Intransitive verbs, does that ring a bell?
If it doesn’t, no worries.
In this article, we’ll demystify what it means for a verb to be ‘intransitive,’ and we’ll share tips on how to use them correctly in your sentences.
What is an intransitive verb?
An intransitive verb is a verb that cannot take a direct object. In plain terms, it is an action not directed toward a person or thing. Examples include “smile,” “sleep,” and “fall.” These verbs can be complemented by adverbs or adverbial phrases, but they are not needed for grammatical completeness.
If you’re not too keen on grammar, you can think of verbs as “action words” and intransitive verbs as action words that you don’t do to something. Some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive.
An example is the verb “breathe.” If you’re not sure what you’re dealing with, just look to see if there is a word later in the sentence that the verb is explicitly acting upon.
If there is not, you are likely faced with an intransitive verb. Likewise, you can try to add a direct object to a verb and see if it makes sense.
Because “I stood the bar” makes no sense, we can assume “stood” is intransitive.
Intransitive verbs: the basic explanation
Typically, verbs are either transitive or intransitive, although they can sometimes be both in different contexts. The technical term for this property of verbs is “transitivity.”
Without going into too much detail, the main difference between the two types of verbs is that transitive verbs require direct objects, but intransitive verbs cannot have them.
In some cases, like “eat,” a verb can be both transitive or intransitive depending on context.
Although a lot could be said about transitive verbs, this article will focus on intransitive verbs.
How to identify intransitive verbs
The definition of intransitive will differ depending on the dictionary you use, but in essence, an intransitive verb means that the verb cannot use a direct object.
Translated into plain English, that means an intransitive verb is an action word that doesn’t act directly on something else.
One trick to remember the difference is to think of transition as the root word of “transitive.” A transition is a movement or shift from one place to another.
You can think of this kind of “transition” as taking a bicycle from your home to your office.
Because the prefix “in” means “not” or “does not,” intransitive words cannot take this kind of bicycle and cannot transition.
In other words, the action represented by an intransitive verb is unable to move from one word (the subject) to another (the direct object).
All three of these example sentences have intransitive verbs.
In the first example, there is no direct object for “eat” in this specific sentence, so the verb is intransitive.
In the second, “explode” does not typically allow a direct object at all. Again, this is a use of an intransitive verb.
In the third example, even though “happily on weekends” comes after the verb, it is not a direct object and so “sings” is an intransitive verb.
Likewise, although “in the bed” is the object of the last sentence it is not a direct object.
If it were, the sentence would read, “I slept the bed,” which clearly makes no sense. Therefore, “slept” is intransitive.
What is a direct object?
If you’re not familiar with grammar terms, it can be tricky to tell whether the verb in a given sentence has a direct object or not.
The technical description of an object is that it is a linguistic “argument” or a type of predicate (see below for an explanation of predicates), which helps complete the sentence based on its subject.
Speaking plainly, the object is basically the part of a sentence that is being acted upon by the verb.
In English, objects are usually either direct objects or indirect objects.
A direct object, as the name implies, directly receives the verb’s action. If you kick a ball, the ball is directly receiving your foot. Therefore, “kick” is a direct object.
The easiest way to identify the direct object of a sentence is to rewrite it in the passive voice. In most cases, this will turn the object into the sentence’s subject.
For example, in “the ball was kicked by me,” the phrase “the ball” is now the subject. This makes it clear that it is directly receiving the action of “kick” and is a direct object.
Using intransitive verbs with indirect objects
As described above, intransitive verbs are those which cannot take a direct object.
Intransitive verbs can, however, take an indirect object.
An indirect object is a noun or phrase that is affected by the verb but isn’t directly receiving it. “I kicked the ball to Fatima,” for instance, has added “Fatima” to the sentence.
She is affected by the ball being kicked, but since we’re not kicking her she isn’t its direct object.
In English, indirect objects usually come after “to,” “with,” or some other kind of preposition.
However, it is also possible to phrase a sentence so that the indirect object comes directly after the verb, so this isn’t a hard rule.
In “I gave Fatima the ball,” Fatima is still the indirect object, and the ball is still the direct object. Again, we’re not giving Fatima to anyone, so it’s clear she is not the direct object.
Let’s look at some examples.
These examples are pretty straightforward.
We’ve already seen that “I slept the bed” makes no sense as a sentence, so we know “in the bed” is an indirect object.
In the second, although your ear is affected by the horse’s snort, the horse isn’t directly “snorting your ear,” which would be a very different sentence!
Other words that might come after intransitive verbs
It isn’t too difficult to spot direct objects once you know how.
However, sometimes, verbs can be followed by words that aren’t direct or indirect objects, and things can get a little tricky.
