Transitive Verbs

by Craig Shrives

What Are Transitive Verbs? (with Examples)

A transitive verb is a verb that acts on something. For example:
  • The dog ate the bone.
  • (The verb "ate" acts on "the bone.")
  • I am singing a song.
  • (The verb "am singing" acts on "a song.")
In these two simple examples, "the bone" and "a song" are called direct objects. So, we can say that a transitive verb is a verb that takes a direct object. In other words, the action of a transitive verb is done to someone or something. Most verbs are transitive.

An intransitive verb, on the other hand, is a verb that does not take a direct object. In other words, it is not done to someone or something. It involves only the subject.
  • The dog barked.
  • (The verb "barked" does not act on anything.)
  • I am sinking.
  • (The verb "am sinking" does not act on anything.)
transitive verb

Easy Examples of Transitive Verbs

In 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 Verbs

As 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 Verbs

To 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)
Transitive verbs are common. They even appear inside the direct objects of other transitive verbs.
  • 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 Verbs

Here 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.)
As we've just seen with to change, determining whether a verb is transitive or intransitive can get tricky because some verbs can be both. It depends on the precise meaning. If the verb only involves the subject, it will be intransitive. Let's look at the example again, putting changes through the test:
  • If the context changes, your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness.
  • (Q: Changes what? A: Well, just changes. That's what your answer will look like when you're dealing with an intransitive verb.)
Let's look at a similar example:
  • If you change the context, your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness.
  • (Q: Changes what? A: the context. Now, to change is transitive!)
Let's do another one:
  • 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.)
Let's create a similar but transitive example:
  • I could crumple his muscle tissues with my force.
  • (Q: Crumple what? A: his muscle tissues. Transitive.)

Be Mindful of Linking Verbs

Here'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.)
Read more about linking verbs.

Some Verbs Can Be Transitive or Intransitive

As 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.
VerbTransitive and Intransitive Example
to agreeShe agreed my terms. (Transitive)
She agreed yesterday. (Intransitive)
to playShe will play the hornpipe. (Transitive)
She will play tonight. (Intransitive)
to runI ran the show. (Transitive)
I ran. (Intransitive)
to walkShe is walking the dog. (Transitive)
She is walking there. (Intransitive)
to eatLet's eat pie. (Transitive)
Let's eat. (Intransitive)
to demonstrateShe demonstrated her skills. (Transitive)
She demonstrated. (Intransitive)
to sitI sat her on my lap. (Transitive)
I sat near the window. (Intransitive)
to standI stood the pole under the sheet. (Transitive)
I stood for hours. (Intransitive)

More about Transitive Verbs

Only transitive verbs can have a passive form. For example:
  • The tart was smashed.
  • (This is fine. A transitive verb can have a passive form.)
You cannot create a passive sentence using an intransitive verb. Let's try to create a passive sentence with the intransitive verb to exist.
  • The megalodon was existed about 2 million years ago. wrong cross
  • (This is nonsense. An intransitive verb cannot have a passive form.)
Read more about intransitive verbs.

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. wrong cross (incomplete)
  • (When the action does not transition through the verb to an object, the meaning is incomplete.)
  • Lee caught a whelk. correct tick
The meaning of a transitive verb doesn't always transition to just a direct object. It's not uncommon for the meaning to transition to an indirect object too. (NB: The indirect object is the recipient of the action.)
  • 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?").)
It doesn't happen too often, but sometimes a transitive verb works with just an indirect object.
  • 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.)
Here is a short video summarizing the difference between 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 are 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. wrong cross
  • (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.)

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