Tag Archives: stürzen

Accusing me of transitivity, eh?

In researching inchoative verbs, I realized that I needed to renew my understanding of what differentiates transitive and intransitive verbs. This proved to be difficult than I’d expected. Take, for example, the German word stürzen. In German, this word has both intransitive and transitive forms. For example, when a government falls, the intransitive form of the verb is used and its past perfect is formed with sein (“to be”); when someone brings down or topples the government, the transitive form of the verb is used and the past perfect is formed with haben (“to have”). This fits with the rough definition of a transitive verb as one where an agent acts on something or someone: Das Volk hat die Regierung gestürzt – “The people toppled the government” (German example adapted from https://www.dwds.de/wb/stürzen) and an intransitive verb as one which describes a state (or change of state) Die Regierung ist gestürzt – “The government (was) toppled.” (On a side note, while one can say “The government fell,” one cannot say “The people fell the government” because the English verb “to fall” is intransitive.)

Unlike stürzen where a different verb is used to create the past perfect depending on whether the transitive (haben) or intransitive (sein) form is intended, there is no clear indication that “to fall” is intranstive, nor that “to topple” has both transitive and intransitive forms. Unfortunately for those learning German, while all verbs where the past perfect is formed with haben are transitive, not all intransitive verbs use sein to form the past perfect. For example, schlafen – “to sleep” – forms the past perfect with haben but “to fall asleep” – einschlafen – forms the past perfect with sein.

According to canoo.net, instead of relying on haben  and sein to tell you which verb is transitive and which intransitve, you can differentiate between them based on the sort of object they take: the transitive verbs can or must take an accusative object (roughly a direct object). The German examples that follow were all taken from this page, errors in translation to English are all mine.

  • Ich esse einen Apfel – “I eat an apple”

Moreover, this object can become the subject of a sentence in the passive voice.

  • Ein Apfel wird von mir gegessen – “An apple is eaten by me”

Thus a better term for transitive verbs is “accusative verbs,” which makes the intransitive verbs “unaccusative verbs” – they cannot take an accusative object. In German that leaves verbs that permit no object at all, those that take a dative or a genitive object, those that take a prepositional object and those that have an adverbial complement.

Sie schlafen   “They sleep”                                                           no object
Sie half dem Kind “She helped the child”                                 dative object
Ich bedarf deiner Hilfe  “I need your help”                              genitive object
Wir warten auf den Bus  “We wait for the bus”                      prepositional object
Die Sitzung dauert lange  “The session lasts a long time’      adverbial complement

While stürzen means “resign” in the sense of stepping down from a position (intransitive form) or  “forcing” someone else “to resign” (transitive form), it is hard not to think of another English meaning of “resign,” namely  “to resign oneself to something” (sich abfinden), when pondering the difficulties of fully grasping the nature of transitivity.


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