A verb is a word that denotes an action (e.g. run, jump, kick) or state (e.g. feel, understand, belong). We can also divide action verbs into transitive verbs and intransitive verbs, which we can define as follows:
A transitive verb is one that requires an object to make sense.
An intransitive verb does not require an object.
But what exactly is the difference in practice? And how does it affect your writing? Check out our explanation and examples below to find out.
As mentioned above, a transitive verb requires an object to make sense. The ‘object’ in this context is the thing that is being acted upon in a sentence. To use a transitive verb, then, we need to specify what the verb is happening to by giving an object after the verb. For example:
Here, for instance, we have the transitive verb ‘discussed’. On one side, we have a subject (i.e. the sisters, who perform the action). On the other side, we have an object (i.e. their plan, which is the thing they’re discussing). And between these three things, we have a grammatical sentence.
But it is only grammatical if we include an object (i.e. something to ‘discuss’):
The sisters discussed their plan. ✓
The sisters discussed. ✗
This second sentence is wrong because the verb lacks an object. It leaves us asking, ‘What did they discuss?’ But that’s only because ‘discuss’ is a transitive verb, so it will always require an object to make sense.
Intransitive verbs do not need a direct object. As such, you can form a grammatical sentence with just a subject and an intransitive verb:
We know what this means by itself (i.e. the sisters were arguing). The sentence does not need an object that tells us who the sisters were arguing with or what the argument was about. We can provide this information if we want, but we do so with a prepositional phrase:
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The sisters argued with their father. ✓
The sisters argued about who was fastest. ✓
With intransitive verbs, then, any extra information follows a preposition (e.g. ‘with’ or ‘about’). It does not follow directly from the verb. If we tried to do this, the sentence would be ungrammatical:
The sisters argued their father. ✗
The sisters argued who was fastest. ✗
Thus, we cannot use a direct object with an intransitive verb.
Transitive or Intransitive?
Some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on how they’re used. For example, we can use ‘sang’ in both of the following:
I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ at the party. ✓
I sang at the party. ✓
Both sentences here are grammatical. In the first, ‘sang’ is a transitive verb with ‘Happy Birthday’ as its object. But ‘sang’ has no object in the second sentence (i.e. we don’t specify what we were singing).
As such, ‘sang’ can be either transitive or intransitive depending on how we use it. And we can tell whether a verb is being used transitively or intransitively by looking for a direct object.
Finally, most dictionaries will say whether a verb can be used transitively or intransitively, so you can check any term you use in your own writing to make sure it can take an object (or be used without one). And if you need a grammar expert to review your work, we’re always here to help.