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Feb
01
2019

Grammar and Usage: Transitive vs. Intransitive Verbs

Posted in Grammar and Usage, Wordsmyth Blog by Olivia Smialek

All verbs in English follow one or both of the [VERB + OBJECT] or [VERB + ZERO OBJECT] patterns. These patterns describe the function of “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs.

A transitive verb follows the pattern [VERB + OBJECT], and an intransitive verb follows the pattern [VERB + ZERO OBJECT].

Let’s look at the difference between these two patterns.

Usage

The terms “transitive” and “intransitive” refer to how verbs operate in a sentence. If someone said “I like very much,” most speakers of English would feel that the sentence was missing something. They might think, “Huh?—like WHAT very much??” Unconsciously, English speakers know the verb “like” operates transitively and requires some kind of object to follow it.

In the dictionary, all verb senses are marked as either “transitive” or “intransitive.” Some verbs have only transitive meanings and some have only intransitive meanings. Many verbs have both types.

When we call a verb’s particular meaning “transitive,” we mean it is always followed by a specifically stated direct object.

On the other hand, a sense of a verb labeled “intransitive” is never followed by a stated object.

Examples

For example, look at a simple word like “eat.” When “eat” is a transitive verb, it is always followed by its grammatical object–“toast” or “dinner,” for example.

With a transitive verb, one can always ask a question like “What are you eating?” or “What did you eat?” and get an answer—even if the answer is just “nothing.” Even in the question, there is a stated object–the word “what”–that takes the grammatical place of the specific thing that is eaten.

On the other hand, in the sentence “Don’t talk to him while he’s eating,” the verb “eat” is used intransitively. Nothing following the verb tells us what this person is eating. Of course, he has to be eating something if he’s actually eating, but the verb “eat” can be used intransitively without any statement of what is being consumed. The fact that “eat” can be used either transitively (with a stated object) or intransitively (without a stated object) is an important quality of this particular verb.

Intransitive Verbs with No Objects

Verbs used intransitively often have no object in real life. You can see this in the following examples that use intransitive verbs. (Note that other words can follow an intransitive verb, but no objects–nothing that would answer the question “what” or “whom.”)

Notice, though, that with a change in meaning some of these same verbs can be used transitively:

Focus and Meanings

Let’s look at the verb “eat” again. The actual meaning of the word in the sentence “I’m eating toast” is the same as in the sentence “I’m eating.” There is some activity with food happening in somebody’s mouth.

However, the focus is different. The transitive sentence focuses on both the action of eating and on the toast being eaten. The intransitive sentence focuses only on the action and ignores what’s being consumed.

The intransitive sentence answers questions like “What are you doing?” or “Are you busy?” The transitive sentence more likely answers questions such as “What are you eating?” or “Why do I hear crunching?”

Noting whether a verb follows a transitive pattern [VERB + OBJECT] or an intransitive pattern [VERB + ZERO OBJECT] is important for learners to avoid using a transitive verb without any kind of object (“I like very much”) or using an object directly after an intransitive verb (“I apologized him”). Moreover, intransitive senses of a verb often differ in meaning from transitive senses. Even if the meaning of the verb itself is essentially the same (“eat”), the focus using an intransitive verb differs when the same verb is transitive.

When we show in the dictionary that an essentially transitive verb can be used intransitively (or vice versa), we explicitly show that this change in focus is possible. If there are no intransitive senses included in the dictionary entry for a verb, the verb is not used in that way. Similarly, if there are no transitive senses, it means that the verb is not used transitively.

Comparing Usage

Compare the following examples of the same verb used transitively and intransitively:

Although it’s common practice to speak of “transitive verbs” and “intransitive verbs,” it may be more appropriate to speak of transitive and intransitive senses of individual verbs. As stated earlier, many verbs have both transitive and intransitive senses.

Verbs historically used as transitives can develop new, intransitive senses and vice versa. Verbs are not inherently transitive or intransitive. They have tendencies to be used in certain ways for different meanings.

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Until next time, Happy Wordsmything!