Transitive and Intransitive Verbs in Spanish

Transitive verbs require direct objects

mother with baby
La madre durmió al bebé. (The mother put the baby to sleep.).  LWA/Dann Tardif/Getty Images

Look in just about any good Spanish dictionary, and most verbs will be listed as either transitive (verbo transitivo, often abbreviated in dictionaries as vt or tr) or intransitive (verbo intransitivo, abbreviated to vi or int). These designations can give you an important clue as to how the verb is used in sentences.

What Are Transitive and Intransitive Verbs?

A transitive verb is simply one that needs a direct object (a noun or a pronoun that the verb acts upon) to complete its thought. An intransitive one does not.

An example of a transitive verb is the English verb "to get" and one of its Spanish equivalents, obtener. If you were to use the verb by itself, such by saying "I get" in English or "obtengo" in Spanish, it is clear you aren't expressing a complete thought. There's a natural follow-up question here: What are you getting? ¿Qué obtengas? The verb simply isn't complete without an accompanying noun (or pronoun) to indicate what is being obtained: I am getting an error message. Obtengo un mensaje de error.

Another transitive verb is "to surprise" or its Spanish equivalent, sorprender. To express a complete thought, the verb must indicate who is surprised: It surprised me. Me sorprendió.

"To get," "to surprise," obtener and sorpender, then, are all transitive verbs. They must be used with an object.

Intransitive verbs are used without objects. They stand by themselves without acting on a noun or pronoun. Although they can be modified in meaning using adverbs or phrases, they cannot take a noun as an object. An example is the English verb "to flourish" and its Spanish equivalent, florecer. It doesn't make sense to flourish something, so the verb stands alone: The sciences flourished. Florecían las ciencias.

There are many verbs that can be used either transitively or intransitively. One example is "to study" or estudiar. You can use an object for a transitive usage (I am studying the book. Estudio el libro.) or without an object for an intransitive usage (I am studying. Estudio.). "To write" and escribir can be used in exactly the same ways.

Verb Usage in Spanish vs. English

The distinctions between transitive and intransitive verbs usually don't give Spanish students a lot of trouble. Most of the time, when a transitive verb is used in English, you'll use a transitive one in Spanish. However, there are some verbs that can be used transitively in one language but not the other, or the opposite. That is one reason you may want to check the dictionary before you try using a verb in a way you haven't heard it before.

An example of a verb that can be used transitively in English but not Spanish is "to swim," as in "He swam the river." But the Spanish equivalent, nadar, can't be used in that way. While you can swim something in English, you can't nadar algo in Spanish. You'll need to recast the sentence: Nadó por el río.

The opposite can happen as well. In English, you can't sleep something, but in Spanish you can: La madre durmió al bebé. The mother put the baby to sleep. In translating such verbs to English, you'll often need to recast the sentence.

Note that there are some verbs that are classified as neither transitive nor intransitive. These include pronominal or reflexive verbs (often abbreviated in Spanish as prnl), compulative or linking verbs (cop), and auxiliary verbs (aux). Pronominal verbs are listed in dictionaries as ending in -se.

Examples of Spanish Transitive and Intransitive Verbs in Use

Transitive verbs:

  • Comí tres hamburguesas. (I ate three hamburgers.)
  • El estudiante golpeó la pared. (The student hit the wall.)
  • Cambiaré el dinero en el aeropuerto. (I will change the money in the airport.)

Intransitive verbs:

  • Comí hace dos horas. (I ate three years ago. Hace tres horas is an adverbial phrase, not an object. The verb in the next example is also followed by an adverbial phrase.)
  • La luz brillaba con muchísima fuerte. (The light shone very strongly.)
  • Las mofetas huelen mal. (Skunks stink.)

Key Takeaways

  • Transitive verbs (or verbs that are used transitively) need a direct object to be complete.
  • Intransitive verbs do not need an object to be complete.
  • Usually, but not always, Spanish verbs and their English counterparts match each other in transitivity.