07 Verbs with Obligatory Objects

  You can also read this chapter in French, German, Spanish or Finnish.

Verbs like čitati read have an optional object: you can either just read or read something. What you actually do is the same in both cases: it’s just not specified what you read in the first case (is it a book, newspaper, contract...)

However, there are many verbs where it’s not so, where you can either do something to somebody (or something), or you can do it to yourself. For instance, you can shave somebody else, or you can shave yourself. If you just ‘shave’, Croatian treats would such sentences as ambiguous! Croatian requires an object with such verbs.

This is an instance where something is implied in English – if you just shave, it’s implied you do it to yourself – but not in Croatian. (There are few English verbs that have a similar property, e.g. enjoy: you can either enjoy something or yourself – but you have to express always what you enjoy.)

Some verbs like that are:

brijati (brije) shave
buditi waken
oblačiti put on (clothes)
prati (pere) wash
svlačiti take off (clothes)
vraćati return

With verbs brijati (brije) and prati (pere) you can shave someone or wash something (or someone, e.g. a child):

Ana pereprati majicu.  ▶  Ana is washing a shirt.

Ana pereprati lice.  ▶  Ana is washing her face.

(Notice it’s just lice face: it’s always implied that a body part belongs to the subject.)

However, if you shave or wash yourself, you must use a special word – the ‘particle’ se. With these two verbs, it means ‘him/herself’:

Ana se pereprati.  ▶  Ana is washing ‘herself’.

Brijembrijati se.  ▶  I’m shaving.

Instead of gender specific himself and herself, Croatian has only one word: se. However, the word a bit special, as it cannot be freely moved around, it must be the second word in a sentence, if possible! There are more words like that in Croatian. I will mark them with a small 2 (²), to indicate their strange behavior (e.g. se²). This mark is similar to another mark I’ve already introduced:

¨ — glued to the following word
² — fixed to a position in a sentence

Such second-position words are usually pronounced together with the word preceding it – there’s no pause between Ana and se² in the example above — but are always considered separate words and spelled as separate words.®

Sometimes two words are counted as ‘one unit’ and occupy the first position together. One example is ne¨ + verb:

Ne brijembrijati¹ se². I’m not shaving.

This applies to all words preceded by a word ‘glued’ to it (e.g. u¨, na¨) – they together count as ‘one unit’. (Words marked with ¨ have a fancy name – proclitics, and ones marked with ² are also called enclitics.)

This can also happen if you have two words that are frequently used together, e.g. skoro nikad almost never – they together occupy the first position:

Skoro nikad¹ se² ne brijembrijati. I almost never shave.

However, you will see sometimes that even such groups are split. Such ‘strict placement’ occurs mainly in formal writing and formal speech (e.g. on the news service of the public TV and radio):

Skoro¹ se² nikad ne brijembrijati. (seen sometimes in writing)

Similar verbs are oblačiti and svlačiti. They correspond to two verbs in English. First, you can either put on (or off) something:

Ana oblači majicu. Ana is putting a shirt on.

However, when these verbs get a person (or an animal, Croatian treats them more or less always in the same manner) as their object, they get mean dressing (or undressing) someone:

Ana oblači Gorana. Ana is dressing Goran.

Finally, if you want to express that Ana is dressing herself, you must use a se², as she does it on her own, to herself, not to anyone else:

Ana se oblači. Ana is dressing.

The verb buditi is usually translated as wake (up), but it does not have a meaning be awake, only stop sleeping. You can wake someone up, and in Croatian it sounds like this:

Ana budi Gorana. Ana is waking Goran up.

But if wake up on your own, you must use a se²:

Ana se budi.  ▶  Ana is waking up.

Finally, the verb vraćati means that you either return something, or you return yourself, i.e. come back. You must use a se² for the second meaning:

Ana vraća knjigu. Ana returning a book.

Ana se vraća. Ana is coming back.

Next, there are some verbs that must be used with an object, but when used with a se², their meaning shifts a bit. Often used ones are:

zabavljati entertain zvati (zove) call

When they are used with people as objects, they have the meanings I listed above:

Ana zabavlja Gorana. Ana is entertaining Goran.

Zovemzvati Ivana. I’m calling Ivan.

But with a se², their meaning changes:

Ana se zabavlja. Ana is having fun.

Zovemzvati se Goran. ‘I call myself Goran.’ = My name is Goran.

The second sentence, zvati (zove) + se² is the normal way to say in Croatian what your name is. Please pay attention that the name is in nominative, no changes to it are made. If you know some French, Italian or Spanish, such sentences should be very familiar to you:

(French)Il s’appelle Goran.      literally:
‘He calls himself Goran.’
(Italian)Lui si chiama Goran.
(Spanish)Él se llama Goran.
On se zovezvati Goran.

