Transitive verbs

(Verbs that can have an accusative object)

Table of contents – transitive verbs

On this page you will find the following:

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

What are transitive verbs?

In school grammar, transitive verbs (in German: transitive Verben) are verbs that can either have or require an accusative object as an argument. Regarding their valency, they are never monovalent. A transitive verb may also construct the passive voice, particularly the dynamic passive, in which the original object becomes the subject of the passive sentence. For learners of German as a foreign language, it is essential to know that all transitive verbs form the German compound tenses (e.g., Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt, etc.) with the auxiliary verb ‘haben’. Compare the characteristics in detail:

  • Transitive verbs can always appear together with an accusative object. However, be aware that it does not have to be present necessarily.
    • Some examples of German transitive verbs are:
      • lesen (to read), sehen (to see), kochen (to cook), schreiben (to write), backen (to bake), etc.
        • „Silke schreibt.“ (Silke is writing.)
          • This sentence shows the intransitive use because the accusative object is missing.
        • „Silke schreibt einen Brief.“ (Silke is writing a letter.)
          • Here, the verb ‘schreiben’ (write) occurs in transitive use with an object in the accusative case.
        • „Silke schreibt in ihrem Zimmer.“ (Silke is writing in her room.)
          • This statement demonstrates the intransitive use with an adverbial.
  • Furthermore, it is possible to establish the process passive with transitive verbs. In such a case, the accusative object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence:
    • Example sentences:
      • „Der Angler fängt einen Fisch.“ (The angler is catching a fish.)
        • This is a sentence in the active voice with ‘einen Fisch’ (a fish) as the accusative object.
      • Ein Fisch wird (vom Angler) gefangen.“ (A fish is being caught [by the angler].)
        • Passive sentence with ‘Ein Fisch’ (A fish) as the subject; the prepositional object ‘vom Angler’ (by the angler) is optional.
    • Note: There are only few exceptional transitive verbs that cannot form the dynamic passive voice. Some of them are …
      • verbs of possession:
        • wissen (to know), haben (to own), erhalten (to receive), kennen (to know), besitzen (to possess), bekommen (to get), etc.
      • verbs that express an amount or a quantity:
        • kosten (to cost), wiegen (to weigh), betragen (to amount), umfassen (to comprise), etc.
  • Additionally, the German transitive verbs always form the compound tenses in the past (see info box below) with the auxiliary verb ‘haben’ if the clause is in the active voice. Compare:
    • „Ich habe einen Kuchen gegessen.“ (I have eaten a cake.)
      • The tense is the Perfekt; the accusative object is ‘einen Kuchen’ (a cake).
    • „Wir hatten unseren Urlaub bereits gebucht.“ (We had already booked our vacation.)
      • The tense is the Plusquamperfekt; the accusative object is ‘unseren Urlaub’ (our vacation).
  • Information: Be careful with the distinction between the English and German tenses: In German, the Perfekt also expresses the past. In English, however, this is done by the past tense and not the present perfect.

Further explanations related to ‘Transitive verbs’

The following explanations refer to the topic ‘Using transitive verbs (verbs that can have an accusative object) in German grammar’ and might be helpful as well: