73 Teach, Borrow, Succeed: Two-Sided Verbs


There are couple of verbs in Croatian that show a bit bizarre behavior (such behavior is not limited to Croatian and even to related Slavic languages, though).

First, there are verbs that can have two distinct objects in A at the same time. Common verbs and verb pairs with that feature are:

pitati ~ (u-) («) ask
učiti ~* na- («) learn, teach

The perf. verb upitati («) ask is rarely used.

In all such verbs, two objects are clearly distinguished: one object is a person (or animal) and another is not. For example:

Goran je pitao nešto Anu. Goran asked Ana something.

In this sentence, both Ana and nešto something are in A, i.e. objects, but one object is ‘who’, and another ‘what’, so there’s no ambiguity.

Another example:

Ana je učila Gorana plivati. Ana taught Goran to swim.

Here, instead of the second object (‘what’), we have a verb in inf, so it’s clear what is taught.

Now, you’re probably scratching your head: doesn’t učiti mean learn, study? Yes, it does. It has both meanings.

When the verb pair učiti ~ na- («) is used with a single object in A, which is a thing (‘what’), it means learn, study. However, when its object is a person (or animal), then it means teach, and then another object in A (‘what’) can be used to express what is taught. (The second object is not mandatory). The ‘what’ object in both "configurations" can be a verb in inf. Compare:

Ana uči Gorana plivati. Ana is teaching Goran to swim.

Goran uči plivati. Goran is learning to swim.

Therefore, whenever this verb pair gets an object that’s a person (or animal), its meaning shifts!

But what if someone is a teacher, and we want to say e.g. Ivan teaches math? One solution is to express a person-object with some generic word, to shift the verb meaning. For instance, you can hear:

Ivan uči djecu matematiku. Ivan teaches math to children.

(Beware, here the Croatian noun djecu is in A, while English has to, often corresponding to the Croatian DL case.)

We cannot say just Ivan uči matematiku, since it has exactly the opposite meaning, however, we can in principle say (but this sounds quite incomplete to me):

Ivan uči djecu. Ivan teaches children.

Another way is to use a more formal verb pair:

predavati (predaje) ~ predati teach, give lecture

So we can say:

Ivan predaje matematiku. Ivan teaches math.

There are more verbs that have two opposite meanings, depending on other words around them. Common ones are:

iznajmljivati (-uje «) ~ iznajmiti («) rent
posuđivati (-uje «) ~ posuditi («) borrow/lend ®

Both verb pairs have two meanings, depending on the cases used. What is rented/borrowed/lent is always in A. If you add a person (or animal, but also an institution, and so on) in DL, it denotes someone receiving:

Posudio sam kišobran Ani. I’ve lent the umbrella to Ana. {m}

Iznajmili smo im kuću. We’ve rented (out) the house to them. {m/mixed}

However, if you instead of DL use od¨ + G, the meaning shifts, and G represents the source (i.e. the owner):

Ana je posudila kišobran od mene. Ana borrowed the umbrella from me.

Iznajmili su kuću od nas. They’ve rented the house from us.

It’s interesting that English rent shows the same double meaning. If you use the verbs without DL or od¨ + G, the meaning is ambiguous, and depends on the context.

(Standard Croatian insists on using another verb pair in the formal Croatian – unajmljivati (-uje «) ~ unajmiti («) – for the meaning rent something from someone, but it’s less common in real life.)

The Croatian verb pairs for rent and borrow/lend are ‘round-trip’ verbs, that is, they imply that the state of things will be restored after some time. Therefore, they are used with ‘round-trip periods’, that is, preposition na¨ + A:

Iznajmili smo im kuću na dva tjedna. We’ve rented (out) the house to them for two weeks. {m/mixed}

Unlike the verbs above, which shift their meaning according to cases used, there are some verbs (or verb pairs) that use cases in two distinct ways – but there’s not much difference in meaning. The first one is the main way to express success and failure in Croatian:

uspijevati («) ~ uspjeti (uspije, uspio) succeed ®

The impf. verb has the Standard stress shift to the 1st syllable (-ije- is usually one syllable when inside a word), but the perf. verb is pronounced as three syllables in the present tense: us-pi-je, like piti (pije) drink.

Unlike English, this verb takes a verb in inf – or an infinitive clause, i.e. an inf with an object and possibly other words attached – as its object. It can be translated with English succeed or manage:

Uspjeli smo riješiti problem. We succeeded in solving the problem. {m/mixed} ®

Uspjela je otvoriti prozor. She managed to open the window.

