Why you need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs

Grammatical errors can make or break a sentence, especially in the English language, and getting them right is as basic as it gets
One of the most common errors in the English language is using intransitive verbs as transitive verbs (representational image)
One of the most common errors in the English language is using intransitive verbs as transitive verbs (representational image)

Considering the requests made by some readers, a grammar point will be discussed in the column every fortnight. Though I do not want to bombard the readers with grammar terminology and terrorise them, I feel it is important to introduce certain grammatical terms in a way it can be understood by all readers who are interested in developing their English language skills. The focus of this week’s column is on the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.

One of the most common errors learners of English make is using intransitive verbs/phrasal verbs as transitive verbs/phrasal verbs. Look at the sentences below. In each sentence, there is an error in the use of verbs.

The chief guest discussed about the importance of learning languages.

He told to the gathering to learn at least one foreign language.

He described about the situation of those who lack English language skills.

After the session was over, the students requested for his help. 

He told that learning foreign languages had many benefits.

In the first four sentences, the verbs discuss, tell, describe, and request are followed by prepositions:  about, to, about, and for respectively and thus make the sentences incorrect. The highlighted words are not required in the sentences.  In the fifth sentence, the word ‘me’, which should follow the verb ‘told’ is missing.

Why do learners make such mistakes? The reason is that they do not know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.  Here is an easy-to-understand explanation. A verb that is followed by an object (a noun/noun phrase/pronoun) is transitive and a verb with no object is intransitive. The object refers to the person or thing affected by the actions of the verb. When someone says, “I met” automatically we ask the person whom he/she met.  In other words, transitive verbs give answers to the questions “what” and “whom”. Consider these examples:

Mary met Mary. (met ‘whom’?)

John discussed a plan with Mary. (disscussed ‘what’?)

Mary okayed the plan. (okayed ‘what’?)

John and Mary admire each other.  (admire “whom”?)

In the sentences above, meet, discuss, okay and admire are transitive verbs because they are followed by the objects Mary, a plan, the plan and each other respectively. The sentences Mary met…, John discussed…, and Mary okayed… are incomplete.  To make them complete they need objects.

Some transitive verbs are followed by a direct object and an indirect object.  Look at these examples:

The Income Tax department has sent John (indirect object) a letter (direct object).

He is yet to give them (indirect object) a reply (direct object).

What is an intransitive verb? Some verbs, such as run, go, sleep, sit, die, cry, laugh, and talk, are intransitive because it is impossible for an object to follow the verbs. In other words, an intransitive verb does not pass the action to an object. The sentences below are complete without objects.  

The students are sitting.

She is laughing.

He is talking.

We smiled.

The major difference between transitive and intransitive verbs is that a sentence with a transitive verb can be changed into passive voice and a sentence with an intransitive verb cannot be changed into passive voice.   

The key to understanding the difference between the two types of verbs is the ability to pick out the direct and indirect objects in the sentence.  Consider this example:

  • City police arrested two software engineers for drunk-dialling the police control room and making bomb threats to Chennai airports.  The policemen tracked down the culprits to a house in Pallikaranai.  The culprits are now sobering up in jail.

In the example sentences above, the first four highlighted words are transitive verbs/phrasal verbs because they are all followed by objects but the fifth highlighted phrase ‘sober up’ is an intransitive phrasal verb as it cannot have a direct object.

Similarly, a transitive phrasal verb is also followed by an object and an intransitive phrasal verb is not followed by an object.  Here are examples:

Who is looking after your child?

I am looking for my key.

We are planning to put off the meeting.

I get up at 5 o’clock every morning.

It is time to dress up for the party.

My car broke down.

The phrasal verbs in the sentences (1-3) are transitive and the sentences (4-6) are intransitive.  There are some verbs which can be used both transitively and intransitively. This aspect will be discussed in the next column.

(​Albert P Rayan is an ELT resource person and a Professor of English )

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