Grammatical terms can be confusing, but the main purpose of grammar is actually to clarify what role a word has in a sentence.
A great example of this is the rule for the past tense. If you see a sentence which says “I am running” and one which says “I ran,” you immediately know when each of those happened.
Underneath its obscure-sounding vocabulary and poorly-taught structure, then, grammar is there to help you understand exactly what people are saying and why.
Of course, verbs or action words have a lot more going on than just present and past tense.
One of the more confusing aspects of a verb is its transitivity.
In other words, how can you tell if a verb is an intransitive verb or a transitive verb?
We already have a lengthy guide to identifying intransitive verbs.
In today’s post, we are covering the opposite side of the coin: transitive verbs.
- 1 What is a transitive verb?
- 2 A basic explanation of transitivity
- 3 Identifying transitive verbs
- 4 Direct and indirect objects
- 5 Using transitive verbs with a direct object
- 6 Using transitive verbs with a direct and indirect object
- 7 Verbs that can be transitive or intransitive
- 8 Complete and Incomplete Predication
- 9 Identifying transitive verbs with predication
- 10 Transitive verbs and passive voice
- 11 The essential properties of transitive verbs: a review
- 12 Shortcuts to identify a transitive verb
What is a transitive verb?
At its core, a transitive verb is any verb which acts on a direct object. To phrase that another way, a transitive verb is an action word which directly affects a person, place or thing.
For example, if you kick a ball, you are directly affecting it. If your action word has no object at all, or only impacts something indirectly, it is intransitive.
Some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive depending on context.
For example, a person having a bad nightmare might kick and thrash in their sleep.
To be sure you are dealing with a transitive verb, look for an object that is directly affected by the verb.
A basic explanation of transitivity
Linguistically speaking, the property that rules whether a verb is transitive or intransitive is called its transitivity.
Verbs “accept” various things as what linguists call arguments.
Basically, an argument is any word or phrase which comes after the subject and verb in a sentence. These arguments can be anything from objects to abstract ideas.
For example, in “the sky is blue,” the word “blue” is the argument of the verb “is.”
When it comes to transitive verbs, the only argument accepted is a direct object.
Here we must break down a bit more grammar terminology.
An object is simply an argument that is affected by the verb in some way. In the sentence “I kicked the ball,” the object is “the ball,” because that is what is being affected by the verb “kicked.”
It is a direct object because it is directly affected by the verb. In the sentence “I kicked the ball to Judy,” there are two objects.
The direct object, “the ball,” is followed by an indirect object, “Judy.”
We’ll look more at the details of this later on. For now, let’s continue to examine how to identify a transitive verb.
Identifying transitive verbs
As noted, the only way to identify transitive verbs is to look for a direct object.
To reiterate, a direct object is any noun or phrase which is directly affected by a verb.
When you see a sentence and you are trying to determine if the verb is transitive, ask yourself if the object is immediately receiving the action or if it is involved in some other way.
If the object is immediately receiving the action, it is a direct object and the verb which affects it is a transitive verb.
Some verbs can be transitive and intransitive depending on context, so you can’t skip this step by memorizing a list of verbs. The only way to be sure is to find that direct object.
“I kicked the ball to Judy.”
Here’s our earlier example.
Again, “the ball” is the direct object of the verb “kicked.” This makes it a transitive verb. We don’t need to worry about whether Judy is a direct object or not because we have already found a direct object for our verb.
“After I kicked the ball to Judy, she scored a goal.”
This sentence is tricky because it has two clauses, and thus two verbs.
Both verbs are transitive. We’ve already discussed the verb “kicked” in this context, so the reason that verb is transitive should be clear.
Although it seems like “scored” might not be transitive, the noun phase “a goal” is in fact its direct object. Even though the “goal” is an abstract idea, it is still what was directly affected by the verb “scored.”
To properly understand when an object is a direct object, let’s take a look at direct and indirect objects.
Direct and indirect objects
Let’s take a moment to examine direct and indirect objects a bit more clearly.
As we’ve already briefly discussed, a direct object is one which is directly acted upon by the verb in a sentence.
Indirect objects are similar, but not identical.
Rather, they are an object which is affected by the verb but is not being directly acted upon.
One way to identify indirect objects is by looking for prepositions like “to,” “on” or “by.”
Any time you see one of these before a noun or noun phrase, you can be sure it’s not a direct object.
However depending on the way a sentence is worded you may see indirect objects that do not use prepositions.
The good news for transitive verbs is that you don’t really need to pay attention to the indirect object a verb may have.
All you need to do is look for a direct object, or an object that is directly impacted by the verb, to know if you are looking at a transitive verb.
“I kicked the ball to Judy.”
In this familiar sentence, we already know “the ball” is the direct object.
What about Judy? She isn’t a direct object or we’d have a much more violent sentence: “I kicked Judy.”
That, and the helping word “to,” clue us in to Judy’s status as an indirect object of the verb “kicked.”
