Transitive vs Intransitive Verbs

Difference Between Transitive & Intransitive Verbs

In English, the distinction between TransitiveOpens in new window and IntransitiveOpens in new window verbs is widely recognized.

The only trouble with the terms is that it is easy to forget which is which. It may help to know that the term transitive is derived from the Latin preposition trans, which means “across.” Trans also appears in the English words transportation and transit.

  • A transitive verb “goes across” to its object. In other words, a transitive verb controls or “takes” an object.
  • An intransitive verb does not “go across” because it does not have any object to go to.

For example, compare the following sentences:

Transitive
  • The cat killed the birds.
Intransitive
  • The birds died.

The verb kill is a transitive verb that requires an object (See ObjectOpens in new window). That is, when we kill, we have to kill something. Leaving off the object would make the transitive verb kill ungrammatical (in the way that the verb is normally used):

  • Χ The cat killed ….
    →This sentence is ungramatical because the verb kill is a transitive verb that requires an object to convey complete sense.
  • √ The birds died.
    →This sentence is gramatically sound because the verb die is an intransitive verb that does not take an object.

As this pair of examples shows, transitive verbs typically describe what a subject is doing to an object (killing it in the case of our example), while intransitive verbs typically describe what is happening to the subject (dying in the case of our example).

Here are some examples of transitive verbs (in bold, objects in italics) to survey:

  • John met Mary.
  • Leon washed his new car.
  • Lois washed her check.
  • The children saw us.

When you look up a verb in the dictionary, you will find the following symbols right after the entry: vt or vi. The vt stands for transitive verb; the vi stands for intransitive verb.

Here are some examples of intransitive verbs (in bold) to survey:

  • Sam snores.
  • Sally sneezed.
  • The children snickered.
  • All of the flowers wilted in the sun.

Notice the last example. In the sun is an optional adverb prepositional phrase. Because in the sun is not required by the verb to make a complete sentence, it cannot be a complement. Intransitive verbs can be followed by any number of optional adverbs.

It is striking that most verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively. If a verb is used both ways, the dictionary will give all the definitions for the most common use first (either vi or vt) and then give a second set of definitions associated with the other use.