Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Once upon a time (isn’t that how they start stories that happened so long ago that no one could ever prove that they actually did happen?), when I was in school, the words transitive and intransitive verbs scared me when I’d first heard them; I thought that they were going to be too difficult to understand. When my teacher explained them, however, I came to view them as just fancy words made up by someone with a bad sense of humor who wanted to scare little children.

Verbs are either transitive or intransitive. That essentially means that they either need a direct object or they don’t. With a transitive verb, the action (verb) is being done to something else or someone else—a direct object. With an intransitive verb, the action is a state of being, not of doing to something or someone else—so there’s no direct object.

  • He feels the inside wall to find the light switch. Feel is transitive; it is being done to the wall.
  • He feels sick. Feel is intransitive; it isn’t being done to anything but, rather, it is a state of being.
  • They took their client to lunch. Took is transitive; they’re doing the taking to a client.
  • She grew tired. Grew is intransitive; it is her state of being, not of doing something to someone or something else.
  • She grew three cacti last summer. Grew is transitive; it is being done to the cacti.

Knowing whether a verb is transitive or intransitive can be helpful in deciding what form of a pronoun to use in the same sentence. For example, is it She gave the opera tickets to Bill and me or She gave the opera tickets to Bill and I? Transitive verbs take the objective cases, and intransitive verbs take the nominative cases. So, if we know that gave is a transitive verb, then we know that it should be She gave the opera tickets to Bill and me.

Here’s a tip: If you’re having some trouble, you can determine whether a verb is transitive or intransitive by re-writing the sentence in the passive voice and adding a by phrase because only transitive verbs can be written in the passive voice with a by phrase.

  • Three cacti were grown by her last summer.
  • The client was taken to lunch by them.
  • The inside wall was felt by him.

You can’t do that with the intransitive sentences (he felt sick doesn’t make sense as sick was felt by him, and she grew tired doesn’t make sense as tired was grown by her).

For more common grammar errors, refer to Sherry’s Grammar List.


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