Transitive and Intransitive Verbs in German

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When you look at a verb entry in a German-English dictionary, you will always find either a v.t. or v.i. written after the verb. These letters stand for a transitive verb (v.t.) and an intransitive verb (v.i.) and it's important that you do not ignore those letters. They indicate how you can use the verb properly when speaking and writing in German.

Transitive (v.t.) Verbs

The majority of German verbs are transitive. These types of verbs will always take the accusative case when used in a sentence. This means that the verb needs to be complemented with an object in order to make sense.

  • Du magst ihn. (You like him.) The sentence would sound incomplete if you said only: Du magst. (You like.)

Transitive verbs can be used in the passive voice. The exceptions are haben (to have), besitzen (to possess), kennen (to know), and wissen (to know).

Transitive verbs are used in the perfect and past perfect tenses (as an active voice) with the helping verb haben.

  • Ich habe ein Geschenk gekauft. (I bought a present.)

The nature and meaning of some transitive verbs require that they are complemented with a double accusative in a sentence. These verbs are abfragen (to interrogate), abhören (to listen to), kosten (to cost money/something), lehren (to teach), and nennen (to name).

  • Sie lehrte ihn die Grammatik. (She taught him grammar.)

Intransitive (v.i.) Verbs

Intransitive verbs are used with less frequency in German, but it is still important to understand them. These types of verbs do not take a direct object and will always take the dative or genitive case when used in a sentence.

  • Sie hilft ihm. (She is helping him.)

Intransitive verbs cannot be used in the passive voice. The exception to this rule is when you're using the pronoun es in select circumstances.

  • Es wurde gesungen. (There was singing.)

Intransitive verbs that express an action or a change of state will be used in the perfect and past perfect tenses, as well as futur II with the verb sein. Among these verbs are gehen (to go), fallen (to fall), laufen (to run, walk), schwimmen (to swim), sinken (to sink), and springen (to jump).

  • Wir sind schnell gelaufen. (We walked fast.)

All other intransitive verbs will use haben as the helping verb. These verbs include arbeiten (to work), gehorchen (to obey), schauen (to see, look), and warten (to wait). 

  • Er hat mir gehorcht. (He listened to me.)

Some Verbs Can Be Both

Many verbs can also be both transitive and intransitive. Which you use will depend on the context as we can see in these examples of verb fahren (to drive):

  • Ich habe das Auto gefahren. (Transitiv) (I drove the car.)
  • Heute morgen bin ich durch die Gegend gefahren. (Intransitiv) I drove through the neighborhood today.

To determine whether you are using the transitive or the intransitive form, remember to associate the transitive with a direct object. Are you doing something to something? This will also help you identify those verbs that can be both.

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Bauer, Ingrid. "Transitive and Intransitive Verbs in German." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bauer, Ingrid. (2020, August 27). Transitive and Intransitive Verbs in German. Retrieved from Bauer, Ingrid. "Transitive and Intransitive Verbs in German." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).

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