Saturday, July 18, 2009

Learning the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs

Many people, whether native or nonnative speakers of English, reach adulthood without a clear understanding of the transitivity or intransitivity of verbs. I think this is largely because many English verbs can be transitive or intransitive depending on their particular usage in a sentence, thus making it difficult for some people to pin down the difference between the two properties.

Consider the verb “laugh,” for instance. It is intransitive in the sentence “She laughed all the time during the party,” but transitive in “The audience laughed the singer off the stage.” But how do you explain the difference between the intransitive “laugh” of the first sentence and the transitive “laugh” of the second?

The quality of the English-language teaching one gets is, of course, a major factor in learning that difference. Blessed are those taught by English teachers who can clearly and succinctly explain that difference, and accursed are those taught by English teachers who can’t do better than parrot such fuzzy linguist definitions of transitivity and intransitivity like the one below or elaborate on them in similar slippery language:

“A transitive verb is one that describes a relation between two participants such that one of the participants acts toward or upon the other. An intransitive verb is one that describes a property, state or situation involving only one participant.”

This state of affairs prompted me a few years ago to write the essay below, “Dealing with Various Levels of Intransitivity,” to shed some light on this rather challenging and often exasperating aspect of English. I hope that this reading will be of some help to those who still find themselves wanting in their understanding of the subject.

Dealing with Various Levels of Intransitivity

When we were children and just beginning to learn our English grammar, many of us no doubt were taken aback by the strange failure of some verbs to work in certain sentence constructions. For instance, perhaps while watching a magician perform in the circus, we might have exclaimed “He gone the rabbit!” and promptly got told off by our parents for our bad grammar. When we probably corrected ourselves by saying “OK, he disappeared the rabbit!” (the way we’d say “Teacher dismissed the class early” without being censured), again we’d be chastised for yet another grammatical gaffe. Then, when the magician finally made the rabbit reappear, we might have confidently said “Now he appeared it again!”—sure this time that by using “appeared” (as in the case of “missed” in “I missed class today”), we could no longer be possibly wrong. But as we might have learned to expect, such a sentence construction was unacceptable, too!

So, we might have asked in exasperation, what seemed to be the matter with such verbs? Why couldn’t “gone,” “disappear,” and “appear” behave like the good, old verbs we knew—verbs like “scare,” “build,” “fix,” and “receive”? Like “missed” above, didn’t these verbs work perfectly in such sentences as “He scared the rabbit,” “Daddy built a tree house,” “My brother fixed my bike,” and “My sister received a love letter”?

Such were the puzzling dilemmas posed by our first encounters with verbs that don’t possess “transitivity,” or the ability to pass on their action to something that can receive it. As we would learn later, of course, “gone,” “disappear,” and “appear” are intransitive verbs, or the kind that simply can’t pass on their action to anything in the sentence. Because they don’t have the power to transmit their action to a so-called direct object, such verbs generally dissipate that action in themselves. When acting as stand-alone verbs, in particular, “gone,” “disappear,” and “appear” can only function in such objectless constructions as these: “The rabbit goes missing.” “The moon disappeared.” “The freckles appeared.” Such verbs absolutely would not admit any takers of their action, even if we put in many more words or phrases to the sentence.

As all of us already know, of course, it’s an altogether different matter when a verb is of the transitive kind. This time, for the sentence to work properly, it needs to provide an object to directly receive the verb’s action. The basic requirement of transitivity, in fact, is that the subject of the sentence—drawing power from the verb—must be able to act on this direct object.

Verbs that require only a direct object to work properly are what some linguists label “one-place transitives,” as the verbs in these sentences: “The woman received the letter.” “Typhoons damage infrastructure.” “The professor delivered the lecture.” When we drop the direct objects “letter,” “infrastructure,” and “lecture,” so that nothing receives the action of the verb anymore, all the three one-place transitive sentences become nonsensical: “The woman received.” “Typhoons damage.” “The professor delivered.” No direct object, no sentence.

We also know, of course, that some transitive verbs not only require a direct object but may also take an indirect object, or a grammatical entity that represents a secondary goal of the verb’s action. Such a verb is the so-called “Vg two-place transitive,” or short for the linguistic label “two-place transitive like give” (the “g” in “Vg” stands for “give). In this verb type, the verb first acts on the direct object and transmits the result of the action to the indirect object, as in these sentences: “He buys her diamonds.” “She brings him apples.” “They served Joanna breakfast.” The indirect objects in these sentences are the pronouns “her,” “him,” and “Joanna,” while the direct objects are “diamonds,” “apples,” and “breakfast.” But the indirect objects are optional in such sentences, which will work perfectly even with only the direct objects around.

The third and last type of transitive verbs carries the “Vc two-place transitive” label, which is short for “two-place transitive like consider” (the “c” in “Vc” stands for “consider”). In such verbs, the action of the verb actually takes place within the subject or doer of the action, or is done to the subject itself, then is transmitted to the direct object: “They considered the rebellion a lost cause.” “Factual errors like this make the editors extremely suspicious.” “The beauty queen’s detractors believe her victory to be a fluke.”

In “Vc two-place transitive” constructions, the verb is followed by a noun phrase working as direct object, onto which must be attached an obligatory complement such as another noun phrase, adjective phrase, or infinitive phrase. These complements, however, unlike the indirect objects of “Vg two-place transitives,” don’t function as indirect objects but modify the direct object instead.

From Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

What do you think of my ideas in this essay? Let me know your thoughts by posting them below.


  1. I was taught of only one foolproof way on this subject in grade school: words ending in -ly sets intransitive verbs apart.

  2. I’m positive that either your grade-school teacher mistook intransitive verbs for adverbs in teaching these parts of speech (in which case a lot of pupils in that class must have absorbed that wrong notion and carried it in their heads for God knows how long until someone corrected it for them), or you simply misunderstood what your teacher taught in class and have had that wrong notion ever since. For definitely, that idea is flat-out wrong. The “-ly” word ending couldn’t be a foolproof way to distinguish intransitive verbs from transitive verbs; in fact, “-ly” is not a characteristic ending of verbs but of adverbs (“tenderly,” “rapidly,” “slowly,” “precariously,” “passively”) and, in much fewer cases, also of adjectives (“priestly,” “miserly,” “portly”).

    It’s most likely then that your teacher meant to say something like this general statement instead: “One foolproof way to distinguish between an adjective and an adverb is that an adverb ends in ‘-ly.’” Even this statement, however, is also flat-out wrong; it’s a seriously misplaced and misapplied generalization. The truth of the matter is that in English, definitely not all adverbs end in “-ly” (“always,” “everywhere,” and “rather,” for instance, are adverbs), and that some adjectives—not very many, though—also end in “-ly” (as in the case of the three examples I have given above: “priestly,” “miserly,” “portly”). In other words, the “-ly” ending is not the exclusive domain of adverbs and, truth to tell, verbs—whether transitive or intransitive—should hardly figure in that grammatical comparison at all. There’s simply no connection.

  3. Hi! Have you ever noticed, have your writting skills gone any better so far?