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Transitive vs intransitive verbs

Oct 3, 2016 verbs
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One of the most common mistakes that I come across in technical documentation produced by non-native speakers is incorrect usage of transitive and intransitive verbs. Do not let the scary sounding grammar words put you off. Sometimes a complex name hides a rather basic notion. Working at Xpand, which is an international company with a multilingual working environment, has proved that any language barriers can be overcome when you approach them with thought and effort.

So what are transitive and intransitive verbs?

Read the following two sentences:

We need to maintain product quality.

The baby was crying.

The first sentence contains a transitive verb “maintain”, while the second one contains an intransitive verb “cry”. Notice that in the second sentence there are no words after crying.

Transitive verbs

Transitive verbs are action verbs that have an object to receive that action. In other words, transitive verbs transfer their action to the object. Such verbs can take direct and indirect objects.

Examples of transitive verbs:

He drinks coffee every morning.

(drink is a transitive verb because it needs an object)

I rode the bike.

He filled in the field.

Intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs do take an object after them.

She runs every day.

(run is an intransitive verb because it does not need an object)

The sun set.

They laughed.

Verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive

Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive, depending on how they are used in a sentence.

Examples:

The choir sang carols. [transitive]

Ivan always sings in the bath. [intransitive]

She left Kyiv on May 25. [transitive]

I want to leave early. [intransitive]

How to identify whether a verb is transitive, intransitive or can be both transitive and intransitive?

Well, the best way is to look it up in a dictionary. Some explanatory dictionaries, though not all, define this characteristic of a verb. E.g. Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Longman dictionaries, Macmillan English dictionary, dictionary.com, and many others. If a verb or some of its meaning can be both transitive and intransitive, the examples help you understand in which meaning a verb does or does not required an object.

What about the following sentence?

They walked to the library yesterday.

Is walked transitive or intransitive in this case? The verb “walked” has words coming after it, so the verb must be transitive, right? Wrong! The phrase “to the library” is a prepositional phrase and “yesterday” is an adverb. There is no object receiving the action of the verb “walked”, so the verb is intransitive.

To recap, a transitive verb is an action verb that required an object to receive that action, while transitive verbs do not require an object.

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