There are several verb types in Spanish, and in this article, we’re looking at Spanish transitive and intransitive verbs!
Most native English speakers don’t have much trouble with them, because the transitivity is very similar in Spanish and English, even if you don’t realize it! Read on to find out what this actually means…
A transitive verb is a verb that needs a direct object to complete it. For example, ‘to have’ is a transitive verb. You’d be confused if someone approached you in the street and said, “Excuse me, I have.”
You’d be waiting for them to finish their sentence by saying what they had: “Excuse me, I have a crush on you.” “Excuse me, I have a question about how to get to the station.” “Excuse me, I have a hat just like yours!” Clearly, these would all call for very different responses!
In dictionaries, transitive verbs are often identified by abbreviations such as ‘VT’ and ‘vtr’ written next to them.
A neat test for identifying transitive verbs is to ask “what?” or “who?” If the verb doesn’t make sense without answering one of these questions, then it’s probably transitive!
For example, in the first example below, imagine your friend has some news for you:
“I’ve found.”/“I’ve met.” (Your friend has just used a transitive verb without a direct object.)
“WHAT have you found?!” “WHO have you met?!” (We can’t really understand and respond until we have that vital piece of info.)
“I’ve found A GIRLFRIEND!”/“I’ve met A GREAT GIRL!” (The direct object is the girlfriend/great girl.)
“Wow, where did you guys meet? Tell me all about her!” (Now we can respond appropriately!)
Here’s the girlfriend example, along with lots of other Spanish transitive verbs. The bits in bold are the direct objects. Try saying the sentences without them, and they won’t make much sense!
encontrar: He encontrado una novia.
to find/to meet: I’ve found a girlfriend.
admirar: Admiro mucho a mi tía porque es una mujer muy valiente.
to admire: I really admire my aunt because she’s a very brave woman.
adquirir: ¡Por fin, he adquirido un móvil nuevo!
to acquire: Finally, I’ve got a new phone!
decorar: ¿Decoramos el árbol de Navidad?
to decorate: Shall we decorate the Christmas tree?
encender: No veo nada. Enciende la luz, por favor.
to turn on: I can’t see anything. Switch on the light, please.
entrañar: La cirugía entraña muchos riesgos.
to entail: The surgery entails a lot of risks.
preparar: Todavía no he preparado los materiales para la clase.
to prepare: I still haven’t prepared the materials for the class.
proponer: Voy a proponerle una idea al jefe.
to propose: I’m going to propose an idea to the boss.
quitar: Tendrás que llevar otro vestido. No puedo quitar la mancha.
to remove: You’ll have to wear a different dress. I can’t remove the stain.
revocar: Revocaron mi licencia para conducir.
to revoke: They revoked my driver’s license.
tener: Tengo dos coches pero uno de ellos está roto.
to have: I have two cars but one of them is broken.
As you can probably guess, an intransitive verb is the opposite of a transitive one, i.e. it doesn’t need (and can’t take) a direct object. In fact, intransitive verbs can even stand alone as one-word sentences, without the need to ask “who?” or “what?”
In fact, intransitive verbs can even stand alone as one-word sentences, without the need to ask “who?” or “what?”
Dictionaries sometimes mark intransitive verbs with ‘VI,’ ‘vi,’ or ‘int.’
Have a look at these examples, and notice that they make sense with no need for direct objects.
brillar: Las lucecitas brillan.
to shine: The fairy lights shine/sparkle.
doler: A veces el amor duele profundamente.
to be painful: Sometimes love hurts deeply.
estornudar: Las flores me hacen estornudar.
to sneeze: Flowers make me sneeze.
existir: En aquella época, no existía la electricidad.
to exist: In those days, electricity didn’t exist.
gotear: El grifo está goteando.
to drip/leak: The faucet is leaking.
ir: Si vas a la fiesta, yo también voy.
to go: if you go to the party, I’ll go, too.