For example, in the sentence “The sky turned pink at sunset,” you might be led astray by the word “pink” appearing directly after the verb “turned.”
Indeed, it is possible for “turned” to take a direct object and thus be a transitive verb.
“I turned the monitor to face me,” for instance, has “the monitor” directly receiving the action of “turned,” so in this case, it is transitive instead of intransitive.
However, despite appearances, the word “pink” in “The sky turned pink at sunset” is neither an object or a direct object.
In fact, it’s not even a noun but an adjective. Likewise, “at sunset” is not a direct object either because the sky did not “turn sunset.”
Therefore, even though “turned” in this sentence is followed by quite a few words, it is clearly an intransitive verb.
First, we have another use of “turned.” Here, “turned” is intransitive because nothing in the sentence is a direct object of it.
The word “around” just describes the turning more completely, and although “at the deli” describes where the turning took place it’s clear that “the deli” is not a direct object because it isn’t what’s being turned.
In the second example, the verb “snored” is likewise intransitive. Although it’s useful to know how long Paul snored, it’s pretty clear that he did not snore “the night” directly.
Indeed, the sentence “Paul snored the night long” makes absolutely no sense, so we know this has to be an intransitive verb.
Transitivity and Linking verbs
If a verb has no direct object but is followed by another phrase or an indirect object, you might also hear it called a “linking verb.”
Basically, a linking verb “links” the subject of the sentence to its predicate in some way. These types of verbs don’t take a direct object but serve to connect the two parts of a sentence in other ways.
For instance, in the sentence “I am tired,” the verb “am” is a linking verb. It connects “I,” the subject, with “tired,” describing the subject in more detail. Note that it does not show any kind of action.
Not all intransitive verbs are linking verbs because some can still show an action. “Ate,” for instance, can be intransitive, but it is not a linking verb.
However, all linking verbs are, by definition, intransitive because they cannot show direct action on a direct object.
Predication: What is it and what does it have to do with intransitive verbs?
Direct and indirect objects can be tricky, but other parts of how intransitive verbs work in English are even more confusing.
Especially if you’re learning English as a second or other language, you might find yourself faced with the phrase “complete and incomplete predication.”
If you ask a native speaker about this phrase, they will probably be completely lost.
These words are just not really used in most English-language instruction about English, and native speakers have probably never heard them before in their life.
Put simply, the word predication means that a specific word or phrase is the predicate of a sentence.
In plain English, the predicate is the part of the sentence that contains a verb and describes the subject.
Before we go into the details of intransitive verbs and predication, let’s briefly discuss how sentences are structured in English.
A note about the structure of sentences
No matter how complex or simple a sentence is, it must contain both a subject and a predicate to be considered complete.
The subject is, in most cases, the person or thing which is performing a specific action.
The predicate is everything else and usually ties the rest of the sentence to the subject by way of at least a verb. Usually, the predicate also involves an object, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
It’s pretty easy to tell a predicate apart from a subject once you know this, and it’s also really obvious why you need both.
The word “I” by itself is obviously not a sentence, and “was eating” makes equally little sense. If you put them together, though, you get “I was eating,” which is a complete sentence.
At a minimum, you need a verb to have a complete predicate, so the easiest way to determine whether you are looking at a predicate or a subject is to look for a verb.
In the examples below, the predicate is bolded to make it stand out.
Each of the three sentences has a verb as the main part of its predicate, making this part of the sentences’ structure easy to identify.
To get back to our main point here, these examples include both complete and incomplete predication.
Complete and incomplete predication
Put simply, the difference between complete predication and incomplete predication is just whether the verb in a sentence stands alone or not.
If the predicate of a sentence contains only a verb, that verb is an example of complete predication.
To state that another way, the verb of a sentence is a complete predicate if it is the only part of the predicate. (Hence, “complete” predication.)
If, on the other hand, the predicate of a sentence contains a verb and some other words or phrases that are necessary for the sentence’s meaning, that verb is an incomplete predicate.
In other words, in incomplete predication, the verb is “incomplete” because it relies on other words to make a complete predicate.
Obscure terminology aside, the two are pretty easy to tell apart.
Again, the phrase “complete and incomplete predication” refers only to the verb because a sentence must always have a complete predicate in some form or another to be a complete sentence.
If you see more than a verb after the subject in your sentence, the verb in it is an incomplete predicate or an instance of incomplete predication.
Intransitive verbs and complete predication
Any sentence in which a verb is a complete predicate must by necessity be intransitive.
If you were to add a direct object (required for a transitive verb), the verb would not be able to stand alone, and the verb would now be an incomplete predicate.
Both these sentences have verbs that are the complete predicate. Therefore, the verbs in both are intransitive.
