Finnish for busy people

Transitivity and Intransitivity – Different Derivation Types

Finnish verbs are often divided in two groups based on their transitivity and intransitivity. That’s how we get transitive and intransitive verbs. The difference might seem simple, but it’s more complicated than it seems at first sight. In this article, you will find basic information of the issue of transitivity and intransivity, as well as links to other articles related to this topic.

Table of Contents
  1. Transitivity and intransitivity
  2. Types of transitive verbs
  3. Types of intransitive verbs
  4. Intransitivity and Passivity
    1. kaataa vs kaatua
    2. hoitaa vs hoitua
    3. siirtää vs siirtyä
    4. unohtaa vs unohtua

1. Transitivity and Intransitivity

If a verb is transitive, it means it has an object:

  • Minä avaan ikkunan. “I open the window.”
  • Me ostamme vaatteita. “We buy clothes.”
  • Lapset eivät syö puuroa. “The children don’t eat porridge.”
  • Minä herätän lapset. “I wake up the kids.”

Intransitive verbs usually don’t get an object:

  • Minä herään yksin. “I wake up alone.”
  • Me käymme Ruotsissa. “We visit Sweden.”
  • Talo valmistuu etuajassa. “The house is completed ahead of time.”

2. Types of Transitive Verbs

Transitive verbs can be divided into several groups based on their meaning. Each of these types will get their own article on this website. This is not an exhaustive list; there are surely other groups as well!

  • Causative verbs express that the action of the stem word is caused or put into motion (eg. herätä “to wake up” → herättää “to wake someone up”).
  • Emotive causative verbs (tunnekausatiiviverbit) are “feeling verbs” that express that a feeling or emotion is brung about.
  • Curative verbs (teettoverbit) express that the subject gets a person or animal to do the action of the stem word (eg. pestä “to wash” → pesettää “to have someone wash something”; korjata “to fix” → korjauttaa “to have something fixed”).

3. Types of Intransitive Verbs

Intransitive verbs can also be divided into several groups based on their meaning. Each of these types will get their own article on this website. This is not an exhaustive list; there are surely other groups as well!

  • Automative verbs are verbs that express that something happened by itself, kind of automatically, without the subject causing the action (eg. muuttua “to change”; loukkaantua “to get hurt”). We have two articles on automative verbs: korjautua and uusiutua, and kaatua and siirtyä.
  • Reflexive verbs are verbs that express that the subject is doing the action to themselves. The object of the action is the subject itself (eg. peseytyä “to wash oneself”; näyttäytyä “to show oneself”).
  • Translative verbs are verbs that express that the subject changes to be (more) like the word it’s based on. There’s a change happening towards the quality of the word the verb is derived from (eg. tummua “to become darker”; likaantua “to become dirty”).

4. Intransitivity and Passivity

Intransitivity isn’t the same as passivity. Often, translating the sentence to English will make the intransitive sentence passive. The Finnish passive, however, always includes the idea of someone doing the action, even if this person is not mentioned.

4.1. Kaataa vs kaatua

In this first example, you can see the difference between the three sentences very well when translating.

  • Transitive sentence: Minä kaadan puun. “I fell a tree.”
  • Passive sentence: Puu kaadetiin. “The tree was felled.”
  • Intransitive sentence: Puu kaatuu. “The tree falls.”

4.2. Hoitaa vs hoitua

However, there are plenty of examples where the difference between the passive and the intransitive sentence isn’t as clear when translating to English. The example below demonstrates this:

  • Transitive sentence: Minä hoidin ongelman. “I took care of the problem.”
  • Passive sentence: Ongelma hoidettiin. “The problem was taken care of.”
  • Intransitive sentence: Ongelma hoitui. “The problem was taken care of.”

So how do the passive and intransitive sentence differ from one another? The Finnish passive intrinsically contains the idea that somebody took care of the problem. The intransitive sentence doesn’t have that connotation. While it’s possible that somebody fixed the problem, the intransitive sentence implies that maybe the problem fixed itself. The important thing is the end result: there is no problem anymore.

4.3. Siirtää vs siirtyä

In the example below, the Finnish passive intrinsically contains the idea that somebody moved the book. The intransitive sentence doesn’t have that connotation. The book either moved by itself, or was moved by eg. the wind, an earthquake or an animal.

  • Transitive sentence: Minä siirsin kirjan. “I moved the book.
  • Passive sentence: Kirja siirrettiin. “The book was moved.”
  • Intransitive sentence: Kirja siirtyi. “The book moved.”

4.4. Unohtaa vs unohtua

One last example! This one shows that the Finnish way of getting rid of the person causing the action doesn’t always seem very reasonable. The intransitive sentence below doesn’t include any mention or connotation of a person being the cause of the action. However, who else but a person would forget a wallet? The main point of the intransitive sentence, hence, is just to remove all blame. That’s one of the main functions of transitivity and intransitivity.

  • Transitive sentence: Minä unohdin lompakon. “I forgot the wallet.”
  • Passive sentence: Lompakko unohdettiin. “The wallet was forgotten.”
  • Intransitive sentence: Lompakko unohtui. “The wallet was forgotten.”

That’s it for the transitivity and intransitivity of Finnish verbs!

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