Verbs can be tricky things, and the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs often confounds even the best grammar students and writers. An intransitive verb is simple defined as a verb that does not take a direct object. There’s no word in the sentence that tells who or what received the action. While there may be a word or phrase following an intransitive verb, such words and phrases typically answer the question “how”. Most intransitive verbs are complete without a direct object.
Here’s an example of an intransitive verb in a sentence:
She grew up.
In the sentence above, “she” is the subject, and “grew up” is the intransitive verb.
The sentence above is complete. The subject “it” is followed by the intransitive verb “rained.”
Intransitive verbs can be followed by a prepositional phrase or an adverb to add to the thought being expressed, but they can never be followed by a noun, which would act as the object of the sentence.
Examples of intransitive verbs followed by prepositions include:
She grew up on a ranch.
She grew up to be a farmer.
“On a ranch” is a prepositional phrase, not a direct object. The word “on” is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase. The same can be said of “to be a farmer”, which is yet another phrase.
It rained across the state.
“Across the state” is a prepositional phrase adding to the sentence’s meaning by answering the question “where did it rain?”.
There are two kinds of intransitive verbs: linking verbs and action verbs. The sentences above use action verbs. Linking verbs do not express action. Like their name suggests, they simply link the sentence subject to the predicate. The most common linking verbs are all versions of the verb to be: am, is, are, was, were, has been, will be, etc.)
Here are several examples of linking verbs that are intransitive verbs, followed by the appropriate descriptors.
The cat was friendly.
The car is green.
John will be 20 in August.
Even though the sentence, “John will be 20 in August” seems as if it should have a direct object, there really is no receiver of the action. The subject ‘John’ is followed by the linking intransitive verb “to be”, modified by the age 20 and the prepositional phrase “in August.” The result is a complete, grammatically correct sentence, albeit an uninteresting one.
The opposite of the intransitive verb is the transitive verb. Transitive verbs always take a direct object or a subject complement.
What is a direct object? Direct objects are words or phrases that receive the object of the action. The direct object always answers the question “What?” Look at the following examples of sentences with direct objects:
I saw the Beatles in concert.
The subject “I” is followed by the verb “saw” and the noun “the Beatles” which completes the sentence. The preposition “in concert” qualifies where the rock group was seen by the person.
We painted the old rocking chair.
“We” is the subject, followed by the transitive verb “painted” and the direct object “rocking chair.”
Why is it important to know the difference between intransitive and transitive verbs? When writers confuse transitive and intransitive verbs, their sentences may be incomplete. The result is confused communications, with the writer’s exact meaning lost. Speakers of other languages often have difficulty determining which verbs take an object, and which do not. Sentence mapping or using graphical devices to illustrate the common sentence patterns in English often helps speakers of other languages grasp this important concept.
The general sentence pattern of subject – verb – object is a foundation in the English language. It’s one of the most frequently used, and one of the most basic. Children learn this sentence structure quite early in their growth and development. To write well, one must alter this structure to add variety and interest to the text. Once student writers learn and master this basic pattern, alterations to the pattern provide the beauty and originality of sophisticated prose.