Intransitive verb

From Academic Kids

An intransitive verb is a verb that has only one argument, that is, a verb with valency equal to one. In more familiar terms, an intransitive verb has a subject but does not have an object. For example, in English, the verbs sleep, die, and run, are intransitive.

A linking verb may or may not be considered a proper intransitive verb. (See copula.)


Usage of intransitive verbs

Active languages are characterized by their special treatment of intransitive verbs, according to the semantic role of their subject. (See morphosyntactic alignment.) In active languages, intransitive verbs are classified in two subtypes: the ones where the subject is typically the agent (performer) of the action (as in eat, run, cook), and the ones where the subject is typically the patient (undergoer) of the action (as in fall, die, and maybe sneeze and hiccup). Active languages are rather rare, but an example is Georgian (which shows active behaviour in some verb paradigms, though it is ergative-absolutive in others).

Unaccusatives and unergatives

Most intransitive verbs fall into one of two categories:

This distinction is related to the division of intransitive verbs in active languages (as explained above). In a number of languages, the unergative/unaccusative distinction is reflected in certain features of the verb; for example, in some Romance languages like Italian and French, unaccusative verbs form their complex tenses with different auxiliaries.

Stative verbs

Many languages employ a special kind of intransitive verbs called stative verbs, that show a state, quality or description of the subject, and often correspond to adjectival predicates in other languages. For example, Japanese so-called i-adjectives are stative verbs:

Tenki ga ii ne.
weather (SUBJECT) be_good (TAG)
"Nice day, isn't it?" ("Weather is good")
(Watashi wa) sushi ga kirai.
[I (TOPIC)] sushi (SUBJECT) be_unpleasant
"I don't like sushi." ("As for me, sushi is unpleasant")

Valency-changing operations

In languages where a passive voice exists, a transitive verb can be passivized in order to turn it into an intransitive one. For example, the transitive verb kill becomes the intransitive verb phrase be killed. Passivization involves deleting the subject and replacing it by the direct object (this shift is called promotion of the object).

Intransitive verbs, of course, cannot be passivized in the strict sense, However, some languages (like Dutch) have so-called impersonal passives that allow to transform, e. g. He phoned into the equivalent of There was a phoning [a phone call] (by him).

There are ergative-absolutive languages with an antipassive voice. In this voice operation, the direct object (marked with the absolutive case) is deleted, and the subject (marked ergative) is promoted to absolutive.

Causative operators can turn intransitive verbs into transitive. In English, the general causative form is a periphrasis: cause X to verb, make X verb, etc. In other languages there is specific verb morphology for this. In many cases the causation is expressed by a different lexical item: falldrop; eatfeed.


In most languages, there are some verbs which are ambitransitive: they can act as intransitive or as transitive. For example, English eat is ambitransitive (both intransitive and transitive), since it is grammatical to say I eat, and it is also grammatical to say I eat food. English is rather flexible with regards to verb valency, and so it has a high number of ambitransitive verbs; other languages are more rigid and require explicit valency changing operations (voice, causative morphology, etc.) to transform a verb from intransitive to transitive or vice versa.

There are ambitransitive verbs for which the alignment of the syntactic arguments and the semantic roles are exchanged. An example of this is the verb break in English.

(1) I broke the cup.
(2) The cup broke.

In (1), the verb is transitive, and the subject is the agent of the action, i. e. the performer of the action of breaking the cup. In (2), the verb is intransitive and the subject is the patient of the action, i. e. it is the thing affected by the action, not the one that performs it. In fact, the patient is the same in both sentences, and sentence (2) is an example of implicit middle voice. This has also been termed an anticausative.

Other alternating intransitive verbs in English are change and sink.

In the Romance languages, these verbs are often called pseudo-reflexive, because they are signaled in the same way as reflexive verbs, using the clitic particle se. Compare the following (in Spanish):

(3a) La taza se rompió. ("The cup broke.")
(3b) El barco se hundió. ("The boat sank.")
(4a) Ella se miró en el espejo. ("She looked at herself in the mirror.")
(4b) El gato se lava. ("The cat washes itself.")

Sentences (3a) and (3b) show Romance pseudo-reflexive phrases, corresponding to English alternating intransitives. As in The cup broke, they are inherently without an agent; their deep structure do not and can not contain one. The action is not reflexive (as in (4a) and (4b)) because it is not performed by the subject; it just happens to it. Therefore, this is not the same as passive voice, where an intransitive verb phrase appears, but there is an implicit agent (which can be made explicit using a complement phrase):

(5) The cup was broken (by the child).
(6) El barco fue hundido (por piratas). ("The boat was sunk (by pirates).")

Other ambitransitive verbs (like eat) are not of the alternating type; the subject is always the agent of the action, and the object is simply optional. A few verbs are of both types at once, like read: compare I read, I read a magazine, and this magazine reads easily.


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