Transitive, Intransitive, & Linking Verbs in Latin
Are you confused by all the terminology surrounding Latin verbs? This post will help you identify transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs with confidence.
Teachers and textbooks often use terms like “transitive” and “intransitive”. In this post, we will walk through the terminology and look at helpful examples.
This post is for beginning Latin students and those who want to brush up on their grammar concepts. If you are intermediate or advanced, I have another post that goes even deeper into transitivity.
Now let’s dive right into the world of transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs!
Transitive vs. Intransitive
Transitive and intransitive verbs are most easily understood in opposition. So we will tackle the basic principle and then move on to a detailed discussion of each type of verb in Latin.
1. A verb is transitive if it takes a direct object.
2. A verb is intransitive if it does not take a direct object.
Transitivity and intransitivity revolve around the presence or absence of a direct object. As a brief reminder, the direct object is a noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb.
Here are some examples of verbs used transitively in English. The direct objects are in bold, because it is the direct object that signals the verb’s transitivity.
The cat ate the bird.
I am reading a book.
You don’t know him.
In each of these sentences, there is an explicit direct object. This object completes and further specifies the meaning of the verb. The cat isn’t just eating – it is eating the bird. That’s why “eat” is transitive here.
Now look at the following three sentences.
The cat ate.
I am reading.
You don’t know.
The same verbs appear as before – “eat”, “see”, and “know”. But in this case, they are used intransitively. There are no direct objects.
The cat ate, but we don’t know what it ate. The focus is on the fact that the cat consumed food in general. The speaker doesn’t care what was on the menu.
As you can see, some verbs (such as “eat”, “see”, and “know”) can be both transitive and intransitive. So it is more accurate to refer to transitive and intransitive usage of these verbs.
An ambitransitive verb is a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive.
This term is not extremely common, so it is not important to memorize it. It is, however, important to realize that some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on the context.
There are, however, some verbs that can only be transitive or only be intransitive.
Think about the verb “make”. Imagine that I said to you, “Tomorrow I am making.”
You would likely respond, “What are you making?” My statement has no meaning unless I add more information.
This is because “make” is a highly transitive verb. It requires a direct object to complete its meaning. I could be making cookies, pizza, decisions, or any number of things. But I can’t just make in the abstract.
Now let’s look at the flip side. For example, think about the verb “sleep”.
“Sleep” cannot take a direct object. You can’t say that a mother sleeps her child. You can only use “sleep” intransitively to say who is sleeping: the child sleeps.
If you want to tell me that the mother is responsible for the child’s sleep, you need to use a different construction. You can say the mother puts her child to sleep, makes her child sleep, puts her child to bed, etc.
But intransitive verbs like “sleep” can’t have direct objects. They are complete in and of themselves.
The big takeaway here is that direct objects are crucial in determining whether or not a verb is transitive. Now let’s take this knowledge and apply it to Latin.
Transitive Verbs in Latin
Transitive verbs in Latin always have a direct object in the accusative case. So if there is no accusative, you know the verb is not transitive in this instance.
Here are some examples of transitive verbs in Latin. The direct objects are in bold.
Puellam vocō. = I call the girl.
Rōmam dēfendent. = They will defend Rome.
Cūr amīcum nōn laudāvistī? = Why did you not praise (your) friend?
Puellam, Rōmam, and amīcum are all accusative direct objects of their respective verbs. This is a clear sign that vocō, dēfendō, and laudō are transitive.
To reiterate: if you are trying to decide if a Latin verb is transitive or not, always check to see if there is an accusative direct object. If there is, then your verb is definitely transitive. If there is not, then you are likely dealing with an intransitive verb (or a linking verb).
Don’t forget that Latin word order is far more flexible than English word order, so the accusative might not be right next to the verb.
Note also that sometimes the direct object will be implied, and in such a case the verb is still transitive. Think about the following situation:
Marcus: Laudāsne amīcum? = Marcus: Are you praising your friend?
Iūlius: Laudō. = Julius: I am (praising).
There is technically no accusative object in Julius’ response, laudō. But it is easy to see from the context that Julius is saying that he is praising his friend. Thus amīcum is the implied object of laudō, and we would still consider this a transitive use.
Intransitive Verbs in Latin
As we discussed up above, an intransitive verb is a verb that does not have a direct object. In Latin, this means that it does not have an accusative object.
So, determining if a verb is intransitive or not is in theory pretty simple. If there is no accusative, it is intransitive.
Note, however, that the verb may be surrounded by prepositional phrases, adverbs, and nouns in other cases. This can sometimes confuse students.
