Learning the difference between Transitive and Intransitive verbs

This is a very useful thing to know, when you're choosing your words in an Italian sentence. Mainly because you sometimes need to decide if you follow the verb with a preposition (e.g.: a, da, di, per ).
There are seemingly simple explanations, but they often work differently in English than they do in Italian. They also tend to use "grammatical terms", which will send your average English speaker running for the door with their hands over their ears...

Simply put, a Transitive Verb takes a direct object.
And, an Intransitive Verb does not take a direct object.
In Italian, a direct object is a noun or a pronoun (that receives the action of the verb, directly) without a preposition.
See? That's already at least five grammatical terms! So what does it all mean?

A noun is a person, a place, or an object-- a physical object.
A ball, a city, a mountain, the sky, Bobby, Susie, Fred and Peter. All nouns.

A pronoun is the way to indicate a person or an object. Keeping the same list as above, "a ball" is it. So is a city, mountan and the sky. So "it" is a pronoun.
For people, this is only slightly less complicated: "Him", "her", and "them" are the pronouns that refer to Bobby, Susie, and Fred and Peter, respectively.

So obviously, if there are direct objects then there must be indirect objects, and now everything isn't simple any more.

You can't learn this without examples, so here you go:

A transitive verb needs an answer to the questions "What?" or "Who":

  • Paul throws the ball.

What did Paul throw? The ball.
The ball is the direct object that the verb needed, in order to determine that the verb "to throw" is transitive.
If you simply read or write, "Paul throws." then your sentence makes no sense. It needs an object in order to make sense.

Using a person as a direct object, how about this?

  • Paul meets Mary (or Paul meets her)

Whom did Paul meet? Mary/ Her
Again, if you read or write, "Paul meets." then your sentence makes no sense. You need a direct object, and "to meet" is definitely transitive.
But compare that example to this one:

  • Paul sings.

This time, the thought is complete, and there is no answer to the question "What does Paul sing?", even though it is implied/ understood that he sings "a song". The verb "to sing" is intransitive because it does not need a direct object.
But wait...

*Paul sings a song about love.

Now you can ask "What does Paul sing?" and then come to the conclusion that "to sing" is transitive. Can it be both?
The answer is yes, and many verbs (Italian and English) work the same way.
That's troublesome. How about this example?

  • Paul sleeps.

You cannot ask the question, "Paul sleeps what?" or "Paul sleeps who?" this time.
That means that "to sleep" is an intransitive verb. It does not ever need a direct object.
Isn't "Paul" a direct object, though? Not this time, and the verb doesn't receive an object here. Paul is a subject, not an object, performing the verb, not receiving a direct object from it.
How about "a bed", you may ask? That is a direct object.
Yes, but you can't say, "Paul sleeps a bed."
Paul sleeps what? Paul sleeps who? It makes no sense; you need a preposition-- a word imparting position, direction, or time-- between verb and noun. In this case, "on" or "in".

*Paul sleeps on a bed.

That one word, "on", makes all the difference.

"Do it in Italian", you say?
There are more than 1,600 Italian verbs that are Intransitive. So when people tell you that you just have to memorize them, that simply isn't possible.
There are more than 2,000 transitive verbs, or ones that can be either-- depending on how they are used.

Common verbs may help us to understand how to determine what they are, though. Let's try.

Andare ("to go") is intransitive. So is "Entrare", as are "Cadere" (to fall) and "Dormire" (to sleep).
That gives us an irregular verb (andare) and one of each of the "are", "ere" and "ire" verbs to look at.

  • Lui va al ristorante (he goes to the restaurant).

  • Entro nel museo (I enter (in) the museum).

  • Il libro cade dalla scrivania (the book falls from the desk).

  • Il cane dorme sedici ore al giorno (the dog sleeps sixteen hours a day).

Test #1: Does the sentence work without an object folowing it?

  • Lui va.

  • Io entro. (or, Entro io, for emphasis on "io".)

  • Il libro cade.

  • Il cane dorme.

Yes, that seems to work.

Test #2: Can the question "what?" or "who?" be asked, without a preposition?

He goes what? He goes who?; andare needs "where".
I enter what? I enter who?; that's tricky, because in English "enter" could be transitive. But in Italian I would not use, "Entro il museo." I enter in the (nel) museum.
The book falls what, or who? Again, we need a preposition (from).
The dog sleeps what, or who? We covered that earlier. It can't take a direct object.

So how do I know about entrare? More information (or memorization) is required.

Test #3: Is there some common characteristic, in English, to give us a clue?

To go, to enter, to fall, to sleep.
In the first three, there is "movement". From one place to another. We seem to need to answer the question "where".
Sleeping is a bit of an outlier, although we do say that we "fall asleep", so there is passage in time, from awake to asleep.
How about "to awaken" (svegliare, or svegliarsi in the reflexive)? Nope; apparently those are transitive. Same with "to get up" (alzare, or alzarsi"); transitive, because it works with "who", I assume.

Test #4: Other than "reflexive" verbs, do all of these intransitive verbs use "essere" as an auxiliary verb in the passato remoto (instead of "avere")?

Sono andato (I went). Check!
Siamo entrati (We entered). Check!
È caduto dalla scrivania (It fell from the desk) Check!
Lei ha dormito. (She slept). Is there some mistake here? Not that I can find.

Test #5: Come up with some common English verbs that use "movement", either in time or position, and see what the Italian dictionary says.

"To walk", "To move", "To grow" (increase), hey-- how about something conceptual, like "to laugh", "to cry", or "to happen"?
That would be, camminare, crescere, ridere, piangere, and succedere.

Camminare is intransitive, using avere as an auxiliary.
Crescere is both, depending how you use it.
Ridere is intransitive.
Piangere is both, depending how you use it.
Succedere is intransitive.

Is there really no way to know, for sure?

June 27, 2017

1 Comment

Excellent explanation!

June 28, 2017
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