Do you know the difference between transitive verbs and intransitive verbs? They’re both technically action verbs, but they have different functions in a sentence. It all depends on what follows them and what the writer is trying to say. Keep reading to learn what makes certain verbs intransitive with several intransitive verb examples.
Common Intransitive Verbs
An intransitive verb is defined as a verb that does not take a direct object. That means there's no word in the sentence that tells who or what received the action of the verb. While there may be a word or phrase following an intransitive verb, such words and phrases typically answer the question "how?"
Examples of intransitive verbs include:
Some intransitive verbs can have a direct object, but they don’t need one to make sense. Other intransitive verbs, such as “arrive” or “die,” can’t be paired with a direct object at all.
Intransitive vs. Transitive
Unlike intransitive verbs, transitive verbs require direct objects to make sense. They can’t stand alone with only a subject.
Examples of transitive verbs include:
When transitive verbs appear in a sentence, their direct objects answer the question “What?” For example, the sentence “Herman buys” is technically a complete sentence because it has a subject and a verb. But without a direct object like “groceries,” the sentence doesn’t make sense.
Intransitive Verbs at Work
It seems straightforward: if a verb has a direct object, it’s transitive, and if it doesn’t, it’s intransitive. But take a look at these examples of intransitive verbs in simple sentences to see if you really understand.
The car appeared.
My store opened.
The girls sang.
My teacher listens.
Her phone rang.
His grandfather coughed.
It’s easy to tell that these sentences have intransitive verbs. But what about now?
She grew quickly.
It rained a lot.
The car appeared out of nowhere.
Joshua lied to me.
My store opened last week.
We talked all night.
The girls sang beautifully.
My teacher listens to our problems.
Her phone rang loudly.
His grandfather coughed during the movie.
It’s tricky to tell, but they are still intransitive verbs. Adding adverbs such as “quickly” or “all night” modifies the verb, but doesn’t change its meaning. The same goes for adding prepositional phrases such as “out of nowhere” and “to our problems.” These parts of speech are not nouns, which means they are not direct objects.
Confusing Intransitive and Transitive Verbs
Some verbs can be both intransitive and transitive, depending on their context. Take a look at these examples of sentences that use verbs in different ways.
I ran to school. (intransitive)
I ran the mile at the track meet. (transitive; the mile is the direct object)
The author writes at the coffee shop. (intransitive)
The author writes novels. (transitive; novels is the direct object)
Ava moved over the weekend. (intransitive)
Ava moved her purse out of the way. (transitive; her purse is the direct object)
You should sing professionally. (intransitive)
You should sing the solo. (transitive; the solo is the direct object)
As you can see, these verbs have different meanings when used intransitively and transitively. It all depends on the rest of the sentence and what the writer is trying to say.
Tip for Remembering Intransitive Verbs
Verbs can be tricky things, and the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs often confounds even the best grammar students and writers. A quick tip relies on the prefix “trans,” which is also found in the word “transfer.” Transitive verbs transfer their action onto direct objects; intransitive verbs don’t.
Look at these sentences as an example:
I can’t see my friend through the crowd. (the action from “see” transfers to “her”)
I can’t see through the crowd. (the action stops; “through the crowd” modifies the verb, but it doesn’t transfer onto a direct object.)
For a visual hint, think of a “transitive” train that has a “direct” stop at the next direct object. The “intransitive” train isn’t stopping anywhere!
Mastering Sentence Patterns
When writers confuse transitive and intransitive verbs, their sentences may be incomplete or unclear. Sentence diagramming or using graphical devices to show the common sentence patterns in English often helps speakers of other languages grasp this important concept.