Transitive and Intransitive Verbs Posted by yelena 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.
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.