Transitive and intransitive verbs
Knowing about transitivity can help you to write more clearly. A transitive verb should be close to the direct object for a sentence to make sense.
A verb is transitive when the action of the verb passes from the subject to the direct object. Intransitive verbs don’t need an object to make sense – they have meaning on their own.
The Macquarie dictionary defines ‘transition’ as the ‘passage from one position, state, stage, etc., to another’.
Transition is a useful and important concept in many fields. Linguists, for example, mark transition points in the development of languages. They identify the Great Vowel Shift – a major change in vowel sound – as an important transition point from Middle English to Early Modern English.1
According to the Oxford English dictionary, transition once meant what we now call the ‘transitive’ relation between a verb and object in a sentence. Transition no longer has this meaning in Modern English. These days, grammarians refer to ‘transitivity’ or ‘transitiveness’ – nouns which mean the fact of a verb being ‘transitive’ or ‘intransitive’.
Here’s what transitive and intransitive mean. And yes, like transition, it’s all about passage.
The action of the verb passes from the subject to the direct object. To make sense, the verb needs the direct object. In grammar-speak: transitive verbs ‘take’ a direct object.
- The director buys his lunch.
The action (buys) passes from the subject (the director) to the direct object (his lunch).
In this sentence, ‘buys’ is a transitive verb.
Intransitive verbs don’t need an object to make sense – they have meaning on their own.
Intransitive verbs don’t take a direct object. Instead, intransitive verbs might have an adverb or adverbial phrase that completes their meaning.
- The chaplain reads.
- The chaplain reads quickly.
- The chaplain reads in the garden.
The adverbial phrase ‘in the garden’ starts with the preposition ‘in’, so is usually known as a ‘prepositional phrase’.
The action (reads) doesn’t pass from the subject (the chaplain) to anything. Instead, the adverb (quickly) and prepositional phrase (in the garden) complement the verb (reads).
In these sentences, ‘reads’ is an intransitive verb.
Verbs can be transitive or intransitive – or both
Some verbs are mostly transitive because, in their usual sense, they only have meaning with a direct object. Other verbs are mostly intransitive because they don’t take a direct object.
Many verbs can be both transitive and intransitive. It really depends on the sentence. For example, the verb ‘reads’ is intransitive in the examples above, but it can also be transitive.
- Samuel borrowed the mower. [The verb ‘borrow’ is mostly transitive.]
- The attendees arrived by taxi. [The verb ‘arrive’ is mostly intransitive.]
- The chaplain reads the lesson. [The verb ‘reads’ is transitive in this sentence.]
Why you should know about transitivity
Does transitivity matter? Yes, because many verbs have a different meaning when they are transitive and intransitive.
- Nadira ran the company. [Transitive]
- Nadira ran to hide. [Intransitive]
Knowing about transitivity also helps you to write more clearly. It tells you that a transitive verb should be close to the direct object for a sentence to make sense.
And here’s another reason transitivity matters. When you check a dictionary for the different meanings of a verb, you might find entries starting with ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’, ‘tr.’ and ‘intr.’, or ‘(t)’ and ‘(i)’. Now you’ll know what this means.
I predict that the grammarians among you are now groaning with frustration. You know that I’ve left out more about transitivity than I’ve covered. And you can probably think of many exceptions to the examples. Space is limited, so I’ve kept it simple.
The Style Manual writes about transitive verbs and intransitive verbs on the ‘Verbs’ page. For advice on writing good sentences, go to ‘Sentences and ‘Parts of sentences’.
1 T McArthur, J Lam-McArthur, L Fontaine (eds), ‘Great Vowel Shift’ [paywall], The Oxford Companion to the English language, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, 2018, accessed 24 February 2022.