Understanding Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Eew-- grammar!

I was preparing a chart of verbs (and when it is done I will probably share it) regarding the Passato Prossimo, and the topic of Transitive and Intransitive Verbs kept rearing its ugly head.
Well, I guess that I have to know that stuff to be able to speak Italian properly, so how can it presented in an easily understood format?

And I'm afraid that It goes deeper than just verbs; you also need to know about direct objects.
I stumbled onto a website that gave this excellent (I thought) definition:

Intransitive verbs are verbs which cannot have a direct object. If you add a direct object to an intransitive verb then you get a sentence which doesn't make any sense.

I swim the purse.
I go a pizza.

So then, "swim" and "go" are intransitive verbs. At least, in English...

As a general rule, consider the English tense of any verb (my examples here all use past tense), and then ask the question "What?", using the same tense of the auxillary verb:

  • I drank. What did you drink? Drink is a Transitive verb (it takes an object-- I drank beer, for instance).

  • I wrote. What did you write? Transitive.

  • I saw. What did you see? Transitive.

  • I came. What did you come? That makes no sense-- Come must be Intransitive!

It is most often verbs of Personal Motion/ Action or States of Being that are Intransitive.

  • I was born. What did you born? Nonsense; State of being; Intransitive.

  • I sat. What did you sit? Motion. Intransitive.

  • I laughed. What did you laugh? Action. Intransitive.

In Italian, it seems that there are always some irregularities. But, for the most part, the English definition holds true.
In Italian, Transitive verbs use the auxillary verb form of AVERE, while Intransitives normally use the auxillary verb form of ESSERE/ STARE when combined in the past participle tenses.
You just have to memorize certain Italian verbs because some of them can be used in both Transitive and Intransitive forms, while others are Intransitive in English but Transitive in Italian. For example:

  • Abbiamo corso per dieci minuti (We ran for ten minutes). Intransitive, but using AVERE in Italian.

  • Ho lavato la macchina (I washed the car). --What did I wash? The car. Transitive.


  • Mi sono lavato la faccia (I washed my face). --Reflexive verbs are (edit) usually Intransitive.

Did this help?

November 18, 2015


it has to be: sono corso per dieci minuti... BUT ho corso una maratona, as the link of DanD8 shows correre can be transitive and intransitive.

November 20, 2015

Very good! The passato prossimo and its helping verb are much easier to master when you know about transitive and intransitive verbs. A check on wiktionary will tell you if the Italian verb is transitive or not (since, as you said, they don't always follow the pattern the English verb does).

Thinking about the transitivity of a word (in Italian or English) helps you reflect on what is being expressed and improved communication overall.

November 18, 2015

Thanks for this post ! It made be understand my own language better, we (in norway) always use avere. However in olden days that was not the case, so old people mix and match as they like. Norwegian language is degenerate.

November 19, 2015

Nice write-up!

MABBY wrote:

Intransitives normally use the auxillary verb form of ESSERE / STARE when combined in the past participle tenses.

You're right about ESSERE, but not about STARE.

And about your remark that "Reflexive verbs are always Intrasitive": No, many can still take direct objects (just like in your example "Mi sono lavato la faccia") which, if they do, technically makes them transitive. However, transitive or not, they still use the auxiliary verb ESSERE (and the "-ato" ending can change to "-ata", "-ati", or "-ate" depending on what the subject (or object pronoun) is.

For example, if I were a woman, I'd say "Mi sono lavata la faccia" ("I washed my face") and "Sono andata un'ora fa" ("I went an hour ago").

November 18, 2015

Very good explanation, but I don't think "I was born" is a good example (I assume you're saying "born" is intransitive?). All your other examples are in the active voice, but "I was born" is in the passive voice. "Born" is the past participle of "bear", which is a transitive verb meaning "give birth to" (in this case). Also note that "I was born" already has an auxiliary verb "was", but your question was "What did you born?" so you changed the auxiliary verb, making this example incomparable to others.

November 21, 2015

Good point-- Active and Passive is another concept that we need to master before we can understand how Italians think.

April 21, 2017


March 11, 2019
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