In other words, Judy is affected by the action of “kicked” because she gets the ball. She isn’t herself getting kicked.
“I ate the cheeseburger in my car.”
Here, “ate” is a transitive verb taking the direct object “the cheeseburger.”
Going by our previous example, because the speaker is not eating their car the word “car” is an indirect object.
“He gave me a present.”
Even though “me” comes directly after the verb in this sentence, it isn’t the direct object.
Then let this sink in: What is being given?
If you think about it more, it’s clear that the present is what’s being given, and it is being given “to me.” That makes “present” the direct object” and “me” the indirect object.
However, because of the way the sentence is phrased the preposition “to” has been dropped due to other grammar rules.
Again, if we were just trying to figure out if “gave” is a transitive verb, all we would have to do is figure out that there is in fact a direct object.
If you want to know more about determining if a verb with an indirect object is intransitive, make sure to review our detailed guide to intransitive verbs.
Using transitive verbs with a direct object
The only essential characteristic of a transitive verb, to reiterate, is that it requires a direct object.
This means it’s impossible to use a transitive verb without a direct object.
However, in most cases, transitive verbs will follow the pattern below if the sentence only includes a direct object:[subject] [verb] [direct object]
It’s important to be sure that the word or phrase following a verb is actually a direct object. As already discussed, verbs can take other arguments.
If you’re not careful, you might misidentify one of these as a direct object, leading you to incorrectly think that a verb is transitive.
For example, verbs like “is” and “was” are not transitive verbs even though they are typically followed by an argument. Even if we say “the ball was yellow,” the verb is not transitive and “yellow” is not a direct object.
That’s a bit confusing, but hopefully it makes sense if you think that the ball is not directly affecting yellow in any way. Yellow is simply a description of the ball.
“The ball struck the net.”
Here, the verb “struck” is transitive because what follows it, “the net,” is a direct object.
Remember that direct objects are those which are directly impacted by the action of a verb. Here, the net is directly struck by the ball.
“The music hurt my ears.”
Again, this is a fairly simple sentence. The direct object, “my ears” is directly impacted by the verb “hurt.”
“After I kicked the ball, it struck the back of the net.”
This sentence is more complex, but the basic pattern holds in each of its two clauses.
Clause one, “After I kicked the ball,” follows our already familiar pattern.
Clause two contains a phrase, “the back of the net,” as its direct object, but again is the same pattern.
The verb “struck” directly impacts that whole phrase.
Using transitive verbs with a direct and indirect object
Although transitive verbs will always require a direct object, an indirect object is optional and may not always be included.
Typically, sentences with transitive verbs, a direct object and an indirect object will follow one of the two patterns below:[subject] [verb] [direct object] [preposition] [indirect object] [subject] [verb] [indirect object] [direct object]
As usual, remember that other words can take the place of objects in a sentence.
Remember as well that an object can be made up of a phrase such as “the yellow ball” instead of a single noun.
“She gave me a present.”
This is a repeat of our earlier example sentence.
Reviewing it with the patterns above, we can see it follows pattern number two.
Again, don’t be tripped up by the switch in the usual sentence order.
Just ask yourself: “What is being given? What is the verb directly impacting?”
“The scientist shot the canister into the sun while laughing madly.”
This sentence has a direct object, an indirect object and an argument that describes the subject in more detail.
The canister is what is being shot, which makes it the direct object.
The sun is not directly impacted by the verb “shot” but it is affected as the target for the canister. That makes the sun our indirect object in this sentence.
The phrase “while laughing madly” is an additional argument. It simply describes the scientist and does not affect the transitivity of the verb.
Because this sentence has a clear direct object (“the canister”), the verb it contains is a transitive verb.
Verbs that can be transitive or intransitive
Most verbs are always either transitive or intransitive.
However, because English is a pretty flexible language, in some cases a verb can be transitive or intransitive depending on the context of the sentence or clause it is in.
A few examples of this kind of verb include “breathe,” which might be used to refer to a specific substance or the general act of breathing and “kick,” which can be used to describe kicking a specific object or the motion of kicking itself.
This fact about verbs means there is no way to memorize a list of “transitive verbs,” because such a list does not exist and would be incomplete at best if it did.
On the other hand, that means you don’t need to memorize a list of transitive verbs!
Instead, to see if the verb is transitive, you need to examine it in its current clause or sentence and see whether it takes a direct object.
As has already been noted several times, what makes a verb a transitive verb is the presence of a direct object.
Without a direct object, a verb is intransitive, as described in our guide to intransitive verbs.
“Sam and I high-fived after I scored a goal.”
As we’ve already seen, “scored” is a transitive verb with a direct object of “a goal.”
What about high-fived?
The fact that this action is taken by two people may be confusing, but don’t get tripped up. Based on its location at the beginning of this sentence, “Sam and I” is actually the subject.
This makes sense when you think about it. Both people are the ones performing the verb, “high-fived.”
