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What Is an Intransitive Verb?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 17, 2024
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Unlike a transitive verb, an intransitive verb is a verb that doesn’t take a direct or indirect object. It is an action verb, but there is no object receiving the action. For example, in the sentence “Sally cried,” “cried” is an intransitive verb that has no direct or indirect object receiving the action. Some verbs, such as “run,” “dress,” and “wash,” can act as both intransitive and transitive verbs. Their sentences make clear the kinds of verbs they are, though.

A simple trick to determine whether a verb is an intransitive verb or a transitive verb is to see whether, after reading or hearing the statement, the reader or listener can ask about a direct or indirect object. For instance, if someone hears the sentence “John ran,” that person can ask “John ran what?” The person can inquire about an object receiving the action. Yet, in the sentence “John ran a business,” the object receiving the action, or what John ran, is clear to the listener. Although both sentences are complete, it’s still possible to ask about a direct or indirect object for the first sentence.

Additional examples of intransitive verbs include “rustled,” “paid,” and “slept.” In the sentence “The leaves rustled,” “rustled” is an intransitive verb. It has no direct or indirect object receiving the action. The reader or listener can ask, “What did the leaves rustle?” Likewise, in the sentences “I paid” and “You slept,” “paid” and “slept” are intransitive verbs delivering no action to any objects.

Note that intransitive verbs aren’t always at the end of sentences, though. For example, in the sentence “Lucy plays every morning,” “plays” is an intransitive verb but it’s not at the end of the sentence. The same trick applies to intransitive verbs that don’t appear at the end of sentences. After being told, “Lucy plays every morning,” the listener can ask “Lucy plays what?” Lucy might play a musical instrument or a board game, or she might simply play and amuse herself as children do.

Depending on how they’re used, some verbs can be either intransitive or transitive. “Plays” is an intransitive verb in the sentence “Lucy plays every morning,” but in the sentence “Lucy plays the flute every morning,” “plays” is a transitive verb. For the first sentence, the reader or listener can ask “Lucy plays what?” “Plays” takes no direct or indirect object, so the reader or listener doesn’t know what Lucy plays, or even if she plays anything specific. Yet, in the second sentence, the reader or listener already knows what Lucy plays each morning, and it’s the flute.

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