Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

'She smiled beautifully'. 'She started a rumor'. One of these sentences has an intransitive verb and one has a transitive one. Want to know the difference?

Intermediate
"Transitive and Intransitive Verbs" in English Grammar

What Are Transitive and Intransitive Verbs?

Based on whether verbs need an object or not to fully create a meaningful sentence, they are categorized into multiple groups:

Intransitive Verbs

A sentence that has an intransitive verb does not need an object. It is complete with only a subject and a verb.

Karen is sleeping.

'Karen' is the person doing the action which is 'sleeping.' Therefore, the verb 'sleep' is an intransitive verb.

The kid smiled.

'The kid' is the person doing the action of 'smiling.' So, the verb 'smile' is an intransitive one.

Normally, verbs that describe a physical action or some sorts of movement are intransitive verbs.

I was laughing.

Here in the example, 'laughing' is a physical action that is intransitive.

The bus arrived.

Here, 'Arrived' is an action of movement that is intransitive.

Intransitive verbs are often followed by a prepositional phrase or adverbs that give us more information about the verb.

Tip!

Be careful not to confuse the prepositional phrases or adverbs with a direct object.

The bus arrived to the station.

'To the station' is a prepositional phrase that follows an intransitive verb.

Warning

Be careful not to confuse adjuncts with complements.

Transitive Verbs

Using a Transitive Verb in a Sentence

A transitive verb must have an object or a complement in order to convey the full meaning. We have four sorts of transitive verbs in English:

  1. mono-transitive verbs
  2. ditransitive verbs
  3. complex transitive verbs
  4. linking verbs

Mono-transitive Verbs

Mono-transitive verbs are verbs that take a subject and a single direct object. For example:

Karen bit the pizza.

'Karen' is the person doing the action which is 'biting.' 'A pizza' is the direct object, because the subject does an action to it.

He ate the cake.

Here, 'he' is the subject and the direct object is 'the cake.'

Identifying the Direct Object

If you want to identify the direct object in a sentence, you can follow these steps:

  1. step 1: identify the verb
  2. step 2: ask what (or whom?)

If there is an answer to this question, the verb is transitive and if there is no answer to the question, the verb is intransitive. For example:

She ate the pizza.

Find the verb: 'ate.' Ask 'What?' the pizza. So, 'the pizza' is the direct object and 'eat' is a transitive verb.

Melanie is laughing.

Identify the verb 'is laughing.' Ask 'laughing what?' Since there is no answer to this question, the verb 'laughing' is intransitive.

Ditransitive Verbs

Ditransitive verbs are special kinds of transitive verbs. They can take two objects. The second object is called indirect object or secondary object. Here are some of the most common ditransitive verbs:

  • pass
  • give
  • read
  • bake
  • tell
  • show
  • buy

Jake gave Sean a gift.

After identifying the direct object by asking the question 'what?' Jake is giving what? a gift. So 'a gift' is the direct object. The thing or person receiving 'a gift' is 'Sean.' So 'Sean' is the indirect object.

Sam is baking Alex a cake.

After identifying the direct object by asking the question 'what?' Sam is baking what? a cake. So 'a cake' is the direct object. The thing or person receiving 'a cake' is 'Alex.' So 'Alex' is the indirect object.

Ditransitive verbs can further be categorized into three groups:

  • Ditransitive verbs that can be converted to mono-transitive verbs with 'to'

Have you paid him the money? → Have you paid the money to him?

Can you pass me the salt? → Can you pass the salt to me?

  • Ditransitive verbs that can be converted to mono-transitive verbs with 'for'

Will you buy me some candies? → Will you buy some candies for me?

Could you do me a favor? → Could you do a favor for me?

  • Ditransitive verbs that cannot be converted to mono-transitive verbs very well

She asked me several questions.

I struck the gate a heavy blow.

Complex Transitive Verbs

A complex transitive verb (also called a double transitive verb) is a verb that requires both a direct object and another complement in order to have a complete meaning. These verbs can further be categorized into four categories:

  • verbs with a direct object + a noun/phrase/clause

You can call it what you want.

They elected him chairman.

  • verbs with a direct object + an adjective or an adjective complement

He couldn't push the door open.

They set the prisoners free.

  • verbs with a direct object + a prepositional phrase or an adverb

I consider myself above others.

Did you find her inside?