Is there a direct object for “high-fived,” something which is directly acted on?
If we rephrased the sentence, we could have one: “I high-fived Sam.”
Now, Sam is part of the predicate rather than the subject, and is the direct object of the verb. In this case, “high-fived” is transitive.
However, in our original sentence, “Sam and I high-fived.” Because Sam is part of the subject, he can’t be the direct object.
Indeed, there is no direct object in the clause “Sam and I high-fived,” making the verb an intransitive one in our original example.
This is an important reminder that the only thing that makes a verb transitive is if it acts upon a direct object in the context you are considering. Don’t get mixed up by other possible sentences!
Complete and Incomplete Predication
A full description of predication is in our guide on intransitive verbs
To save time, we won’t go into the details here and will make do with a quick summary.
Put simply, then, any English sentence consists of a subject and a predicate. The predicate is just the part of the sentence containing the verb and any objects or other arguments.
In the sentence “I kicked the ball,” the word “I” is the subject and the phrase “kicked the ball” is the predicate.
There are two types of predication: complete predication and incomplete predication.
Both of these terms refer not to the predicate as a whole but to the verb which is part of the predicate.
In plain English, if a verb is the only thing in the predicate of a sentence, that verb is an example of complete predication.
If, on the other hand, a verb is not the only thing in the predicate, it is an example of incomplete predication.
Identifying transitive verbs with predication
Although predication doesn’t help when it comes to identifying intransitive verbs, because intransitive verbs can sometimes include indirect objects.
This means you can see examples of both complete predication and incomplete predication with intransitive verbs.
For transitive verbs, things are a little simpler.
If you ever see a sentence where the verb is an instance of complete predication, you can be sure it is not a transitive verb.
This is because a transitive verb absolutely requires a direct object, so it can never be the entire predicate of a sentence.
Note, however, that just because a verb is an instance of incomplete predication does not automatically mean it is a transitive verb.
Again, intransitive verbs can take indirect objects, meaning they can be either complete or incomplete predicates.
All the same, it’s nice to be able to rule out some verbs as transitive based on their status as the complete predicate of a sentence.
Transitive verbs and passive voice
Sentences in English can have two types of voice.
In the first, “active voice,” verbs act upon the object of the sentence.
For example, “I ate the cheeseburger” is in the active voice because the subject, “I” is in the subject position while the object, “the cheeseburger,” follows the verb.
In the second, “passive voice,” the object of the verb appears in the subject position of the sentence and the subject of the verb may appear in the predicate or not at all.
The passive equivalent of the previous sentence is “The cheeseburger was eaten by me.”
Note that the object of the verb now appears in the subject position.
What happens to transitive verbs in passive voice
The grammar is counter-intuitive and confusing even to professional English teachers, but transitive verbs actually become intransitive if an active voice sentence is re-written in passive voice.
This is because putting the object into the subject position means it is not a direct object any more, and the subject, now in the predicate position, is actually an indirect object as indicated by the preposition preceding it.
However, because this is very confusing, it’s best to check with your teacher if you are doing an assignment that asks you to determine the transitivity of a verb in a passive voice sentence.
Some teachers may have different understandings of grammar, and you don’t want to get marked wrong on a technicality.
Active voice: “I kicked the ball.”
Passive voice: “The ball was kicked by me.” or “The ball was kicked.”
In the active voice sentence, “the ball” is clearly the direct object, as it is directly impacted by the verb.
Note, however, that “the ball” has moved out of the predicate position and is now in the subject position in the passive voice sentence.
Even if the subject, “me,” is moved to the predicate instead of dropped completely, it can’t act as a direct object because “me” is not what is being kicked.
Therefore, even though it’s confusing the verb “kicked” is technically intransitive in the passive voice.
The essential properties of transitive verbs: a review
This has been a lengthy guide, so let’s do a review of a transitive verb’s core element.
Put simply, there’s only one: A transitive verb must have a direct object.
The direct object, again, is the noun or noun phrase that is directly impacted by the verb in the sentence or clause.
If there’s no direct object, the verb you are looking at is intransitive. (Need a refresher on what that means? Check out our guide to intransitive verbs.)
Transitive verbs can also take indirect objects and other arguments, but these don’t affect its status as a transitive verb.
Finally, remember that whether verbs are transitive or intransitive depends on the context they are in.
You can’t define a verb as always transitive or intransitive. Rather, you need to look at the specific sentence or clause to get the answer to this question.
Shortcuts to identify a transitive verb
Here are a few questions you can ask to determine the transitivity of a verb in a given sentence.
1. Is the verb followed by a direct object?
2. Can it be followed by a “what” or by a “who“?
2. Is it a linking verb?
If the answer to either of the first two questions is “yes,” then you are dealing with a transitive verb.
Linking verbs, on the other hand, are always intransitive, so if you are looking at a linking verb such as is, are or seems then you are not dealing with a transitive verb.
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.