Intransigent Intransitives

Do you feel like a Depp when you get your past tense verbs wrong? If you’re lucky, your colleagues will gently correct you.

ich: “Du hast mich aus den Gedanken *gereißt!”1

sie: (sheepishly, as if it were her fault) “Gerissen.”

I am thankful for those colleagues who have the courage to suggest a correction. I hate needing one, but I hate that less than finding out I needed one, but didn’t get it.

Often you can predict whether a verb is going to respect your linguistic norms and behave like a good little part of speech, or thumb its nose at the establishment and exhibit free-spirited irregularity. It’s the transitive verbs who go along to get along, reliably obeying the rules of weak preterite and past participle patterns. Intransitives are much more likely to form irregular past tense forms.

…was heißt das noch mal?

If the verb takes an object, it’s transitive. If you can formulate a sentence with a subject and a predicate without an object, then that verb is intransitive.2

Concretely:

Transitive Intransitive
Cookies bring joy. Cookies rock!

In English, at least, it can be pretty fast and loose. “Eat” can be both transitive and intransitive, depending on usage.3

Transitive Intransitive
Wanna eat this cookie? Well, I already ate, but…sure.

Schieß los!

Got it? Let’s apply it to German. The good news is that there are pairs of verbs that have related meanings, and similar sounds. If you can spot which one in each pair is transitive or intransitive, you will be able to remember which of them is irregular in the past tense. And maybe even formulate your sentence to use the easier of the two, if you need to.

Transitive Intransitive
senken sinken
Der Kapitän hat das Schiff ins Meer gesenkt.
Der Kapitän senkte das Schiff ins Meer.
Das Schiff ist ins Meer gesunken.
Das Schiff sank ins Meer.
setzen sitzen
Ich habe mich auf die Couch gesetzt.
Ich setzte mich auf die Couch.
Ich bin auf der Couch gesessen.
Ich saß auf der Couch.
hängen hängen
Das Mädchen hat seine Jacke aufgehängt.
Das Mädchen hängte seine Jacke auf.
Das Bild hat an der Wand gehangen.
Das Bild hing an der Wand.

How about super-subversive hängen up there!? One could argue its mild-mannered transitive version has an evil intransitive twin. Picture a goatee on it when you’re using it without an object.

The transitive half of each of these pairs very submissively follows the rules for weak verbs:

Preterite Past Perfect
stem + te haben (prefix) + ge + stem + t
senkte
setzte
hängte auf
hat gesenkt
habe gesetzt
hat aufgehängt

Super easy, just like you remember from your first semester at the VHS.

But those rabble-rousing intransitives, who think they can do it all on their own without needing to objectify anything to get their point across, are flaunting their irregularities.

Preterite Past Perfect
stem-change + ? (haben|sein) ge + yet-another-stem-change + en
sank
saß
hing
ist gesunken
bin gesessen
hat gehangen

Noch was…

Notice anything else going on here? In two examples above, the auxiliary verb for the intransitive verb in the past perfect tense is sein. Of course, that’s optional or maybe contextual for sitzen. Does the meaning change between “Ich habe auf der Couch gesessen.” and “Ich bin auf der Couch gesessen.”?

Maybe. I get the impression the “haben” version conveys more of the feeling like I’ve been on the couch at some point in the past, and maybe, by doing so, voided die Garantie. However, the sein variant seems to imply more of a duration of the sitting, like “first I got out of bed, then I fixed a bowl of Weetabix, and then I sat on the couch for a while, waiting for the rest of me to wake up.”4 This could be a clue into the mysteries of verbs and their fickle choices of past perfect auxiliaries. But that’s another post.

Don’t assume from these few examples that all intransitive verbs prefer sein, or those preferring sein as their auxiliary must be irregular in the past tense. While true for some, even many, it’s certainly not for all. Consider reisen. It’s an intransitive sein-verb, but it’s perfectly regular in the past tenses: ich reise — ich reiste — ich bin gereist

Nevertheless, all transitive verbs are haben- verbs in the past perfect tense. This seems to hold true even for those intransitive sein verbs you can sort of force to grudgingly accept a direct object and therefore become transitive, like fahren. Ich habe das Auto zur Werkstatt gefahren feels wrong after you spend hours beating fahren and sein into your brain. But it’s like those ultra-fashiony people who can pull off a black turtleneck and brown corduroy pants.5 It’s not wrong if you know what you’re doing.

Some more of those transitive/intransitive pairs:

Transitive Intransitive
Infinitive Preterite Perfect Infinitive Preterite Perfect
stellen stellte gestellt stehen stand gestanden

Stellen6 can mean “to stand,” as in Bitte stellen Sie die Lampe in die Ecke auf. The verb transfers its standing action from the 2nd person to the lamp. Ergo, transitive usage. By contrast, in Wo steht Dein Fahrrad? the bike is keeping all the standing action for itself, and is one of those annoying drastically irregular past-tense stem changers — a vowel change is not enough for this rebel; it even messes with the consonants in the stem.

Transitive Intransitive
Infinitive Preterite Perfect Infinitive Preterite Perfect
erschrecken erschreckte erschreckt erschrecken erschrak erschrocken

Another evil twin type! The transitive version is the complacent regular verb, letting itself be conjugated quietly according to custom. The intransitive one breaks the rules. Extra trickiness here include a present tense stem-changing (but only for the intransitive version!), and that the reflexive pronoun doesn’t serve to make the verb transitive, as in Ich habe mich über die Temperaturen im Winter erschrocken, but Die Temperaturen im Winter haben mich erschreckt.

Think of it perhaps this way: being scared is intransitive — you can do that by yourself — but scaring definitely requires a scarer and a scaree.

Aber wen interessiert’s?

Obviously you care, since you’ve read this far. Only Sacha Baron Cohen tries to sound like BORДT, which is what happens when you use transitive verbs but forget their direct objects. (“Yes, I like.”) Knowing that there are such pairs, and that you can count on the transitive one to follow the rules, might help you sound a little less like a caricature and more like a native.

  1. I got reisen and reißen confused. []
  2. Obviously there are exceptions, especially for poetic license and colloquialisms. It’s just a rule of thumb. []
  3. The big kids on the grammar school playground call such verbs “ambitransitive.“ []
  4. That’s how I roll in the a.m. []
  5. Germans do this effortlessly. []
  6. hinstellen, abstellen, auffstellen, etc. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *