transitive & intransitive verbs

•• A transitive verb is a verb which can be followed by a direct object. In other words, it appears in the [S+V+O] and the [S+V+O+A] clause patterns.

• transitive verbs: get, build, fix, hear, read, eat, finish, play, find, enter, insult, fool, follow, climb, lay, raise, believe, think

•• An intransitive verb is a verb which cannot be followed by a direct object. In other words, it appears in the [S+V] and the [S+V+A] clause patterns.

• intransitive verbs: happen, die, lie, rise, sleep, run, fall, go, come


• All of the examples of intransitive verbs listed above are purely intransitive; in other words, they are never followed by an object.


• However, of the examples of transitive verbs, only get, fix, hear, find, insult, fool and raise are purely transitive; in other words, they must be followed by an object—except, perhaps, in very unusual circumstances. All the others can sometimes be used without an object. In most cases when a transitive verb is used without an object, it is because an unmentioned object is assumed to be present (or “understood”). For example, when we say “Harry is eating,” we assume he is eating food of some sort; when we say “Jack is reading,” we assume he is reading a book or some other sort of “reading material.”

• Phrasal verbs can also be classified as transitive and intransitive. Most, “pick up” and “throw out,” for example, are transitive, but there are many instransitive phrasal verbs as well, for example, “blow over” and “fall off.”

• Prepositional verbs, such as “listen to” and “wait for” are best regarded as transitive forms of instransitive verbs (“listen”, “wait,” etc.). Ergative verbs such as “boil“ and “burn“ also have a transitive and an intransitive sense.

• Some verbs have two quite different meanings, one transitive, the other intransitive. For example, “run” is transitive in “Harry runs a very successful company” and intransitive in “Harry runs three miles every morning.”

•• esl point: Intransitive verbs can never be put into the passive voice because the passive voice is formed by placing the direct object of an active verb in the “subject position”—and, of course, intransitive verbs do not have objects. One of the most common and persistent errors in the writing of intermediate ESL students is to put the intransitive verb “happen” into the passive, as in “Something terrible was happened to Harry yesterday.”