Understanding transitive and intransitive verbs

Why do we need to understand transitive vs. intransitive?

Knowing if a verb is transitive or intransitive helps learners to use words correctly and improves grammar accuracy.

To understand what transitive and intransitive verbs are, it’s first necessary to understand what the object of a verb is.

Take a look at these two simple sentences:

  • My mother likes tea.
  • My mother laughed.

‘My mother’ is the subject in both sentences. In the first sentence ‘like’ is the verb and ‘tea’ is its object. ‘Like’ is therefore a transitive verb, because it has an object.

In the second sentence, the verb is ‘laugh’. It has no object and is therefore an intransitive verb.

So, we have the following definitions:

  • a transitive verb has an object
  • an intransitive verb has NO object.

Now let’s go into more detail about transitive and intransitive verbs by looking at what can follow them in a sentence.

Transitive verbs (and what follows them)

When a verb is transitive it always has an object. It is incorrect to use a transitive verb without an object.

The object of a transitive verb can be:

  1. a noun
    Tom sold his house.
    They drank the beer.
  2. a pronoun
    He sold it.
    He kissed her.
  3. a clause
    He asked his friend to help him.
    She knows where I live.

Transitive verbs with two objects

Some transitive verbs, such as ‘lend’, ‘give’ and ‘buy’ can have two objects. In the sentence I brought her some wine both ‘her’ and ‘wine’ are objects. Here are three more examples:

  • He gave his wife a birthday present. (‘his wife’ and ‘a birthday present’ are the objects)
  • They cooked their friends a meal. (‘their friends’ and ‘a meal’ are the objects)
  • Mary poured him a glass of wine. (‘him’ and ‘a glass of wine’ are the objects)

Intransitive verbs (and what sometimes follows them)

When a verb is intransitive it never has an object:

  • The man appeared.  (intransitive verb = ‘appear’)
  • I sneezed.  (intransitive verb = ‘sneeze’)
  • My uncle has just died.  (intransitive verb = ‘die’)
  • The bomb exploded.  (intransitive verb = ‘explode’)
  • The match ended.  (intransitive verb = ‘end’)

However, some intransitive verbs can be followed by a prepositional phrase or an adverb:

  • I fell off my bike.  (prepositional phrase = ‘off my bike’)
  • The ball rolled away.  (adverb = ‘away’)

A few intransitive verbs must be followed by something (either a prepositional phrase or an adverb). These are often verbs for describing movement:

  • The plane spiralled out of control.  NOT only The plane spiralled.
  • The rocket hurtled towards the planet.  NOT only The rocket hurtled.
    (Although intransitive, the verbs ‘spiral’ and ‘hurtle’ need to be followed by something. They cannot be used alone.)
Tip

You can recognise an intransitive verb because it never has a passive form. For example, you’ll see that ‘bite’, which is transitive, can be used passively. The intransitive verb ‘fall’, however, cannot:

  • The dog bit me.  (active)
  • I was bitten by the dog.  (passive)
  • I fell off my bike.  (active)
  • The bike was fallen off.  (passive)

There are some transitive verbs which cannot be made passive —the verb ‘afford’, for example—but there are very few of these.

Both transitive AND intransitive

Some verbs have multiple meanings and can be transitive or intransitive, depending on the sense in which they are used. Here are some examples:

  • grow (transitive, ‘to produce food’) He grows his own fruit and vegetables.
  • grow (intransitive, ‘to increase in size’) My son is growing.
  • ring (transitive, ‘to call someone’) I rang her yesterday.
  • ring (intransitive, ‘to sound, make a noise’) The doorbell rang.

Transitive/intransitive verbs in dictionaries

A good Advanced Learner’s English-English dictionary will always tell you whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. You may see them marked [T] and [I].

By understanding what transitive and intransitive verbs are, you will get the most out of your dictionary and become a more versatile speaker with a wider range of vocabulary and improved grammar accuracy.

If you found this article helpful, please share it with friends and colleagues. Thanks!

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.

27 Comments

  1. Homa Khalid - April 21, 2012, 6:23 am Reply

    Dear Stuart,

    Transitive and intransitive verb was very clear has been showed . It was very useful . Look to hear more from you. Thank you very much.

    Best Wishes

    Architect Homa Khalid
    From Afghaniostan

    • Stuart Cook - April 22, 2012, 7:12 pm Reply

      Thanks, Homa. I’m glad you liked the article.

    • Emile Zola - June 9, 2013, 10:57 pm Reply

      I totally disagree. A verb can’t be both. You can’t change grammar to fit your knowledge.. Growing is not a verb, per se, but a gerund and as such, it’s not verb, but a noun or ” The term gerundive is occasionally used in descriptions of English grammar, to denote the present participle used adjectivally or adverbially.”
      eat, as you should know, is transitive because the action of the verb falls into another word. Eating can’t be intransitive because is not a verb, but a gerund.

      • Stuart Cook - June 17, 2013, 7:55 pm Reply

        I’m sorry, Emile, but in the sentence ‘My son is growing’ in the article above, ‘growing’ is a verb. To be precise, it’s the present participle of the verb ‘grow’.