In the following sentences, the intransitive verb is in bold.
In hortō sēdeō. = I sit in the garden.
Celeriter in silvās currunt. = They run swiftly into the woods.
Equus cadit. = The horse falls.
In each of these instances, the verb’s meaning is complete in and of itself. We don’t need a direct object, and in fact a direct object wouldn’t make sense. That’s why these are intransitive verbs.
But, you may say, in the second sentence there is actually an accusative, silvās. And to make things worse, it is right next to the verb, currunt. So doesn’t that mean it’s the direct object?
Nope. If you analyze the sentence carefully, you discover that silvās is accusative because it is the object of the preposition in. It isn’t the direct object, so currunt is still intransitive.
They aren’t running the woods (what would that even mean?). Rather they are running, and it happens to be into the woods.
Now that we have discussed Latin transitive and intransitive verbs, it’s time to move on to our final topic: linking verbs.
Linking Verbs in Latin
Linking verbs do exactly what you might think: they link two words together.
A linking verb links the subject of a sentence (either a noun or a pronoun) with a predicate noun or adjective.
This definition sounds complicated, but in actuality linking verbs are quite simple. Think of a linking verb as an equals sign (=).
The most common linking verb by far is the verb to be (Latin sum). Let’s look at some concrete examples of sum in action. The linking verbs are in bold.
Cōnsul est vir. = The consul is a man.
Sorōrēs meae sacerdōtēs nōn erunt. = My sisters will not be priestesses.
Erās fēlīx. = You were fortunate.
In these three sentences, the forms of the verb sum (est, erunt, and erās) express equivalence. The consul equals the man. My sisters will not equal priestesses. You equaled happy.
Note that the linking verb often connects two nouns (as in the first two examples). The first noun is the subject and the second noun is the predicate noun.
In the last example, though, we have a pronoun (you) linked to an adjective (fortunate). The pronoun is the subject, while the adjective is a predicate adjective. You can read more about predicate nouns and adjectives in my post on the nominative case.
Besides sum, other common Latin linking verbs are as follows:
- fīō, fierī, factus sum – become
- habeor, habērī, habitus sum – be considered, regarded
- videor, vidērī, vīsus sum – seem
Rēx stultus habētur. = The king is considered stupid.
Watch out for Latin word order, which can be tricky. In English, our linking verbs will always be in between the two words that they link. In Latin, this is not necessarily the case.
Up above we saw the sentence cōnsul est vir, which means “the consul is a man.” Well, we could easily switch up the order and say cōnsul vir est. It would mean the same thing.
So when you are analyzing a sentence, remember not to expect Latin to conform to English word order. Sometimes the linking verb will come after, or even before, the two words that it connects.
One last thing. Another name for a linking verb is the copula (sometimes copular verb). This term derives from the Latin noun cōpula, which means “that which binds together” or “rope”. If you have trouble remembering what a copula is, think of the English words “copulate” and “couple”.
“Copulate” refers to the linking together of two people in intercourse, while “couple” refers to two people who are linked together. See? Now you can remember that a copula is a linking verb!
How do you feel about Latin verb terminology after reading this post? A bit better? Hopefully transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs in Latin are now less intimidating.
Remember: transitive verbs have direct objects in the accusative. Intransitive verbs do not, although there can be nouns surrounding them in the sentence.
Linking verbs, on the other hand, connect two equal things (two nouns/pronouns or a noun/pronoun and an adjective). Most of the time, your linking verb will be a form of the verb sum.
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Latin Transitive and Intransitive Verbs, Part 2
How To Find the Conjugation of Any Latin Verb
The Ultimate Guide to Latin Verb Principal Parts
Excellent explanations! Can you explain why Pugno is an intransitive verb. Why can’t I use it in the following example?
Caesar fights the Gauls.
Can it only be worded, “Caesar fights with the Gauls.” strictly because it is considered intransitive?
Thanks so much for your thoughts!
Hi Kerri, I’m so glad the explanations are helpful! As for your question: for whatever reason, “pugnō” is primarily used intransitively. If you look at Latin texts, you will see you can fight “with” people (cum + ablative) or “against” people (in / adversum + accusative), but we don’t see “pugnō” + the accusative.
It’s kind of like how in English, we have to say “look AT someone”; you can’t “look someone”, without the “at.” It’s just not how the verb works.
If I wanted to translate “Caesar fights the Gauls” into Latin, I would use “pugnō,” but I would insert a preposition: “Caesar cum Gallīs / adversum Gallōs pugnat.”
I hope this helps!