In all four languages, the verbs themselves mean call, but the meaning shifts when they’re used with the so-called ‘reflexive’ pronoun (underlined in the examples above). (Also, Spanish has the verb divertir that’s very similar to zabavljati.) Unfortunately, English doesn’t use this pattern at all.

We can list these meanings in a nice table:

verb used with meaning
čitati (A) read
prati (pere) A wash
zabavljati A entertain
se² have fun
zvati (zove) A call
se² + N ... name is ...

The first verb has a non-mandatory object; the second one mandatory, and the last two shift meaning.

Actually, if you consider again the verb return, there was also a small change in meaning: it’s not the same to return something and to come back! There are more such verbs where the meaning changes when they are used without an object. Consider the following:

(1) Goran opens the window.

(2) The window opens.

In the sentence #1, Goran does something to the window:

Goran otvara prozor. Goran opens the window.

In the sentence #2, the meaning is completely shifted, as if the window were a subject that ‘does’ something. For all similar verbs (e.g. break, warm, close etc.) you have to use a se² in the sentences of the second type. Many languages use a very similar construction – but not English! Just compare these sentences:

(French)La fenêtre s’ouvre.      The window opens.
(German)Das Fenster öffnet sich.  
(Spanish)La ventana se abre.
(Swedish)Fönstret öppnar sig.
 Prozor se otvara.

(French se gets fused with the following word if it starts with a vowel.) So if you know any of these languages, this will be familiar to you (and the particle having s in all these languages is, of course, not a coincidence).

Another common example:

Ana is cooking the soup.

The soup is cooking, the meat is roasting.

Again, in the second sentence, obviously the soup is not standing by the stove: English verbs here are used in the alternative meaning. When these sentences are translated to Croatian, the se² is mandatory:

Ana kuha juhu. ®

Juha se kuha, meso se pečepeći.

(After a comma in Croatian, word-counting restarts: both se²’s are in the second position.)

This use of se² is common when the action described in a sentence is not performed by the subject (e.g. juha above) but by someone else, or just happens "on its own" (e.g. somebody just left the soup to cook). (Also, this explains why se² is used when someone wakes up on their own.)

This can be summed up as a simple rule: if in English meaning of a verb shifts when used without an object, when you use the verb without an object in Croatian, you have to use a se².

If you know any Spanish, everything so far most likely sounded very familiar to you. There are three important differences, though: while in Spanish the ‘reflexive’ pronoun can be either me, te or se, in Croatian it’s always se².

The second difference is that se² must go to a fixed place in a sentence in Croatian.

The third difference is that in Spanish, the ‘reflexive’ pronoun is often spelled with the verb when it appears after it (e.g. lavarse = ‘wash themselves’), the same holds in Italian (e.g. lavarsi) and some other languages. However, the se² is always a separate word in Croatian.

These are the basics of se². More details will be explained gradually.

Finally, there’s a rather strange verb that must use an object or a se²:

igrati play

You can use it with nouns (as objects, of course, put to accusative) meaning games (or sports):

košarka basketball
nogomet football (soccer) ®
šah chess
tenis tennis

For example:

Ana igra šah. Ana plays chess.

Ivan igra košarku. Ivan plays basketball.

However, if someone does not play some sport, or a game, but plays on their own (e.g. with toys...) you must use a se²:

Goran se igra. Goran is playing.

The verb igrati is not used for "playing" musical instruments. For that, another verb is used, svirati. This is the same difference as Spanish jugar vs. tocar.

There are more verbs that use the se². Some of them, like nadati hope have always a se² with them, so they are usually listed as nadati se². Another such verb is smijati (smije) se² laugh ®. You will discover more such verbs as you go.


® You’ll later see an example where Standard Serbian spells some second-position words not as separate words.

Instead of juha, the word supa is used in Serbia, most parts of Bosnia, and in some regions of Croatia as well. Instead of nogomet, the word for football in Serbia and most of Bosnia is futbal.

In the “Ekavian” pronunciation, which completely dominates in Serbia, the verb smijati (smije) se² has the unexpected form smejati (smeje) se²; there are more verbs which behave like that; this alternation is not predictable – such verbs must be learnt by heart, if you want to know both pronunciations.

↓ Something Possibly Interesting (click to show)

↓ Examples (click to show)

↓ Exercise (click to show)

5 Easy Croatian: 07 Verbs with Obligatory Objects →   You can also read this chapter in French , German , Spanish or Finnish . Verbs like č i tati read have an option...

↓ 20 comments (click to show)