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:
- a noun
Tom sold his house.
They drank the beer.
- a pronoun
He sold it.
He kissed her.
- 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.)
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!