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What Is a Transitive Verb?

By Meg Higa
Updated May 17, 2024
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All languages of the world use verbs to express action or a state of being. The latter is a small set of words, including derivations of the verb “to be” such as: is, was and were. One way to categorize the vast variety of words of physical or mental action is as either transitive or intransitive. A transitive verb, very simply, requires a direct object — a noun upon which the action is applied.

With a few exceptions, such as exclamations of just one word, most all grammatically valid sentences of a given language contain a direct subject and a predicate verb. The complete sentence, “She is happy,” employs a linking verb to tie the subject pronoun to its descriptive adjective. There are no other nouns, so the verb “is” must be an intransitive verb. The same is true of the verb in, “She died yesterday.”

The word transitive is derived from the Latin words for “passing across.” The transitive verb is a bridge of causal relationship. A sentence with such a verb is incomplete unless it contains a principal agent as well as a secondary recipient of the action represented by the verb. The latter is referred as the direct object of the verb.

In the example, “She faced death bravely,” the verb is transitive. “Death” is the direct object, the recipient noun of her action. Omission of this word results in a sentence that makes little sense. Verbs that can only accept a direct object are called monotransitive.

All languages, but English in particular, morph and culturally evolve. Verbs especially constantly acquire new meanings. While many verbs are either transitive or not, there are just as many whose transitivity can be either, depending on their specific meaning or usage. The example in the above paragraph can be used as an intransitive verb, such as in, “She faced forward, each passing new day.” Such verbs are called ambitransitive.

In addition to the direct object, a transitive verb can also accept an indirect object — a noun that is the recipient of the direct object. In almost all cases, it references to whom or for whom the action is directed. In English grammar, the indirect object always precedes the direct object in word order. The sentence structure of, “She gave me joy,” is: direct subject — transitive verb — indirect object — direct object. Other examples of so-called ditransitive verbs include the words get, read, send and show.

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Discussion Comments

By MissDaphne — On Aug 03, 2011

@EdRick - I'm an English teacher and I see questions like yours all the time. A few common-sense ideas will help you keep straight.

First, yes, some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive. Some are always one or alway the other. Linking verbs, for instance, are always intransitive. And some are always transitive; you have to comb something; you would say "She combed her hair," not "She combed." But many words can be either. Eat is an example. You could say "I ate a sandwich"; sandwich is the direct object and ate is transitive. Or you could say "We have already eaten." There, eaten is intransitive.

Your second question, about "she died yesterday" is also a very common mistake. "Yesterday" is an adverb; it's not a noun. It tells *when* she died, not *what* she died. Sometimes, a word or phrase will come after a noun but not be the direct object. "I ate cookies"; cookies is the DO. "I ate slowly"; slowly is an adverb and ate is intransitive. "I ate for an hour straight"; hour is the object of the preposition for and ate is intransitive.

I hope that will help with those transitive verb worksheets. Good luck!

By EdRick — On Aug 03, 2011

Can the same word by both a transitive and intransitive verb? My son is studying verbs in grammar and I'm trying awfully hard to help him, but grammar was a long time ago for me.

Something that confused me in the article was the sentence "She died yesterday." Isn't "yesterday" the direct object?

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