  • verbs with a direct object + a past participle

I couldn't make my voice heard.

The boss wanted the project finished quickly.

Linking Verbs

Technically linking verbs have no object. But they need a complement in order to have a complete meaning. They link the subject to a noun or adjective. Therefore they are transitive verbs because transitive verbs show a link or relation between a subject and an object in a sentence. Intransitive verbs, however, do not show a link in a sentence.

They looked angry.

He became famous.

Ergative Verbs

Some verbs are exclusively transitive or intransitive. But this is not always the case. Ergative verbs (also called labile verbs) are verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive verbs, depending on whether they take a direct object or not.

The car stopped at the traffic lights.

Here, after the verb 'stop' we have a prepositional phrase and NOT a direct object. Therefore, 'stop' is intransitive.

She stopped the car in front of the school.

Here, after the verb 'stop' we have a direct object. Therefore, 'stop' is transitive.

Some of the verbs that can be both a transitive and an intransitive verb are:

  • open
  • sell
  • throw
  • eat
  • walk
  • pour
  • quit

I am quitting.

If 'quit' is intransitive, we can simply use it with a subject.

I am quitting my job.

Here, 'quit' is transitive, because it has a direct object.

Same Meaning or Different Meaning?

Some verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive verbs have the same meaning. Their meaning does not change whether they are transitive or intransitive.

I sold my car.

I wanted to buy their car, but they wouldn't sell.

In both these examples, the verb 'sell' has the same meaning, whether it is transitive (1st example) or is intransitive (2nd example).

But there are verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive verbs with a different meaning. Their meanings change when they are transitive or intransitive.

When the party was over, he left.

Here, 'leave' is intransitive and it means 'to go away from a person or a place.'

The coffee left a stain on my shirt.

Here, 'leave' is transitive and it means 'to make something happen or remain as a result.'

Phrasal Verbs and Transitivity

If a phrasal verb can take a direct object, therefore, it is a transitive phrasal verb. If a phrasal verb cannot take a direct object then it is an intransitive phrasal verb. Remember, taking a direct object does not rely on the proposition that is used after the verb part of a phrasal verb. Check out the examples:

Could you please, stay over? → intransitive

In this example, the answer to the question ''stay over what?" is nothing so we do not have a direct object and a transitive phrasal verb.

He was looking for his keys. → transitive

Here, the answer to the question "looking for what?" is the term 'keys,' so we have a direct object and a transitive phrasal verb.

Tip!

Remember, some phrasal verbs have two different definitions. One refers to a transitive verb that can take a direct object and one refers to an intransitive verb that cannot take a direct object. Check out the examples:

The plane took off at 9 p.m.

The phrasal verb is an intransitive verb, in this example.

Maria took off her socks and put them in the washing machine.

In this example, the term 'her socks' is the direct object for the same phrasal verb with another definition. So, it is a transitive verb.

Separable Transitive Phrasal Verbs

Some transitive phrasal verbs are separable and the direct object can be placed between the main verb and the particles (preposition or adverb). However, if the direct object is a pronoun and not a noun, it is always placed between the main verb and its particle. Check out the examples for more clarification:

✓ They want to blow up the building.

✓ They want to blow the building up.

✓ They want to blow it up.

✗ They want to blow up it.

In this example, the direct object is a pronoun, so, it can not be placed after the transitive phrasal verb.

Review

Verbs are divided into two groups based on their need for an object.

Transitive Verbs Intransitive Verbs Ditransitive Verbs
They need an object They don't need an object They can take two objects.
She ate the pizza. The kid smiled. Jake gave Sean a gift.

By questioning the sentence with what and whom and finding the answers you actually find the direct object of the sentence. For example, "She had a nice car."

  1. What did she have?
  2. The answer is 'a nice car.'
  3. 'A nice car' is the direct object.

Some verbs can actually be both transitive and intransitive with no difference in meaning. But there are also some verbs that can be transitive and intransitive with different meanings.

Same meanings I sold my car. I wanted to buy their car, but they wouldn't sell.
Different meanings When the party was over, he left. The coffee left a stain on my shirt.

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Ditransitive Verbs

Ditransitive verbs are transitive verbs that take two objects. A direct object and an indirect object. Follow the article to read more about them.

Ergative Verbs

Ergative verbs are a type of verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive. In this lesson, we will learn more about this type of verbs.

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