The Transitive Verb: Do you know how to use it?

Do you know how to identify and use transitive verbs? Here's a guide from the English Forward team.

Hristina Yordanova Written by Hristina Yordanova · 2 min read >
Figuring out s vs 's

A verb can be a transitive verb or an intransitive verb, but most people tend to think that these two words; “transitive” or “intransitive” are indicative of action and non-action respectively. It is important to note right off the bat that these words are not meant to describe whether a verb is active or not. It is much more beneficial to associate the world transitive with “transfer” rather than “action. This way, understanding what a transitive verb or intransitive verb becomes much easier.

In this sense, it is correct to say that a transitive verb is needed when transferring its action to something else (usually a noun or object). The verb (action) affects something else.

For example, using the transitive verb “bring”: Please bring the car.

In this sentence, the “car” is the object that the transitive verb “bring” affects it. The receiver of the action is the direct object. Now, asking “to whom or for whom”? If the sentence tells you the answer to this question, you have found an indirect object.

How to identify a transitive verb

Transitive verbs affect an object and without the object, the sentence would make little sense or incomplete.

Without the object, our sentence above would read; “Please bring” and therefore be incomplete, leaving the reader to ask “bring who or what?”

When you add the object “car”, the transitive verb has something to affect (the object), and the sentence is now complete. See examples of transitive verbs and the direct object they affect:

  • My friend found my phone.   (“phone” as direct object)
  • The school closed its doors early in the year. (“doors” as direct object)
  • Could you call him today? (“him” as direct object)
  • I love this music. (“music” as direct object)

Knowing examples of transitive verbs, guess which receives the action of the verb (direct object)?

  • He submitted the assignment on time.

You’re right – assignment!

How to identify an intransitive verb

Intransitive verbs are the direct opposite of a transitive verb, in that it doesn’t require an object to act on.

Many verbs in the English language are intransitive and make no sense when paired with an object. For instance, the verbs “lie”, “die” or sit” cannot be paired with an object. They are also verbs expressing doing an activity but intransitive verbs do not need a receiver of the action.

This is also why they can make single-word sentences. For example, “Run!” or “Sit!” can be a sentence on its own, especially if the subject had already been established in previous sentences.

Here are examples of intransitive verbs used in a sentence:

  • She ran.
  • They sat.
  • The cat was running.
  • The dog was barking.

A verb can be both transitive and intransitive

But like most other rules in the English language, there are some exceptions. There are some verbs that can be both either transitive or intransitive, depending on how you use them.

For instance;

  • Cheered on by her brother, she played.
  • She played the national anthem.

The verb “played” can either be transitively or intransitive. In the first sentence, it is intransitive and in the second it is a transitive verb since it acts on the object “national anthem.”

Verb transitivity in phrasal verbs

One can determine transitive and intransitive verbs even with phrasal verbs such as “break-in”. If the verb needs a direct object, then you know that it is transitive.

For example;

  • Unable to find his keys, he broke in.
  • I need to break in those shoes before the marathon.

In the first example, “break-in” is used intransitively since it doesn’t affect any direct objects and expresses a doable activity. In the second example, the same phrasal verb affects “shoes” and is therefore transitive. Now that you know that transitive verbs need a direct object, determining transitive vs intransitive verbs is a breeze.

Written by Hristina Yordanova
Hristina Yordanova has a Cambridge CPE certification in English and is now pursuing her International Journalism for Media Professionals at the Edinburgh Napier University. She regularly contributes to and from their inception. Her well-written perceptive articles have attracted a steady audience. Profile