ladrar: El perro ladró en cuanto vio el cartero.
to bark: The dog barked as soon as he saw the mailman.
nevar: ¡Mira! ¡Nieva!
to snow: Look! It’s snowing!
maullar: El gatito maulla.
to meow: The kitten meows.
morir: El hombre murió ayer.
to die: The man died yesterday.
nacer: El bebé nació hace dos semanas.
to be born: The baby was born two weeks ago.
naufragar: El buque naufragó durante la tormenta.
to sink/to be shipwrecked: The ship was shipwrecked during the storm.
salir: Hijo mío, no saldrás así vestido.
to leave: Son, you’re not leaving the house dressed like that.
sonreír: Al ver a su novia al altar, el novio sonrió.
to smile: Upon seeing his bride at the altar, the groom smiled.
venir: Vine para ganar.
to come: I came to win.
viajar: Me gustaría viajar a más países.
to travel: I’d like to travel to more countries.
Some verbs can actually be used as both transitive and intransitive verbs depending on their context. You may occasionally see this in dictionaries marked as ‘vti.’
Seeing them side by side can really help illustrate how this whole transitivity thing works! We’ve underlined the verbs and put the direct objects in bold.
amar: Alicia ama profundamente a Verónica. — Alicia loves Verónica deeply.
Alicia ama profundamente. — Alicia loves deeply
bailar: Mañana bailarán un vals. — Tomorrow they’ll dance a waltz.
Mañana bailarán. — Tomorrow they’ll dance.
cantar: Maca está cantando su canción preferida. — Maca is singing her favorite song.
Maca está cantando. — Maca is singing.
comer: Comí dos manzanas. — I ate two apples.
Comí. — I ate.
hablar: Hablas bien el español. — You speak Spanish well.
Hablemos bajo para que no nos oigan. — Let’s speak quietly so they don’t hear us.
leer: En el autobús, leo mi libro. — On the bus, I read my book.
En el autobús, leo. — On the bus, I read.
llorar: No hagas caso a Emilia. Está llorando lágrimas de cocodrilo. — Don’t pay attention to Emilia. She’s crying crocodile tears.
Mira, Emilia está llorando. ¡Pobrecita! — Look, Emilia is crying. Poor thing!
pescar: Vamos a pescar salmón. — We’re going fishing for salmon.
Vamos a pescar. — We’re going fishing.
rimar: Oye, ¿existen palabras que no rimen con ninguna otra? — Hey, are there any words that don’t rhyme with anything?
Este poema no rima. — This poem doesn’t rhyme.
sonar: Tengo que ir a la iglesia para sonar la campana.
La campana suena al mediodía. — The bell rings at midday.
Some verb types don’t come under this transitive/intransitive categorization, for example:
Having said that, though, the pronominal forms of verbs often act as intransitive ones. For example:
Transitive (original verb)
Intransitive (pronominal form of verb)
involucrar — to involve
involucrarse — to be involved
Involucré a Juan en los procedimientos. — I got Juan involved in the proceedings.
Juan se involucró en los procedimientos. —Juan got involved in the proceedings.
For each of the following sentences, pick whether the verb in bold is a transitive one or an intransitive one (or, if it could be both, which one it is in the given context).
1. Julio tiene una casa enorme. — Julio has an enormous house.
2. Quiero que vengas a mi fiesta. — I want you to come to my party.
3. Ya anochece. — Night is falling now.
4. Cada noche, apago mi móvil dos horas antes de acostarme. — Every night, I switch off my phone two hours before bed.
5. El chiste de Julio bajó el tono. — Julio’s joke lowered the tone.
The great thing about this lesson is that there isn’t a massive list of rules to remember. Understanding the differences between transitive and intransitive verbs isn’t vital to actually producing good quality Spanish, but it is good to know, as it provides you with a deeper understanding of the way Spanish grammar works, meaning stronger support for your daily study!
Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.
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