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Overview

There are different verb structures in Spanish and it is helpful to know what they are as they function in different ways. Some can need direct objects, others don't. Some perform the action on the subject itself. This article covers transitive verbs, instransitive verbs, and pronominal verbs.

Transitive Verbs

Transitive Verbs need a direct object. The subject performs an action on something or someone else. You can always ask the question what? or whom? after the verb to determine the direct object.

tener (to have) - Tengo una manzana. (I have an apple.) 

  • I have what? An apple. So, una manzana is the direct object of the transitive verb Tener.

comer (to eat) - Comió una galleta. (He ate a cookie.) 

  • He ate what? A cookie. So, una galleta is the direct object of the transitive verb Comer.

sorprender (to surprise) - Sorprendimos a mi novio. (We surprised my boyfriend.)

  • We surprised whom? My boyfriend. So, mi novio is the direct object of the transitive verb Sorprender.
  • The preposition a is used when the direct object is a specific person (or something personalized), and is called the personal a.

Intransitive

Intransitive Verbs do not have a direct object. The subject performs an action without acting on another noun or pronoun. Intransitive verbs can often form one word sentences in Spanish.

correr (to run) - Corre cada día. (He runs every day.)

  • You can’t ask the question what? or whom?. He just runs. Cada día only tells you how often. You could have the one word sentence: Corre. (He runs.)

dormir (to sleep) - Duerme en su cama. (She sleeps in her bed.)

  • You can’t ask the question what? or whom?. She just sleeps. En su cama only provides extra information about where. You could have the one word sentence: Duerme. (She sleeps.)

gustar (to be pleasing) - Me gustan los plátanos. (literally: Bananas are pleasing to me; common translation: I like bananas.)

  • Gustar uses indirect objects to specify who “likes” what or whom, so you cannot form a one word sentence.

Pronominal

Pronominal Verbs are often incorrectly called reflexive verbs, when reflexive verbs are actually one example of a pronominal verb, the other being reciprocal verbs. With reflexive verbs, the subject is acting upon himself, herself, or themselves (brushing hair, going to sleep, etc.). With reciprocal verbs, two subjects are performing the same action on each other (hugging, kissing, etc.) Pronominal verbs must be conjugated with reflexive pronouns. You can recognize pronominal verbs by the reflexive pronoun se attached to the infinitive: ducharse, ponerse, etc.

Reflexive Verbs

When the object matches the subject, or the subject performs an action on or to him- or herself.

  • Me veo (I see myself.)
  • Se escribe una nota. (He writes himself a note.)
  • Te cepillas los dientes. (You brush your teeth.)

Body parts do not use possessive pronouns in Spanish. It is understood that you would brush your own teeth. But while it seems the object is los dientes, they are your teeth, so you are still performing the action on yourself, making it reflexive.

Reciprocal Verbs

When two subjects perform the same action on each other.

  • Nos abrazamos. (We hug each other.)
  • Se casaron. (They got married (to each other).)

 

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