Nisam uspio pročitati knjigu. I failed to read the book. {m}

This verb is not used to ‘manage household’ and similar things – only to manage to do something.

Like trebati need/should, this verb pair can be – and often is – used in the ‘reverse’ mode: what is achieved (or not) is the subject (in N), and the person (or animal) who was responsible is optionally expressed in DL. As usual, if the subject is a verb in inf, it behaves like neuter singular, 3rd person:

Uspjelo nam je riješiti problem. We succeeded in solving the problem.

Uspjelo joj je otvoriti prozor. She managed to open the window.

Nije mi uspjelo pročitati knjigu. I failed to read the book.

Note that problem, prozor and knjiga are not the subjects: the subjects are now the verbs in inf: riješiti and so on.

As in other examples when infinitives (with their objects) are actually subjects, they will be highlighted with a blue frame if you place your mouse over an example, or touch it (on touchscreens). Try the examples above!

In this mode, the verb pair is more versatile: the subject can be also a noun: something that you succeeded in making (or failed to make). Now you must observe the gender of subject in the past tense:

Kolač je uspio. The cake turned out fine.

Uspio nam je kolač. We succeeded in making the cake.

Other common verbs that can be used in two ways are:

čuditi wonder, be surprised, marvel
radovati (raduje) look forward to
veseliti (very similar meaning)

They are usually used in a way that what causes emotions is in DL, the person affected is the subject (in N), and a se² must be used:

Radujem se odmoru. I’m looking forward to the vacation.

But these verbs can be used in the ‘inverse’ as well, where the person affected is in A, and what causes emotion is the subject (there’s no se² now):

Raduje me odmor. (the same meaning, less frequent)

This way of using the verb čuditi is often considered non-standard in Croatian; however, it’s very common, especially when the subject – what makes you wonder – is a content clause:

Čudi me [da je nema°]. I am surprised [she’s not here].

Check the Google™ results on the .hr domain, in thousands:

"čudi me da" 47
"čudim se da" 29

When translated to English, čuditi corresponds to several English verbs:

čuditi se² (+ DL) wonder, marvel (at DL)
čuditi (+ A) amaze, surprise

The following verbs can be used in several ways, with different cases:

koristiti use
oduševljavati («) ~ oduševiti («) be/get enthusiastic

The verb koristiti can be used in three ways, and two of them have the same meaning:

koristiti + A (very common, but non-standard)
koristiti se² + I (much less common, but standard)
koristiti² + DL (less common)

Using this verb simply with A is being gradually accepted as standard (i.e. what teachers in schools consider ‘correct’):

Koristim Firefox. I use Firefox.

Koristim se Firefoxom. (the same meaning – standard, but very rare in real life)

(As an excersize, enter first "koristim Firefox" and then "koristim se Firefoxom" into Google™.)

When used with DL, what is useful is the subject, while the person who benefits is in DL (but this is less common):

Koristio mi je tvoj savjet. Your advice was helpful to me. {m}

The other verb pair is used two ways, and the A-N way is much more common than N-se²-I:

Film me je oduševio. The movie amazed me.

Oduševio sam se filmom. {m} (the same meaning, much rarer)

However, the second use of cases with this pair is common without an object in I, in meaning be/become entusiastic:

Oduševila se. She got enthusiastic.

There are other verbs who use cases in this way, some will be introduced later.

Finally, there are two common verbs where the affected person is in either DL or (non-standard) in A. They are:

lagati (laže) lie (tell lies)
smetati be nuisance, disturb, annoy

For example, this is both common and standard in Croatian:

Kamenčić smeta Ani. A pebble annoys Ana.

But you will occasionally see A used instead of DL with these two verbs.


® In Serbia, and often in Bosnia, pozajmljivati (-uje «) ~ pozajmiti («) is used in meaning borrow/lend.

“Ekavian” forms, which dominate in Serbia, apply to the perf. verb uspjeti, in the same way as for razumjeti (razumije,...) understand: its “Ekavian” form is uspeti, the verb is fully regular, but the pres-3pl is uspeju.

In Serbia, infinitives are less often used in speech (and they get rarer more you go southeast), the form da + present prevails. In Serbia, it would be much more common to say:

Uspeli smo da rešimo problem. We succeeded in solving the problem. {m/mixed}

Uspela je da otvori prozor. She managed to open the window.

. . .

Nastavio sam da čitam. I continued reading. {m}

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5 Easy Croatian: 73 Teach, Borrow, Succeed: Two-Sided Verbs N A  DL  G 24 I V There are couple of verbs in Croatian that show a bit bizarre behavior (such behavior is not limited to Croa...

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