ESL Learners Can struggle with Transitive and Intransitive Verbs in English: But there Might Be a Way to Easily figure out the difference
Transitive and intransitive verbs can give ESL learners major headaches. Half the time, though, many don’t even realize they are making a big mistake. But even when they know they are making a mistake but they don’t know the rule, it can be very frustrating.
It’s all about OBJECTS and knowing when you need them and when you don’t.
How do you know which verbs need an object and which verbs do not need an object in English? At first blush it is not easy to tell as there are no clear rules. English verbs that have more than one meaning can be especially tricky because sometimes the word/verb is transitive and sometimes it is intransitive. For example the verb “to fold.” This verb has about 13 different meanings! Some of the applications of this verb takes an object (which makes it transitive) and others do not.
Look at the following applications of the verb “to fold”
- I folded the laundry. (This is transitive – it needs object) What is the meaning? It means “I bent the clothes and fabrics that I washed.”
2. He folded. (This is intransitive- does not need object) What is the meaning? It means “He gave up.”
Why do you need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs? Because not knowing the different between transitive and intransitive verbs results in grammatically incorrect sentences that either sound funny or just flat out makes no sense. For example, if you said “I sent.” This is supposed to be a sentence but it is incomplete and does not make perfect sense. Because the person listening does not know what you sent or who you sent.
But just so that you will be totally confused about transitive and intransitive verbs in English, the vast majority of verbs can be both transitive and intransitive depending on the context in which they are used (like the verb “to fold.”)
So what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to figure this out?!
Well, there are a couple of tricks you can try though they are not foolproof. 1). First, accept that you will have to try to memorize quite a bit in this domain, and you will have to depend on your experience with the language over time to become used to which verbs need an object. 2). But there could be an even better way to figure it out. Ask yourself "who or what does the verb relate to?" Is it a noun? If there is an answer and it is a noun, the verb is TRANSITIVE. Example: "Sam eats meat." Ask "who or what does Sam eat?" Sam eats meat. So "meat" is a noun and it therefore an object of the verb "eat." So in this example, the verb "eat" is TRANSITIVE (in this sentence - because note that in other sentences the verb "eat could be intransitive). 3). If you are still not sure if the verb is transitive or intransitive, ask yourself how or where is the verb? This will help you to confirm that there if there is an object or not. If there is an answer to one of these two questions, the verb is INTRANSITIVE. Consider the following sentence: "Sam runs slowly." Ask "how does Sam run"? Sam runs slowly. Consider also the following sentence: "Sam is running in the park." Where is Sam running? He is running in the park. Who or what is Sam running? There is no answer. So the verb "run" is INTRANSITIVE (in this sentence), therefore, and does not need an object. 3). Another way to tell if the verb needs an object or not is to use your ears. If it sounds funny, something is probably missing or wrong. 4). Finally, the best option if you are not sure might be to simply check the dictionary which will usually indicate "T" for transitive or "I" for Intransitive next to the verb.
As a general rule, intransitive (often followed by prepositional phrases, adverbs, adjectives, or complements) do not need an object.
- The woman behaved badly.
- The woman looks nice.
- The dog is happy.
- The child plays in the puddle.
Consider the following sentences which are grammatically complete in English:
- I ate. I ate hungrily. (intransitive)
- I bathed. I bathed in milk.(intransitive)
- I believed. I believed nothing. (intransitive)
- I drank. I drank in the bar. (intransitive)
- I exploded. I exploded at him. (intransitive)
- I fell. I fell in the water. (intransitive)
- I worked. I worked for it. (intransitive)
- I stopped. I stopped laughing. (intransitive)
- I shopped. I shopped till I dropped. (intransitive)
- I swam. I swam in the river. (intransitive probably in every context)
In the sentences above, there is just a SUBJECT and a VERB in the first version. Even after adding a phrase or complement in the second version, there is still no object because there is not “who” or “what.”. It means that each of these verbs is INTRANSITIVE. In English, a verb that is intransitive is a verb that is not followed by an object but yet, completes a sentence in a grammatically correct way.
By contrast, there are verbs in English that MUST BE FOLLOWED BY an object in order for the sentence to express a complete thought, and in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct and make sense.
Consider the 10 examples below:
- I sold. I sold it. It sold quickly.
- I kissed. I kissed him. We kissed in the movie theatre.
- I sent. I sent her.
- I want. I want it.
- I carry. I carry a concealed weapon.
- I terminated. I terminated the interview.
- I opened. I opened the door.
- I hear. I hear music.
- I shamed. I shamed the clerk.
- I folded (?). I folded the laundry.
- I gave. I gave them food.
- I imagine (?). I imagine the worst.
In each of these examples, the first sentence is incomplete because the listener will be wondering what or whom you are talking about. For example, in English, you can’t just say (under normal circumstances) “I sold.” This is not a complete sentence. Something is missing. The person who is listening to you will ask, “sold what?” What did you sell? To whom did you sell it? This is because the verb “to sell” is TRANSITIVE. It is a verb in transition. It is not a complete idea without an OBJECT attached. The object will answer the questions “who,” “whom,” or “what.” In the second sentence, the questions “who” “whom” or “what” is answered.
VERBS THAT ARE TRANSITIVE AND INTRANSITIVE
At the same time, one could argue that the verb “to kiss” is sometimes intransitive, and the verb “to drink” can be transitive. Consider for example, “I drank rum.” Or, “we kissed.” No object is needed in the latter whereas “rum” (while not needed to form a complete thought) is the object in the former. So depending on the context, a verb can be be either transitive or intransitive.
Consider the verb “to give.” Is this verb transitive or intransitive? Arguably, it would normally be transitive. Something else needs to be said for it to make sense in most circumstances. If you say to someone “I gave” the natural response might be “gave what?” Or, “give who?” “Gave who?” “Gave what”? Something is missing and the sentence is incomplete because the verb “to give” is TRANSITIVE. It needs an object – probably always
Note: Transitive verbs are followed by nouns or noun clauses and not be prepositions or state verbs. So for example, in the sentence “I can hear the birds singing.” The subject is “I” and the verb is “can hear.” The object is “the birds” so the verb “to hear” is TRANSITIVE.
By contrast, consider the sentence “I swam in the lake.” Here, the subject is “I” and the verb is “swam.” The prepositional phrase “in the lake” is not an object. So the verb “to swim” is INTRANSITIVE. It does not need an object. The same is true for all the verbs on the first set of verbs on this page.