Medieval Latin Online Logo

HOME | Course Info | Blackboard | QUIA
Week 1 Intro | Weekly Activities | Calendar | Grading
Grammar Guide | Perseus Dictionary | Perseus Tool

image of Jesus Christ
image of the burning bush
image of St. Francis

Grammar: Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

English is this very carefree language. It really doesn't care if you return (Douglas MacArthur: "I shall return!") in an intransitive way, or if you return something in a transitive way (I shall return the book tomorrow! I promise!).

Latin really does care. It pays close attentive to which verbs are transitive (take objects) and which verbs are transitive (don't take objects). As a general rule, active verbs can be transitive (but they do not have to be). Passive verbs, as a general rule, are intransitive and cannot take direct objects. The famous exception, of course, would be some deponent verbs: deponent verbs take passive endings but they can also be transitive, taking an object (ducem sequitur, he follows the leader). Aside from these special deponent verbs, Latin passives are intransitive and do not take objects.

The problem is that if you are translating from English into Latin, you might not realize that you are dealing with an intransitive verb that in Latin does require a passive form, distinguishing it from the transitive, active form. For example, the verb "to shake" in English can be transitive or intransitive:

  • INTRANSITIVE. Samson shakes. (he is shaken, he shakes himself).
  • TRANSITIVE. Samson shakes the columns.

In Latin, the intransitive "shake" is a passive form of the verb, while the transitive "shake" takes the active form:

  • INTRANSITIVE. Samson concutitur. (he is shaken, he shakes himself).
  • TRANSITIVE. Samson concutit columnas.
So if you are translating from English to Latin, or looking up Latin words in the English-Latin section of the dictionary, make sure you stop and think about whether the verb you want in Latin is transitive or intransitive. There are a surprisingly large number of English verbs that are ambiguous in this way.

Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM