Russian Language Blog

Walking a Dog or More About Transitive and Intransitive Verbs Posted by on Sep 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

Last week I did a post about whether to use nouns in accusative or genitive case after verbs. If you missed the post and don’t feel like reading it now, here’s the rule in the nutshell:

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

Simple enough, isn’t it? Aha! But remember, нет правил без исключений (there are no rules without exceptions) which explains the following real-life sentences by native speakers of Russian:

Лужков заявил, что его “ушли” в связи с выборами 2012 года – Luzhkov (former mayor of Moscow) states that his firing is connected to the 2012 elections. (See original article.)

Решили ночевать в аэропорту, с целью выспать там ребёнка – We decided to spend the night at an airport so that the child gets enough sleep. (Original source is here)

Проснуть кошку – To wake up a cat (a cat video; careful here, don’t get sucked into watching cat videos instead of reading this post)

Родители её и в институт поступили и на работу устроили – Parents both got her into college and found her a job (just some water cooler gossip).

Кто девушку ужинает, тот её и танцует – The one who pays for the girl’s dinner gets to dance with her (for example, watch this interview at 0:38)

У пилота есть работа – он летает самолёт – A pilot has a job – he flies a plane (enjoy, especially at 0:40)

So what’s going on here? Уйти (to go away), спать (to sleep), просыпаться (to wake up), ужинать (to have supper), танцевать (to dance), летать (to fly) are all intransitive verbs. Yet the nouns are in the accusative case instead of genitive (его, ребёнка, кошку, её, девушку, самолёт).

What’s going on here?

First, a bit of trivia. Do you know that there are a lot more intransitive verbs in Russian than transitive verbs? (Some sources say the ratio is 2:1, others say it’s closer to 3:1).

Here’s something else – all transitive verbs in Russian language have intransitive counterparts:

мыть – мыться

Вася пошёл мыть руки (Vasya went to wash hands)
Вася решил, что пора мыться (Vasya thought it was time to bathe.)

читать – читаться

Маша читает книгу (Masha is reading a book)

Эта книга очень легко читается (This book is easy to read)

строить – строиться

Николай строит дом (Nikolay is building a house)

Этот дом строится уже много лет (This house is being built for many years now)

However, the reverse is not true – not all Russian intransitive verbs have transitive forms. Those that do frequently rely on prefixes to convey transitivity:

К нам едет ревизор (An auditor is on his way)
Ревизор объедет все учреждения (An auditor will make his way to all agencies)

По вечерам я гуляю (In the evenings I go on walks)
По вечерам я выгуливаю собаку (In the evenings I take my dog for a walk)

Yet many intransitive verbs simply don’t have transitive forms, including скучать (to be bored), просыпаться (to wake up), смеяться (to laugh), летать (to fly), and many more. If you do want to say that someone enacted these verbs onto an object (or perhaps onto yourself), you’d say:

На меня навели скуку (I was bored) or мне это наскучило (I was bored by this)
Меня разбудили (I was woken up)
Меня рассмешили or Меня насмешили (I was moved to laughter)
Я лечу на самолёте (I am on a plane) or Я пилотирую самолёт (I am piloting a plane)

But, as you can see from the examples at the beginning of the post, sometimes intransitive verbs are forced to act as transitive. Such речевой оборот (turn of phrase) is used mostly in an informal, conversational language. It is used purposefully by the native speakers to inject the situation with a dash of humor or irony:

Два месяца назад этот подлец уволил меня, а теперь его самого ушли (Two months ago this scoundrel fired me and now he himself got canned)

Кто девушку ночует, тот её и завтракает (The one who sleeps with a girl serves her breakfast)

It is also used a lot by young children who, obviously, do not yet know the whole truth about transitivity of Russian verbs. For example, my child loves nothing more than, as he says it, проснуть маму, instead of разбудить маму (to wake up mom) at the crack of dawn. I recently overheard a 3-year old say Саша меня смеёт instead of Саша меня смешит (Sasha is making me laugh).

Back to the simple rule of “accusative with transitive; genitive with intransitive”. While you probably won’t hear a native Russian speaker say я гулял собаку, many “accusative with intransitive” phrases pop up in (absolutely authentic) casual conversations.

P.S. Russian grammar got you confused? Are you feeling frustrated or lost? Let us know what you’re struggling with and we’ll jot a (hopefully) illuminating post or two just for you. 

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  1. Marcus:

    Какая связь между непереходными глаголами и родительным падежом? Почему не дательным? Помочь кому-то, например. Не творительным? Восхищаться чем-то. Бежать чего? Чему? и т. д. Переходный глагол по определению управляет винительным падежом без предлога, но непереходный может управлять чем угодно или не управлять ничем. Причем тут именно родительный падеж? Что в нем особенного?

  2. yelena:

    Marcus, a while ago we had a post with a joke. And in that joke was a line “и чего сказала” (here’s a link to the original post – One of our readers asked why it was чего instead of что. A day or two later I was at a friend’s house and she asked ты хочешь печенье (would you like a cookie). So I got to thinking about it and decided to explore the accusative v genitive case usage some more (in a more academic way, since I never paid much attention in my Russian language classes). Which led me to transitive v intransitive verbs. Which seemed interesting enough to be written about on the blog. Besides, I love answering questions readers leave in the comments 🙂 Sometimes the answers are short and can be kept as comments. Other times they are quite involved and (I feel) can benefit others. So I do them as posts.

