Learning the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs can help students of English improve their knowledge of English grammar, which improves fluency. This page will help you identify transitive and intransitive verbs and phrasal verbs.
A transitive verb is a verb that can have an object. For example, the verb kick.
Sandra kicked the ball.
The object of the verb kick in the above sentence is the ball. Transitive verbs like kick are common in English. They describe actions that can be done to something. For example,
- She bought the cake.
- She caught the ball.
- He has found a problem.
- He will take a train.
- He is reading a letter.
Hint: Think of ‘transitive’ as a verb that can be ‘transferred’ an object. If it can take an object, it can be used as a transitive verb.
An intransitive verb is a verb that cannot have an object. For example, the verb sleep.
In this example, there is only a subject (the person doing the action) and a verb. There is no object. Here are some other examples of intransitive verbs:
Identifying Intransitive and Transitive Verbs
To know if the verb in a sentence is transitive, you need to see if the verb has an object in the sentence. To do that, ask What the subject did with the verb. For example:
- She opened the door. > She opened what? = the door. ‘The door’ is an object, so we know the verb is used transitively.
- The manager will close the store early. > The manager will close what? = the store. This means the verb is transitive.
- The children sat. > The children sat what? = ?? This question doesn’t make sense. You cannot sit something because sit is only an intransitive verb.
Note that not everything that comes after a verb is an object. Compare these two sentences:
- The children sat. (Intransitive — the verb sat has no object)
- The children sat in chairs. (Intransitive — in is a preposition, so in chairs is a prepositional phrase that describes where the children sat; it does not tell you what the children sat.)
- The children sat happily in chairs with their friends. (Intransitive, again. Here, happily is an adverb describing how they sat, and in chairs and with their friends are phrases started with prepositions.)
Verbs that Can Be Both Transitive and Intransitive
Some verbs have both a transitive and intransitive form.
- The dog eats. (Intransitive — the verb has no object)
- The dog eats food. (Transitive — the object ‘food’ means the verb is used transitively).
- Roger cleans often. (Intransitive — there is no object. Often is an adverb describing how often something happens. It does not tell you what Roger cleans).
- Roger cleans his bathroom often. (Transitive — Roger cleans what? His bathroom. That is the object of the verb.)
This is true of many verbs (there are too many to list). If you do not know if a verb is transitive or intransitive (or both), you can look it up in the dictionary.
Do you understand how to identify transitive and intransitive verbs? Try these exercises!
Exercise: Determine If the Sentence Is Transitive or Intransitive
- The train arrived.
- The passengers rode the train.
- The baby drinks from his bottle.
- The baby drinks milk from his bottle.
- The bird is flying away.
- The woman ordered a sandwich with mustard and mayonnaise.
- The sun warms our planet throughout the year.
- Some birds in Canada fly south in the winter.
1. Intransitive. The verb arrive cannot have an object.
2. Transitive. The passengers rode what? The train. This is the object.
3.. Intransitive. What did the baby drink? We don’t know because there is no object. The phrase “from his bottle” is a prepositional phrase, not an object.
4. Transitive. What did the baby drink? Milk.
5. Intransitive. Away is an adverb (it is a direction), not what the bird flies.
6. Transitive. What did the woman order? A sandwich.
7. Transitive. What does the sun warm? Our planet.
8. Intransitive. South is a direction (an adverb) that tells you where the birds flew; it is not the object of the verb. In the winter is a prepositional phrase telling you when.
Is the Verb ‘to be’ Transitive or Intransitive?
The BE verb is not transitive or intransitive. It is called a linking verb. Instead of following the subject + verb + object format, sentences with linking verbs follow this format:
The man is a doctor.
[subject] + [verb] + [complement]
Other linking verbs include appear, become, feel, grow, look, smell, sound, taste. These verbs, when used as linking verbs, are neither transitive nor intransitive.
Commonly Confused Intransitive Verbs
These verbs are commonly confused by students (even advanced students):
|transitive verb||intransitive verb|
|lay (lay/laid/laid)||lie (lie/lay/lain)|
|raise (raise/raised/raised)||rise (rise/rose/risen)|
To practice the difference between these two verbs, see the below related pages:
Exercise Group #2: Confusing Transitive & Intransitive Verbs
- Only one student raised her hand.
- The airplane slowly rose above the clouds.
- She laid the flowers on the grave.
- He lay still without moving.
- The team was tired last night.
- Nothing will happen.
- They are going to release the schedule next week.
1. Transitive – What did she raise? Her hand
2. Intransitive – The verb rise cannot have an object.
3. Transitive – What did she lay? Flowers
4. Intransitive – This is the verb ‘lie’ in the past tense (‘lay’), which is an intransitive verb. How do we know it’s not ‘lay’ in the present tense? The answer: there’s no object in the sentence (He lay what?). This shows that we are using an intransitive verb.
5. BE Verb (linking verb) – This is a sentence with the BE verb, which is a linking verb.
6. Intransitive – The verb happen cannot have an object. (You cannot actively ‘happen something’)
7. Transitive – What is going to be released? The schedule. This is the object of the verb ‘release’.
Advanced Exercises: Transitive & Intransitive Verbs and the Passive Voice
Try to identify the verb type in these sentences, which include both the active and passive voice. Keep in mind that the passive voice can only be formed with transitive verbs. (If you are not familiar with the passive voice, please study it before trying this section.)
- Rice is grown on farms by farmers.
- Several issues were raised at the meeting.
- John wasn’t ready for his test.
- A special gift is being presented to Mr. Cooper.
- Our teacher is going to punish us.
- Dinosaurs existed 65 million years ago.
- The temperature has been increased to 350 degrees.
- The company has been lowering employee salaries for years.
1. Transitive (Passive Voice) – This is a sentence in the passive voice. The subject, rice, is the object of the verb ‘grow’.
2. Transitive (Passive Voice) – The object of the verb ‘raise’ is ‘several issues’, which becomes the subject of the sentence when passive voice is used.
3. BE Verb (linking verb) – This is a sentence with the Be verb + an adjective (ready).
4. Transitive (Passive Voice) – The object of the verb ‘present’ is a special gift. The verb is in the present continuous tense (is presenting) in the passive voice, which becomes is being presented. (auxiliary verb + BE verb + past participle)
5. Transitive (Active Voice) – The object of the verb ‘punish’ is ‘us’, which comes after the verb. The actor of the verb, ‘Our teacher’, is the subject. The actor/agent of the verb is always the subject in the active voice. –
6. Intransitive – The verb ‘exist’ cannot have an object.
7. Transitive (Passive Voice) – The verb ‘increase’ can have an object. Here, the object of the verb ‘increase’ is ‘the temperature’, which becomes the subject of the verb in a passive voice sentence.
8. Transitive (Active Voice) – The verb ‘lower’ can have an object. The subject of the sentence, ‘The company’ is the actor/agent who is doing the action (lowering), which means the sentence is in the active voice.
If you find this section challenging, try some easier passive voice exercises.
Transitive and Intransitive Phrasal Verbs
A phrasal verb is like an idiom—it is a phrase that has a special meaning. Phrasal verbs have a main verb and another word that is usually either an adverb or a preposition. Phrasal verbs can be intransitive (without an object):
- You need to calm down. (to calm down = to relax)
- Her grandfather passed away. (to pass away = to die)
- Let’s get together on Tuesday. (to get together = to meet someone)
Phrasal verbs can also be transitive (with an object):
- The teacher passed out some papers. (to pass out = to distribute)
- The student made up an excuse. (to make something up = to invent something, usually a story or game)
- You should pick up your garbage. (to pick up = to lift something; to collect something)
One tricky part is that the object of a phrasal verb can often come between the two verbs:
- The teacher passed some papers out. (to pass out = to distribute)
- The student made an excuse up. (to make something up = to invent something, usually a story or game)
- You should pick it up. (to pick up = to lift something; to collect something)
There is no difference in meaning.
As a final note, some phrasal verbs are three words. Here are some examples:
- People look up to celebrities. (Transitive verb, to look up to [someone] = to admire someone)
- I can’t put up with this cold weather any longer. I need a vacation! (Transitive verb, to put up with = to tolerate something)
- We are looking forward to the weekend. (Transitive verb, to look forward to = to await a future event eagerly)
Exercise Group #1: Transitive and Intransitive Phrasal Verbs
- Let’s cheer up Brenda.
- Cheer up, Brenda!
- She figured out the answer.
- My father and I get along well.
- We need to work out a way to save money.
1. Transitive. ‘Brenda’ is the object of the phrasal verb cheer up.
2. Intransitive. There is no object here. ‘Brenda!’ describes who you are talking to (it would be the same to say ‘Brenda, cheer up!’).
3. Transitive. The noun phrase the answer is the object of the verb figure out.
4. Intransitive. There is no object here. Well is an adverb.
5. Transitive. What do we want to work out (solve)? A way to save money.
Exercise Group #2: Transitive and Intransitive Phrasal Verbs
- (Jane and Andy are always fighting.) They should break up already!
- The police officer broke up the fight.
- The printer has run out of paper again.
- The man passed out after being hit on the head.
- Let’s put the meeting off until next week.
Answer and Explanation
1. Intransitive. The phrasal verb break up, meaning to end a relationship, cannot have an object.
2. Transitive. The phrasal verb break up, meaning to end something, does have an object (that tells you what was ended).
3. Transitive. Run out of is a three-word phrasal verb. Paper is the object in this sentence.
4. Intransitive. The phrasal verb pass out, meaning to lose consciousness, does not take an object. The clause after being hit on the head describes when he passed out; it is not an object.
5. Transitive. What do we want to put off (postpone)? The meeting. (The object here is between the phrasal verb).
Questions? Find a mistake? Leave a comment below.
– Matthew Barton / Creator of www.englishcurrent.com