Syntactical classes of verbs

Word cloud of the article syntactical classes of verbs Word cloud of the article syntactical classes of verbs

Like in English, verbs in Spanish are the most important words in sentences because they express the actions, processes, or states of being—and can be divided as such—of their subjects. Verbs can also be classified based on mood, morphological structure, temporal reference, and aspect. But people wanting to improve their writing skills in either English or Spanish should first classify verbs according to their syntactical function or, in other words, to what they do in sentences.

In section 1.9k of Nueva Gramática, verbs are classified by their syntactical function as transitive (transitivo), intransitive (intransitivo), and linking (copulativo) (46)[1]. Transitive and intransitive verbs form verbal predicates, which have as a nucleus verbs that express actions or processes. Linking verbs, on the other hand, create nominal predicates, which are usually made up of the linking verb and the subject complement (atributo).

Transitive verbs need a direct object (complemento directo or objeto directo), which can be nouns, pronouns or subordinate noun clauses, to complete their meaning in a sentence. According to section 34.1e of Nueva Gramática, traditional grammar indicated that the direct object receives the action of the verb, and the action may even pass on or manifest in the direct object. Current grammarians, however, have noted that some verbs do not alter the person or thing receiving the action of the verb (2593)[1].

In section 34.3e, Nueva Gramática states that in recent years, direct objects have been divided into two groups: affected and not affected. The concept of affectation measures grammatically whether or not a change of state is provoked on the person or thing that constitutes the patient of the action being mentioned (2604)[1]. Note that someone or something is the patient that receives—directly—from the verb, regardless of whether they are affected or not.

When someone is the patient that receives from the verb, writers must carefully identify it as a direct object rather than an indirect object. Section 35.1a of Nueva Gramática states that the traditional syntactical function done by the unstressed personal pronouns of the dative case (le or les) and by the prepositional phrases beginning with the preposition a that designate the receptor, addressee, experimenter, or beneficiary and other participants in an action, process, or situation are called indirect objects (complemento indirecto or objeto indirecto) (2655)[1]. The indirect object, which most of the time is someone but may also be a thing, also receives from the verb, but as its name implies, it does so indirectly.

Distinguishing the indirect object from the direct object can be tricky because some direct objects are also prepositional phrases that begin with the preposition a. To determine whether a prepositional phrase that indicates someone who receives from the verb is a direct object or an indirect object, change the prepositional phrase to the personal pronoun la. In the following example, a su novia can be replaced by the personal pronoun la, so it is a direct object.

[Juan] [visitó a su novia].

[Juan] [la visitó].

It can also be changed to lo if the prepositional phrase designates a male, but doing so can become complicated with certain constructions. For practical purposes, mentally change the noun of the prepositional phrase to female to perform the test.

[María] [visitó a Juan].

[María] [visitó a Juana].

[María] [la visitó].

In the following example, a la niña cannot be replaced by the personal pronoun la, so this prepositional phrase is an indirect object. Indirect objects must be replaced by the personal pronoun le if they are singular or les if they are plural. Note that sonrió is not a transitive verb; rather, it is an intransitive verb.

[La mamá] [sonrió a la niña].

[La mamá] [la sonrió].

[La mamá] [le sonrió].

Intransitive verbs do not need a direct object to complete their meaning in a sentence. The easiest way to know whether a verb is transitive or intransitive is by looking it up in RAE’s dictionary. As the abbreviation intr. (intransitivo) suggests, sonreír can only be used as an intransitive verb.

As the abbreviation tr. (transitivo) suggests, detectar can only be used as a transitive verb.

Some verbs, however, can be used not only transitively but also intransitively and vice versa depending on different reasons, which are discussed extensively in sections 34.5, 34.6, and 35.7 in Nueva gramática. For practical purposes, use RAE’s website to determine if a verb can be used transitively as well as intransitively.

The verb escoger, for example, is a transitive verb that can also be used as an intransitive one. The abbreviation U.t.c. intr stands for usado también como intransitivo (also used as intransitive).

The verb respirar is an intransitive verb that can also be used as a transitive one. In this case, the abbreviation U.t.c. tr stands for usado también como transitivo (also used as transitive).

Linking verbs (verbos copulativos), the third syntactical class of verbs, link or tie predicates with their subjects; in Spanish, the three linking verbs are ser, estar, and parecer. Most subject complements (atributos) of nominal predicates are adjective segments (adjectives as well as adjective phrases) or nouns segments (nouns as well as noun phrases), but other types of segments can also be used.

Adjective: [Yo] [soy bilingüe].

Noun: [La profesora] [parece una actriz].

Although ser, estar, and parecer are the only three linking verbs, a few other verbs have the capability to function as linking verbs; these are called pseudo linking (pseudo copulativo) or semi predicative (semi predicativo). In other words, these verbs can be the nucleus of either a verbal predicate or a nominal predicate. The best way to determine if a verb is pseudo linking is to examine its meaning in a sentence. This is to say that a verb works as a predicative if it expresses an action and as linking if it expresses a state of being.

In the following example, the verb seguía is used as an action verb: The detective is following the steps of the murderer. Moreover, it is a transitive verb because los pasos del asesino can be chnaged to los, indicating it is a direct object.

[El detective] [seguía los pasos del asesino].

[El detective] [los seguía].

But in this example, seguía indicates a state of being: The detective was still angry. In this case, there is no direct object or indirect object.

[El detective] [seguía enfadado].

According to A Writer’s Reference, verbs in English are similarly classified syntactically: transitive, intransitive, and linking (also called copula) (343)[2]. The verbs that can be used either transitively or intransitively are called ergative. Moreover, some intransitive verbs, such as appear, become, and feel, act as linking verbs when they express states of being, just like pseudo linking verbs do in Spanish.


  1. ^Nueva gramatica de la lengua española. (Madrid: Espasa Libros, 2009).
  2. ^Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, A Writer’s Reference, 8th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016).