  3. David Roberts:

    Извините товарищи, я знаю что это не “Британский Блог”, а:

    <> is an example of USA and UK being two nations divided by a common language. In UK, to wash up means мыть посуда, never мыть руки (one’s own or anyone else’s). [Maybe this meaning has died out in USA because nobody washes the dishes by hand?].

    Another example, allegedly a true experience of one of my former work colleagues:

    Young UK male working in USA comes out of his flat (apartment) late one evening, crosses the corridor and raps on the door of the apartment opposite. After a minute or two, sleepy young woman in dressing gown answers the door, he asks her if he can borrow some sugar for his coffee, she gives him some, he goes back to his own apartment. Next morning at work he sees her in a meeting and in front of all present says to her “Sorry for knocking you up last night”.

  4. yelena:

    David, you’re right and I should’ve checked it. My first thought was to put “to bathe” there, but then I changed it to “wash up” for no apparent reason 🙂 Gonna change it back 🙂

  5. Rob:

    … two nations divided by a common language. In UK, to wash up means мыть посуда, never мыть руки

    When I was teaching English in Moscow in 1993 and sharing an apartment with two other Americans, one of us bought a bottle of “Ultra-Fairy Washing-Up Liquid” at a kiosk.

    And needless to say, we kept the plastic bottle as a sort of objet d’art long after it was empty, because “Ultra-Fairy Washing-Up Liquid” simply doesn’t exist in the US, for more than one reason! (My roommate Sarah was dating a British expat guy, and he indulgently said, “Yes, ha-ha, I get it” whenever one of us silly Yanks would laugh over the “Ultra Fairy” bottle.)

    Incidentally, the quality of отечественные detergents and soaps at that time was depressingly horrible, so foreign expats and natives alike preferred to buy зарубежные versions whenever possible. Most often they were of German or Turkish origin, as I recall, but sometimes you’d find UK imports in the kiosks.

    • yelena:

      @Rob Haha, so true! I still remember the horrid smells and feel of a bar of хозяйственное мыло (household soap)!

  6. Rob:

    Лужков заявил, что его “ушли”

    Hmmmm… would it be possible to interpret “ушли” here as an imperative singular of услать (“to send away”), rather than the past plural of уйти? In other words, Luzhkov is claiming that Mr. A delegated the responsibility of firing him to Mr. B, with the words «Ушли Лужкова!», “Send Luzhkov away!”

    Or is this just not plausible?

    • yelena:

      @Rob No, not in this case. The headline does not reflect it. Besides, услать is not a very common form of “to send away”, to my knowledge. Instead, a form отослать or even послать would be used and the imperative singular would be отошли or пошли, respectively. If ушли would’ve been a form of услать, indirect speech would be used to avoid ambiguity.

  7. Rob:

    my child loves nothing more than, as he says it, проснуть маму, instead of разбудить маму (to wake up mom) at the crack of dawn.

    Hmmm, I wonder if that’s an example of a “Runglishism” (in this case, spontaneously invented by your son), or if a kid growing up in Russia without exposure to English would make a similar error?

    • yelena:

      @Rob I wouldn’t say it’s a “Runglishism” (love the coinage, by the way). I mean, if he’d say something like вейкать маму using a russified version of the verb “to wake”, then yes. The other example I gave, where a child used the word смеять instead of смешить came from a child who was born in Russia and spent the first couple of years there and only a few months in the US.

  8. Marcus:

    переходный глагол, по определению, – это глагол, который управляет или может управлять винительным падежом без предлога. Соответственно, непереходный – это любой другой глагол. Из того, что он непереходный, никак не следует его сочетаемость с родительным падежом.

  9. yelena:

    Yes, Marcus, you are right. You are giving a textbook definition of a transitive verb. But this blog is not a textbook for learning Russian. I am not going to claim deep enough understanding of why Russian grammar works the way it does besides most textbooks are immensely boring. I do not write about grammar very often, but when I do see a grammar-related question from a reader, I try to answer it. In this case, the question was precisely why genitive case was used in a sentence instead of accusative. That’s why I limited my post to just those two cases and how they relate to transitive/intransitive verbs. I also wanted to explore the quirky side of it – when Russian speakers use intransitive verbs as if they were transitive. Maybe I’m going to start putting a disclaimer at the beginning of my posts.

  10. Sarah:

    I have one. Why are both of these sentences correct?

    Не понял вопрос

    Не понимаю вопроса

    The only difference should be the tense. Nothing else changes, not even the meaning as far as I can see. So why isn’t it вопрос in both places?


    • yelena:

      @Sarah Sarah, this is such an awesome question! I’m very glad you brought it up? The tense doesn’t really matter here. The negation does. In this particular case both sentences are correct. And yes, you can use вопрос in both cases just as you can use вопроса in both cases. Marcus provided a very concise “in a nutshell” explanation.

  11. Marcus:

    Because gen. can be used instead of acc. in negative sentences.