Enough with the (in)transitive verbs already

No sooner had I published my previous blog post, on the unexpectedly transitive Spanish verbs desayunar, almorzar, and cenar, when I had a headlong collision with an unexpectedly intransitive verb: comprar ‘to buy.’ I’ve been using this basic verb for ages, but always as a transitive verb, i.e. with a direct object, as in:

  • Voy a comprar un libro. (the direct object is el libro)
  • He comprado demasiadas papas. (the direct object is demasiadas papas ‘too many potatoes’)
  • Compro mucha comida en Trader Joe’s. (the direct object is mucha comida ‘a lot of food’)

Spanish has a related intransitive expression ir de compras ‘to go shopping.’ But I never imagined that the verb comprar itself can be intransitive until one of my colleagues put the following sentence on a test we were writing together. I’ve changed it a little in case one of our students is reading this blog.

  • No hay nada de sal en la cocina. Tenemos que comprar.
    ‘There is no salt in the kitchen. We have to buy.’

For this native English speaker at least, the intransitive comprar sounded woefully naked. I expected some object to accompany the verb, as in La tenemos que comprar ‘We have to buy it,’ Tenemos que comprarla (same translation), or Tenemos que comprar más ‘We have to buy more.’

However, after asking with other Spanish speakers, it is clear that Tenemos que comprar is fine by itself. I also checked the verb’s entry in the Real Academia Española dictionary, and indeed the third definition is intransitive:

  • intr. Realizar una compra, especialmente si se hace de forma habitual. Compramos en tiendas del barrio.

although this sounds synonymous with ir de compras ‘to go shopping’ rather than shopping for a specific item.

My fellow test-writer also said that you could only say Tenemos que comprar más if you still had some salt and wanted to supplement it. Other speakers whom I consulted were divided on this nuance.

This comprar surprise, and my recent reckoning with desayunar and its transitive friends, have reminded me forcibly that I will never be a native speaker. To bolster my wounded self-esteem I keep reminding myself that my Spanish is actually really good and my English is even better! Plus I speak decent French, know a fair amount of Hebrew, and a little German. Really, I can hold my head high as a linguist, and should enjoy the subtle surprises that Spanish still holds for me rather than taking them personally. Most of the time, I do.

One thought on “Enough with the (in)transitive verbs already

  1. peitsa

    I like this exploration of the intransitives. There are a number of them in Finnish but at the moment I can only think of one: saunoa=to take a sauna bath. And it gets even more interesting with the suffixes that are so common in Finnish. For instance: saunotaanko=shall we take a sauna bath.


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