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Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Definition

English verbs are split into two major categories depending on how they function in a sentence: transitive and intransitive. Transitive verbs take one or more objects in a sentence, while intransitive verbs take no objects in a sentence.

Distinguishing between the two

Transitive Verbs

Put simply, a transitive verb describes an action that is happening to something or someone, which is known as the verb’s direct object. For instance, in the sentence “I am reading a book,” book is the direct object, which the action reading is happening to.
To put it another way, the verb is transitive if a word or words in the sentence answer the question “Who or what did the action of the verb happen to?”

Examples

  • “The people watched the game from the bleachers.” (The game is what the people watched.)
  • “I was eating a delicious steak for dinner last night.” (A delicious steak is what I was eating.)
  • “They met your brother at the airport in Dubai.” (Your brother is who they met.)

Intransitive Verbs

An intransitive verb, on the other hand, describes an action that does not happen to something or someone. For example, in the sentence “I arrived late,” arrived is describing an action, but there is nothing and no one for that action to happen to—the action is complete on its own. The verb is intransitive if we cannot answer the question “Who or what did the action of the verb happen to?”

Examples

  • “I can’t believe our dog ran away.” (What did the dog run away? Nothing, there is no object receiving the action of ran away.)
  • “There was a lot of dust in the air, which made me sneeze.” (What did I sneeze? Nothing, there is no object receiving the action of sneeze.)
  • “Don’t be too loud while the baby sleeps.” (What did the baby sleep? Nothing, there is no object receiving the action of sleeps.)

Intransitive verbs with prepositional phrases

When intransitive verbs are modified by prepositional phrases, they can often look like they are transitive because the preposition has its own object; however, this is not the case. Take, for example, the following sentences:
  • “I can’t believe our dog ran away from home.”
  • “I sneezed from the dust.”
  • “The baby is sleeping in our room.”
It may seem like home, dust and our room are all objects of the verbs in these sentences, but they’re actually objects of the prepositions, which together form prepositional phrases that modify the verbs. The verbs remain intransitive, regardless of the objects in prepositional phrases.

Mnemonic device

One way to remember the difference between the two is to think about their names:
Transitive verbs transition or transfer an action to a person or thing that receives it.
In- means not in this case, so intransitive verbs do not transition/transfer an action to a person or thing that receives it.

“Ambitransitive Verbs”

Some action verbs can be both transitive and intransitive, depending on the context of the sentence or what information the speaker wishes to include. These are sometimes known as ambitransitive or ergative verbs.
For example:
  • “She eats before going to work.” (Intransitive—no direct object receiving the action of the verb eats.)
  • “She eats breakfast before going to work.” (Transitive—has a direct object (breakfast) receiving the action of the verb eats.)
Here are some other examples of verbs that function both transitively and intransitively.
  • “I’ve been trying to read more.” (intransitive)
  • “I’ve been trying to read more novels.” (transitive)
  • “I’m still cooking, so I’m going to be a little late.” (intransitive)
  • “I’m still cooking dinner, so I’m going to be a little late.” (transitive)
  • “I’ve been exercising every day this month.” (intransitive)
  • “I’ve been exercising my arms every day this month.” (transitive)

Monotransitive, Ditransitive, and “Tritransitive” Verbs

As we’ve seen, a transitive verb is by definition a verb that takes an object. Most verbs are monotransitive, meaning they only take one object. However, some verbs, known as ditransitive verbs, can take two objects in a sentence, while others, known as tritransitive verbs, can take (or seem to take) three.

Monotransitive Verbs

A verb that acts upon a single object in a sentence is referred to as monotransitive (mono meaning one). This single object is called its direct object. All of the examples we’ve seen so far have been monotransitive verbs; here’s a few more:
  • “I rode my bike to get here.”
  • “Jim just told a funny joke.”
  • “I’m making lasagna for dinner.”
  • “I heard she’s writing a novel.”

Ditransitive Verbs

There are some verbs in English that take two objects: a direct object and an indirect object. These are known as ditransitive verbs. The direct object relates to the person or thing that directly receives the action of the verb, while the indirect object relates to the person or thing that indirectly receives or benefits from the action as a result.
The indirect object in a ditransitive verb can either come immediately before the direct object in a sentence, or it can form the object of a prepositional phrase using to or for that follows and modifies the direct object.
For example:
  • “He gave Mary a pen.” (The indirect object, Mary immediately follows the direct object, pen.)
or
  • “He gave a pen to Mary.” (The indirect object, Mary, forms the object of the prepositional phrase to Mary, which follows and modifies the direct object, pen.)
Here are some other examples:
  • “She teaches the students mathematics.”
  • “She teaches mathematics to the students.”
  • “I sent my brother a letter.”
  • “I sent a letter to my brother.”
  • “My father baked our class a batch of cupcakes.”
  • “My father baked a batch of cupcakes for our class.”

Factitive Verbs

Factitive verbs are or appear to be ditransitive as well. Instead of having a direct object that impacts on an indirect object, factitive verbs describe a status, category, quality, or result that the direct object is becoming due to the action of the verb. This secondary element can be either an object or object complement of the verb. For example:
  • “The American people elected her the president of the United States.”
  • He was appointed Supreme Court justice.”
  • “The committee selected Mrs. Fuller chairman of the board.”
  • “The group designated Marshall the leader from then on.”
  • “The coach made Linda point guard.”
  • “We painted the ceiling white.”
See the section on factitive verbs to learn more.

“Tritransitive” verbs

An unofficial third type of transitive verb is what’s sometimes known as a tritransitive verb, meaning that it takes three objects. This third “object” is formed from a prepositional phrase or clause that appears to receive the action of the verb by way of the indirect object. For example:
  • “We will make you CEO for $300,000.”
  • “I’d trade you that sandwich for an ice cream cone.”
  • “I bet you 50 bucks (that) our team will win the championship.”
There is some dispute among linguists, however, as to whether these kinds of verbs truly have three objects, or whether the third piece of information is merely considered an adjunct, as the sentence would be grammatically sound without it.
Quiz

1. What do all transitive verbs have that intransitive verbs do not?





2. What kind of verb can be both transitive and intransitive?





3. What kind of verb is in the following sentence?
“I played my grandmother a song.”





4. What kind of verb is in the following sentence?
“I swam for half an hour before my meeting.”





5. What kind of verb only has a direct object?





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