What Are Transitive Verbs? (with Examples)
Transitive VerbA transitive verb is a verb that can take a direct object. In other words, the action of a transitive verb is done to someone or something. Most verbs are transitive.
A transitive verb contrasts with an intransitive verb, which is a verb that does not take a direct object. In other words, it is not done to someone or something. It only involves the subject.
Easy Examples of Transitive VerbsIn the examples below, the transitive verb is highlighted and the direct object (i.e., the thing being acted upon) is in bold.
- Lee eats pies. (Eats is transitive because you can eat something.)
- Lee loves mince pies. (Loves is transitive because you can love something. Note that direct objects aren't usually single words. They're usually noun phrases, i.e., more than one word.)
- Lee bought dozens of cakes. (Bought is transitive because you can buy something.)
Easy Examples of Intransitive VerbsAs transitive verbs contrast with intransitive verbs, let's look at some intransitive ones. In the examples below, each intransitive verb is shaded. Remember that an intransitive verb can't have a direct object, so none of the text is in bold.
- He fainted. (Fainted is an intransitive verb. It has no direct object. You cannot faint something; e.g., you cannot say "He fainted her.")
- A vulture soared effortlessly overhead. (Soared is an intransitive verb. It has no direct object. You cannot soar something; e.g., you cannot say "The vulture soared the air."
- The sharks are congregating near the raft. (Are congregating is an intransitive verb. It has no direct object. However, you can congregate something; e.g., you can say "The whales are congregating the seals." So, some verbs can be both intransitive and transitive. There's more on this to come.)
More Examples of Transitive VerbsTo find the direct object of a transitive verb, find the verb and ask "what?" or "whom?". If this question seems nonsensical, you're probably dealing with an intransitive verb.
- All the toys opened their eyes as the clock struck midnight. (Q: Opened what? A: their eyes)
(Q: Struck what? A: midnight)
(A direct object does not have to be something tangible. If it answers the question "what?" or "whom?" in relation to a verb, then it's a direct object. Midnight is intangible, but it's a perfectly good direct object for the verb to strike.)
- No amount of time can erase the memory of a good cat, and no amount of masking tape can ever totally remove his fur from your couch. (Author Leo Buscaglia)
- You can't get eight cats to pull a sled through snow. (TV producer Jeff Valdez) (Q: Can't get what? A: eight cats to pull a sled through snow)
- I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven't got the guts to bite people themselves. (Q: Loathe what? A: people who keep dogs)
(Q: Haven't got what? A: the guts to bite people)
(If you look at just the two direct objects in this example (i.e., the texts in bold), there's a transitive verb in each one. Q: Keep what? A: dogs; Q: To bite what? A: people)
More Examples of Intransitive VerbsHere are some examples of intransitive verbs (shaded).
- Laugh and the world laughs with you; snore and you sleep alone. (Writer Anthony Burgess) (These are all intransitive verbs. You can't laugh something, snore something or sleep something.)
- If the context changes, your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness. (Cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle) (These are both intransitive verbs. You can't emerge something, but, hang on, you can change something, e.g., your socks or hairstyle. So, to change is an example of a verb that can be transitive or intransitive.)
- If the context changes, your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness. (Q: Changes what? A: Well, nothing...it just changes. That's what your answer will look like when you're dealing with an intransitive verb.)
- If you change the context, your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness. (Q: Changes what? A: the context. Now, to change is transitive!)
- I could feel his muscle tissues crumple under my force. It's ludicrous these mortals even attempt to enter my realm. (Boxer Mike Tyson) (Q: Crumple what? A: Nothing...just crumple. Intransitive.)
- I could crumple his muscle tissues with my force. (Q: Crumple what? A: his muscle tissues. Transitive.)
Be Mindful of Linking VerbsHere's something to watch out for. The "what test" to determine whether a verb is transitive or intransitive doesn't work with linking verbs (e.g., to be, to appear, to seem).
- Laziness appears attractive, but work gives satisfaction. (Diarist Anne Frank) (Q: Appears what? A: attractive. We have an answer to the "what test," but to appear is not a transitive verb. It's an intransitive linking verb.)
Some Verbs Can Be Transitive or IntransitiveAs we touched upon with to change and to crumple in the examples above, some verbs can be transitive or intransitive. Here's a list of common verbs that can be transitive or intransitive with examples.
|Verb||Transitive and Intransitive Example|
|to agree||She agreed my terms. (Transitive)|
She agreed yesterday. (Intransitive)
|to play||She will play the hornpipe. (Transitive)|
She will play tonight. (Intransitive)
|to run||I ran the show. (Transitive)|
I ran. (Intransitive)
|to walk||She is walking the dog. (Transitive)|
She is walking there. (Intransitive)
|to eat||Let's eat pie. (Transitive)|
Let's eat. (Intransitive)
|to demonstrate||She demonstrated her skills. (Transitive)|
She demonstrated. (Intransitive)
|to sit||I sat her on my lap. (Transitive)|
I sat near the window. (Intransitive)
|to stand||I stood the pole under the sheet. (Transitive)|
I stood for hours. (Intransitive)
More about Transitive VerbsOnly transitive verbs can have a passive form. For example:
- The tart was smashed. (This is fine. A transitive verb can have a passive form.)
- The megalodon was existed about 2 million years ago. (This is nonsense. An intransitive verb cannot have a passive form.)
What Does "Transitive" Mean?A transitive verb gets its name from the idea that the action must transition through it to an object in order to complete the meaning.
- Lee caught. (incomplete) (When the action does not transition through the verb to an object, the meaning is incomplete.)
- Lee caught a whelk.
- She gave the waiter a smile. (Here, a smile is the direct object (it answers "gave what?"), and the waiter is the indirect object (it answers "for whom?").)
- He paid her. (This is a transitive verb without a direct object. The meaning is still complete because the action transitions through the verb to an indirect object.)
A Video SummaryHere is a short video summarizing the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.
Why Should I Care about Transitive and Intransitive Verbs?As a native speaker, you'll be brilliant at transitive and intransitive verbs – even if you've never heard of them. Nevertheless, there two noteworthy points related to transitive verbs.
(Point 1) You will encounter this terminology when learning a foreign language in a classroom setting.Understanding the terms transitive and intransitive is useful for discussing verbs, direct objects, and indirect objects when learning foreign languages, and that's probably the best reason to care about them.
(Point 2) Avoid mistakes with to win and to learn.There are a couple of common mistakes associated with the transitivity of verbs to be aware of, but they're pretty basic.
- I won George. (If you use the verb to win transitively, the direct object is your prize. It's not the person you beat. This sentence would be correct if George were a goldfish but not if he were your opponent.)
- He will learn you some manners. (The transitive verb to learn doesn't take an indirect object. You can learn something, but you can't learn someone something in the same way you can teach someone something, give someone something, or pay someone something.)