        • Emile Zola - June 18, 2013, 12:04 am Reply

          Stuart, I already knew your position, but the last part of my reply was from somebody else that disagreed with you also. It didn’t look like a cut and paste, but it was.
          Growing can take the place of noun and in that instance, the fact remains that in this case, is not a verb per se. Since it is obvious that we can’t agree, I would like to ask you, to please analyze this sentence that I hear all the time by journalists with degree, possilby in English, stating: “Let’s take a listen.” Is this phrase correct? If so, why and if not why not. Many people in CNN, NBC, CBS, et al, said it all the time. Thanks for your time.

          • Stuart Cook - June 18, 2013, 7:08 am Reply

            “Let’s take a listen.”
            It’s grammatical so there’s nothing wrong with it in that sense: ‘listen’ is used as a noun, as in ‘take a look’. I guess the problem people have with it is that it is somewhat hackneyed and redundant – it says nothing that ‘Let’s listen’ doesn’t say.

  2. Victor Rafael - April 22, 2012, 10:34 pm Reply

    there is wonderfull to improve the gramatical aspects in some topic leakness…

  3. RICHA - April 28, 2012, 12:00 pm Reply

    It is going to be very helpful. Terms are explained in a very simple language and easy t understand.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Regards

  4. Mustapha - May 6, 2012, 5:22 am Reply

    All the details are well presented and clearly explained.
    Good Job!! I like it 🙂

  5. Peta - December 20, 2012, 12:26 am Reply

    Halleluja! Finally the mystery of why intransitive verb ‘object-like’ phrases following them. Thank you so much!

  6. Bela - December 26, 2012, 12:30 pm Reply

    pLEASE CAN YOU HELP ME? i AM A TUITION TEACHER.
    CONFUSED WITH THESE 2 SENTENSES:

    1) My mother is cooking dinner.. (Is this transitive or intransitive?)

    2). The teacher helped me in my work. (teansitive or intransitive?0
    Please help

    • Stuart Cook - December 26, 2012, 6:08 pm Reply

      The verbs ‘cook’ and’ help’ are transitive: they can have an object.

      • novi - February 18, 2017, 4:25 pm Reply

        can i say ‘my mother is cooking’ only? then ‘cooking’ is also intransitive?

        • Stuart Cook - February 28, 2017, 1:16 pm Reply

          Yes, in that sense it is intransitive.

  7. Anastasia - April 14, 2013, 6:31 am Reply

    Thank you for the article. Information was very useful for me as for the first year russian student of linguistics.

  8. Myra - March 10, 2014, 7:50 pm Reply

    Having problem with a few questions with my daughter she’s a Senior in high school and she has an Online Sen. English class that we just cant seen to pass

  9. Alfonso - April 6, 2014, 9:29 pm Reply

    Thank you very much for the article. It was very clear. I have been in touch with grammar for a while. However, I ´m not able to convey this information with my students and that they take advantage of it.

  10. dm - August 21, 2014, 5:34 pm Reply

    your article was very useful. and i have a question ,’listen’ is a intransitive verb.but why is the word ‘listen’ used in passive sentences with preposition ‘to’ (e.g. *’she is never listened to……’ *i don’t like to be shouted at….)are these sentences correct ?and what’s the theory of this ?

    • Stuart Cook - August 26, 2014, 12:30 pm Reply

      Yes, those sentences are correct. ‘Listen’ and ‘shout’ (in your example) need a preposition if they are followed by an object. We can’t listen something or shout someone; we listen to something or shout at someone.
      When we make the sentence passive we still need to include the preposition.

  11. Alvin - November 18, 2015, 3:50 pm Reply

    Im a grammar teacher im confused with this sentence which one is transitive verb or intransitive verb. 1) They slept in the park. 2) My mother does not drink tea. She always keep her money in a purse.

    • Anonymous - January 19, 2016, 12:20 am Reply

      You ask yourself WHAT and WHO after a verb to determine if there is a direct receiver of the action (Direct Object)
      To answer your question, slept is intransitive verb while drink and keep are both transitive verbs.

  12. Clawdeen - March 13, 2016, 12:36 pm Reply

    Thank you stuart for helping me understand this will be helpful for my exam 🙂

  13. Anonymous - May 30, 2016, 2:45 am Reply

    a verb used in an intransitive sentence cannot be used in a transitive one. It is right or wrong? and why?

  14. Anonymous - November 14, 2016, 2:52 am Reply

    Many of the apples fell from the tree during the storm.
    Is the sentence a transitive verb or
    Intransitive verb.
    Please help me with my homework.

    • Anonymous - January 17, 2017, 9:04 pm Reply

      intransitive

  15. Yalda - April 1, 2017, 4:43 pm Reply

    Thanks a lot Mr. Cook . Your article was very benifitial for me. While my teacher explained this subject at university, he just made me more confused about it. But after finding your website and reading the information, I felt relaxed . God bless you.

  16. Muhammad Irfan Abbasi - April 5, 2017, 9:26 am Reply

    Dear Emile. as far as my knowledge is concern “Eating” and “growing” both can be used as gerund and verb also. Correct me if I’m wrong please.

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