To make this clear, look at the following sentence:
This sentence is not complete because “hit” requires some kind of direct object to make sense. We know the verb “hit” cannot be a complete predicate because of this, so we know it has to be transitive and not intransitive.
Intransitive verbs and incomplete predication
If sentences where the verb is a complete predicate must contain intransitive verbs, you might hope the opposite is also true.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Because intransitive verbs can take indirect objects and be followed by other words and phrases, intransitive verbs can still be examples of incomplete predication.
Again, the only way to tell for sure if a verb is intransitive is to look for a direct object.
In all of these examples, the verb is an incomplete predicate because it does not make up the entire predicate.
However, all of these examples also contain intransitive verbs because none of them contain direct objects.
Intransitive verbs and passive voice
One thing writers ask about a lot is passive voice.
Some people confuse passive voice with just using the word “be” or “was.” Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to provide a lengthy discussion, this is an incorrect understanding.
In short, passive voice is a type of sentence construction where the object of a verb is placed in the subject position of the sentence.
This is a bit confusing, even after all our earlier explanations of direct objects and predicates, because English grammar is often taught in a way that “subject” and “object” are viewed as opposites.
To review, though, what is actually opposite are the subject and the predicate. If the object of a verb goes in the subject position, it is no longer the predicate and therefore, it must be the subject.
As usual with English grammar, looking at examples makes it clear what the difference is.
“I hit a man with my car” is in active voice because the subject, “I,” is clearly performing the action of the verb.
In passive voice, “The man was hit by my car,” the subject and object haven’t changed. However, the object is now in the subject position, and what was formerly the subject (“my car”) is receiving the action of the verb as part of the predicate instead.
Although it’s uncommon, and despite what you might read elsewhere on the Internet, it is possible for intransitive verbs to be used in the passive voice.
The reason people get this wrong is because you can’t change an active voice sentence containing an intransitive verb into passive voice.
However, intransitive verbs can and do appear in passive-voice sentences.
Let’s look at some correct and incorrect examples of sentences using intransitive verbs in the passive voice.
Incorrect examples of intransitive verbs in passive voice
Although the passive voice sentence is fine so far as grammar goes, it sounds very strange indeed. Also, it doesn’t technically use sleep as a verb at all, but as a noun and the object of the verb “had.”
“The situation is deteriorating rapidly.” (active voice)
Again, although you could say, “Deterioration is being undergone by the situation,” that’s incredibly awkward, and the verb is actually “undergo” instead of “deteriorate.”
Correctly using intransitive verbs in passive voice
As noted, you can’t turn an active voice sentence with an intransitive verb into passive voice.
However, although it’s counter-intuitive, verbs that take a direct object in the active voice actually become intransitive when changed to passive voice.
For example, “I kicked the ball” becomes “The ball was kicked.” Even though the object of the sentence is still “the ball,” and even though that is still technically the direct object, “was kicked” is now an example of complete predication, so it has to be intransitive.
Verbs followed with prepositional phrases can also be intransitive in passive voice sentences, leading to examples where the verb is an incomplete predicate but still passive.
The active voice sentence uses “flew” as a transitive verb, with a direct object of “the rocket.”
Although that object remains the same in passive voice, the verb has morphed to the intransitive “was flown” and now takes the original sentence’s subject as an indirect object instead.
Because “by an expert” is part of the predicate along with the verb, this is an intransitive verb that is an example of incomplete predication.
“The lunch was eaten.” (passive voice, complete predicate)
Here, we don’t know who ate the lunch, only that it’s been eaten.
Although “the lunch” would be the direct object of “ate” in an active voice sentence, the fact that we are in passive voice means that “was eaten” is the complete predicate here.
That means “was eaten” has to be an intransitive verb.
Review: The essential properties of intransitive verbs
There’s a lot of information to take in about intransitive verbs, and trying to take in all of it at once might lead to information overload.
Just to review, the only essential property of an intransitive verb is that it cannot take a direct object. That means, again, that it can’t directly act on something.
Remember, though, that passive voice contradicts this essential property a little. If you’re looking at a passive voice sentence, the verb is technically intransitive by definition.
Shortcuts for identifying intransitive verbs
Outside of understanding the grammar, there are a couple of questions you can ask to see if a verb is intransitive.
1. Is the verb followed by a direct object?
2. Can it be followed by a “what” or by a “who”?
3. Is it a linking verb?
If the answer to either of the first two questions is “no,” then you have an intransitive verb. (For example, “I ran Suzanne.” makes no sense, so “run” is intransitive.)
If the answer to the third question is “yes,” you have an intransitive verb.
These questions even work if you’re dealing with a passive-voice sentence.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.