only elementary level at the moment), this sort of accounts for the lack of definite and indefinite articles in Russian. The first one is indefinite because it could be any трамвая, but the second one is definite because we know it’s the #3. Now I just need to remember that!

    • yelena:

      @Robert Ah, yes, that’s the most difficult part – remembering all the rules and the exceptions to them.

  3. Marcus:

    Чего ты от меня хочешь? is even better than что ты от меня хочешь? Your rule about transitive and intransitive verbs is wrong.
    Я гулял собаку cannot be said or even thought by a native Russian speaker. We would say выгуливал собаку instead. We are surprized by English ergative verbs. Я гулял собаку sounds like I died the dog instead of I killed the dog for a native English speaker.

    • yelena:

      @Marcus Marcus, the rule is correct. However, you bring up a very interesting example of гулять собаку. Yes, we do say выгуливать, but… Well, ok, as I mentioned to David, stay tuned for Part 2 🙂

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  5. Rick Walker:

    Your explanation leaves me confused concerning intransitive verbs. You say that if you use a transitive verb, then use the accusative case (the direct object). But, if the verb is intransitive, use the genitive case. However, an intransitive verb does not have a direct object. Therefore, what is the word in the sentence which would be in the genitive case? Your examples of use of the genitive case are not connected with intransitive verbs, they are connected to transitive verbs where the direct object is either abstract a part of a whole.

  6. Ra:

    Здравствуйте,

    “Using the grammatically incorrect чего here adds to the humorous situation.”

    This is interesting. I believe чего literally means “of what?”. Is it possible this is just a feature of Russian syntax or semantics? Like in the fixed phrase “всего хорошего” for “all the best”. It may be literally be “of all the best” There may be a use of the genitive in Russian that can’t be fully explained in English. It’s like trying to explain fully the use of the preposition по. One teacher wrote of it’s various “semantic pathways” and it is difficult to explain all of their English equivalents.

    So Russians teach the genitive (Родительный) answers the questions Кого? Чего? (I understand as “of who?” & “of what?’)Every time Russians explain a grammatical case they point to what questions it answers, even in cases of foreign languages they don’t use. I found that to be a useful framework.

    When I read “Чего?” here, I read “of what?”, and just bear in mind they don’t speak like we do.

    I am not expert and won’t pretend to be, but I think I understand Russian grammar differently. I’ve learned it’s not easy to sum up everything in Russian grammar to a simple rule or law.

    The use of the genitive here may be something else within Russian that just has to be learned from speaking the language day-to-day.

    Your article was extremely informative, but I don’t agree “Чего?” is used here simply for humour. I believe it’s just the way Russians speak.