Intransitive Verbs

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 simply 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?". Intransitive verbs are complete without a direct object, as you will see in the examples below.

Intransitive Verbs at Work

Here are some examples of intransitive verbs in simple sentences:

  • She grew up.

    In the basic sentence above, "she" is the subject, and "grew up" is the intransitive verb. You could add the adverb "quickly" to tell how she grew up and it's still a very simple sentence.

  • It rained.

    The sentence above is complete. The subject "it" is followed by the intransitive verb "rained." You could add the adverb "heavily" to describe how it rained.

Intransitive Verbs and Prepositions

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 another such phrase.

  • It rained across the state.

  • It rained before lunch.

"Across the state" is a prepositional phrase adding to the sentence's meaning by answering the question "where did it rain?". "Before lunch" is a prepositional phrase telling you when it rained.

Common Intransitive Verbs

Many verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, depending on usage. The sentences "she read a book" and "she read for hours," for example, use the transitive and intransitive forms of the verb "read." However, many verbs occur most often in English in an intransitive form, such as:

  • Appear

  • Arrive

  • Breathe

  • Continue

  • Cry

  • Die

  • Happen

  • Occur

  • Seem

  • Smile

All these verbs tend to appear in an intransitive form. In fact, the phrase "appear in an intransitive form" is a perfect example of an intransitive verb followed by a prepositional phrase!

Confusing Intransitive and Transitive Verbs

A transitive verb always takes a direct object. Direct objects are words or phrases that receive 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 many years ago.
    The subject "I" is followed by the verb "saw." In this case, we can ask "saw what?" and find the answer: the subject saw the Beatles (the direct object). That makes "saw" a transitive verb. For a contrasting example, take "I saw out the window." I saw what? We don't know. The sentence has no direct object, making "saw" intransitive in this case.

  • We painted the old rocking chair.
    "We painted" what? We painted the old rocking chair. "Rocking chair" is the direct object, making "painted" a transitive verb. By contrast, consider the sentence "We painted all day." Painted what? The sentence doesn't say. That makes "painted" intransitive.

When writers confuse transitive and intransitive verbs, their sentences may be incomplete or unclear. Speakers of other languages often have difficulty determining which verbs take an object, and which do not. Sentence diagramming or using graphical devices to show the common sentence patterns in English often help speakers of other languages grasp this important concept.

Mastering Sentence Patterns

The general sentence pattern of subject - verb - object is the foundation of English sentence structure. To write well, one must know that structure, use it, and on occasion break it 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.

Resources on Intransitive Verbs

  • Test your knowledge of transitive and intransitive verbs with this free test from Quia.

  • ESL students anticipating the TOEFL can find more information on how these verbs are tested in this video from Magoosh.

    Intransitive VerbsIntransitive Verbs

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