Intransitive verbs

(Verbs that cannot have an accusative object)

Table of contents – intransitive verbs

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Explanation of intransitive verbs
  2. Further explanations and exercises

What are intransitive verbs?

Intransitive verbs (in German: intransitive Verben) can only occur without an accusative object. Consequently, they can either be an absolute verb or used with a different object (dative, genitive, or prepositional object) in a clause. Furthermore, intransitive verbs have substantial restrictions regarding the formation of the passive voice. Compare their characteristics:

Intransitive verbs and objects

Intransitive verbs can never take an accusative object. However, other types of objects are still possible.

  • Some intransitive example verbs are:
    • helfen (to help), danken (to thank), liegen (to lie), warten (to wait), schlafen (to sleep), etc.
      • „Ich warte bereits seit einer Woche auf ein Paket.“ (I have already been waiting for a parcel for a week.)
        • with the prepositional objectauf ein Paket’ (for a parcel)
      • „Jasmin dankt ihrer Schwester.“ (Jasmin thanks her sister.)
        • with the dative objectihrer Schwester’ (her sister)
      • „Die Kinder schlafen.“ (The kids are sleeping.)
        • This sentence shows the use as an absolute verb without an argument/object.

Intransitive verbs and the passive voice

Moreover, intransitive verbs can only form the passive voice to a limited extent. In most cases, the personal passive is not possible; however, they can sometimes construct the impersonal passive.

  • Very often, the personal passive is impossible:
    • Wir danken dir für deine Mühe.“ (We thank you for your effort.)
      • Active sentence where ‘dir’ (you) is a dative object and ‘Wir’ (We) the subject.
    • Dir wird für deine Mühe gedankt.“ (Literally: You are thanked for your effort.)
      • Passive sentence without a subject; ‘Dir’ (You) remains the dative object.
    • Dir wird von uns für deine Mühe gedankt.“ (Literally: You are thanked for your effort by us.)
      • A subjectless passive sentence in which ‘von uns’ (by us) is a prepositional object.
  • Nevertheless, the impersonal passive with ‘es’ in place of the subject can occasionally be formed:
    • Markus hilft seinem Bruder bei den Hausaufgaben.“ (Markus helps his brother with his homework.)
      • active sentence with ‘Markus’ as the subject
    • Es wird seinem Bruder bei den Hausaufgaben geholfen.“ (His brother is helped with his homework.)
      • Including ‘Es’ as a dummy subject that replaces the actual subject.

Intransitive verbs and the tenses

Unlike the transitive verbs, intransitive ones can form the compound past tenses (German verb tenses) with both auxiliary verbs ‘haben’ or with ‘sein’.

  • Be aware that the German past tenses include the Perfekt – in contrast to English with its present perfect.
  • Some intransitive verbs such as those denoting motion usually require ‘sein’:
    • gehen (to go), laufen (to walk), rennen (to run), fahren (to drive), kriechen (to crawl), kommen (to come), etc.
      • „Gestern bin ich nach Stuttgart gefahren.“ (Yesterday, I went to Stuttgart.)
        • Perfekt tense (perfect)
      • „Lars war bereits gegangen, als die Gäste kamen.“ (Lars had already left when the guests arrived.)
        • Plusquamperfekt (past perfect)
  • Most others use ‘haben’ as the necessary auxiliary:
    • helfen (to help), arbeiten (to work), dauern (to last), warten (to wait), etc.
      • „Wir haben schon sehr lange an diesem Projekt gearbeitet.“ (We have been working on this project for a very long time.)
        • Perfekt (present perfect)
      • „Die Sitzung hatte eine Stunde gedauert.“ (The session had lasted an hour.)
        • Plusquamperfekt (past perfect)

Further explanations referring to ‘Intransitive verbs’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Use of intransitive verbs in German grammar’ and may also be interesting: