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Transitive vs Intransitive Verbs: More Specificity?

Most people understand that verbs describe specific actions and states of being in the English language. But did you know there are two different groups of action words? These two groups, transitive and intransitive verbs, describe how people and things take certain actions. However, transitive and intransitive verbs function differently from one another in a sentence.

Let’s explore the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs and how a transitive verb and intransitive verb work, so that you can identify each type and answer what is an intransitive verb and what is a transitive verb?

What’s the Difference Between Transitive and Intransitive Verbs?

To understand the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, it’s important to look at each type individually. Let’s start with a transitive verb definition and transitive verb examples.

What is a Transitive Verb?: A Transitive Verb Definition

What is a transitive verb? In order to define a transitive verb, know that transitive verbs follow two rules. First, transitive verbs are always action words. You cannot have a transitive verb that describes a state of being because there’s no action taking place. Similarly, a linking word does not follow the transitive verb definition. Therefore, verbs such as to be, to feel, and to grow and all their forms cannot be transitive verbs, which will be under the intransitive verbs section.

Second, a transitive verb always needs to relate to the object in a sentence. To understand what that means, let’s break down the fundamentals of sentence structure.

All sentences contain a subject, which is a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that’s doing or being something. You’ll also find a verb, which is the action or state of being word, linking the two or sometimes to an object. That’s the noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that the transitive verb examples affect.

  • James hands over a hand-knit sweater to Carla.

As you can see, hands is the transitive verb directing the action from James to Carla.

When there’s an object in a sentence containing an action word, you’re dealing with transitive verbs. If there is no object in a sentence containing an action word, yet the sentence still makes sense, then the action word is an intransitive verb. That’s the main difference between transitive and intransitive verbs and in order to begin to define a transitive verb you need to clarify these first. Here are a few transitive verb examples showing how transitive and intransitive verbs function differently.

What is a Transitive Verb?: A Few Transitive Verb Examples

One way to define a transitive verb is to determine whether a sentence would make sense if there was no object present. A transitive verb definition states that a transitive word is usually an action word. But is there ever a reason to use an action word by itself? For more help with this, click to read more.

Here are some transitive verbs examples:

  • Fred kicked the football.

This is a complete thought that makes sense. But, what happens when you remove the object? Then you have just the transitive verb and the pronoun:

  • Fred kicked.

Without the object, the sentence no longer makes sense. What is it that Fred kicked? Because the transitive verbs examples’ leaves out an object; without it you can’t tell.

Some other words in the transitive verb category include all forms of buy, leave, make, pass, and sell.

  • Jennifer sold her old bike to Justin.

In this sentence you understand what it is that Jennifer did and who received the action. However, if the sentence was just “Jennifer sold” then the sentence wouldn’t contain enough information. The transitive verb, sold, needs the subject to make sense.

The two transitive verb examples above show the two types of transitive verbs. “Fred kicked the football” is an example of a word which requires only one object. The object in this case is the football, and alone this provides enough information to understand what’s happening.

“Jennifer sold her old bike to Justin” is an example of an action word that requires more than one object. In this case, the objects include her old bike and Justin. Without both objects, you wouldn’t know what Jennifer sold, nor whom she sold it to.

The only time not having an object and can still be considered a transitive verb is when you have a phrasal verb. Exploring the question “what is a transitive verb” is not complete without examining phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb can act as both transitive and intransitive verbs. This happens when an action word or state of being has multiple meanings depending on its context and can be used in a phrase by itself. For a transitive verbs example:

  • Hang on!

Here, the action word, to hang can connect indirect or direct objects or be used by itself. The action word, to hang switches between a transitive verb and intransitive verb definition depending on what meaning of hang the writer is using.

To add to your transitive verb definition, transitive verbs also have a passive form. A passive form is when a sentence focuses on the action word or state of being instead of the subject. Seeing transitive verb examples can be helpful. 

  • Derrick was at the club, but left in a hurry. 

Passive forms utilize the formula: Object + was/were + transitive (subject)

Think you can define a transitive verb?

When someone asks you “what is a transitive verb” you can explain that they are action words which require an object to form a complete sentence. This is different from how an intransitive verb works. Before we dive into the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, try writing your own transitive verb definition and share it with a friend and practice what is a transitive verb. Think you can guess the differences between a transitive verb and intransitive verb? Take a look back at the transitive verbs examples and use them as a resource to add more transitive verbs to your collection.

Before you read an intransitive verb definition, why not quickly learn how to make citations using MLA format and APA format?

What is an Intransitive Verb?: An Intransitive Verb Definition

Now that we can define a transitive verb, what is an intransitive verb? An intransitive verb, just like its counterpart, can be an action word. However, it’s different because an object that receives the action isn’t necessary. Intransitive words also cover states of being.To fully understand an intransitive verb definition, it will be a little tricky. Unlike transitive verbs, the noun completes an action by itself. It can be helpful to see intransitive verb examples. Here’s one:

  • Ted danced.

In this sentence, Ted is the subject and danced is the intransitive verb. There is not and cannot be a direct object that follows the sentence. Yet, the sentence can precede a preposition phrase or an adverb. For instance:

  • Ted danced high school cafeteria.

This sentence is incorrect. A subject followed by a transitive action word and a direct object doesn’t make sense. However, if a transitive verb comes before a preposition, then you can make a complete sentence.

  • Ted danced in his high school cafeteria.

You can even add an adverb to the sentence, to add more description to the intransitive verb.

  • The horse galloped.

This standard sentence follows all the rules. But you can also add more detail to the intransitive verb, by writing:

  • The horse galloped wildly.

Thus, if the subject acts by itself, then you know you’re using an intransitive verb.

Another way to think of the intransitive verb definition is to understand the imperative form. The imperative form is when you give a command, advice, or even a warning. Intransitive verbs do not need an object to identify what the action word is referring to.

  • Get out!
  • Stop, duck, and roll.
  • Stay calm, and breathe.

All three intransitive verb examples in italics don’t need an object to direct the intransitive word. They act by themselves as commands and advice. This is a quick tip to figure the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Do you think you know what is an intransitive verb? Let’s hold off and dig even further into intransitive verbs.

Intransitive Verb Examples

To complete your intransitive verb definition, there are many intransitive words in the English language to memorize. These include escape, fall, jump, listen, sigh, read, and swim. Intransitive verbs also include linking words such as to be, to feel, and to grow. Here are a few intransitive verb examples:

  • She waves at her cousin.
  • The mouse squeaks with delight.
  • Maxine walks around the park nonstop.

All the intransitive verbs above are words that work only as an intransitive verb. Yet, some words work as both transitive and intransitive verbs. A transitive verb and intransitive verb can both be action words. Consider the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. There are a number of them between transitive and intransitive verbs. Answer ‘what is an intransitive verb’ with your own intransitive verb definition for this section. Don’t forget to check out the links above.

Before looking at these words, why not check out this helpful plagiarism checker? Also need citations? Citation Machine Plus can help you cite sources in both MLA and APA format, plus many more styles.

Words That are Both a Transitive Verb and Intransitive Verb

You call words that are both transitive and intransitive verbs by their proper name: ergative.

Whether the transitive verb and intransitive need an object or not depends on the sentence structure. Here are some examples of ergative words:

  • Please open the door for Thomas.
  • The grocery store opens late on Thursdays.
  • We set a date on our calendar.
  • The sun set.
  • Move your car so Holly can park behind us.
  • The chicken suddenly moved.

 Remember, the action word or state of being turns into a transitive verb when it’s transferring action from object to subject. An intransitive verb can still be an action word but does not need a subject to make sense of the meaning. When going into a transitive verb definition, here’s a small list of ergative words that can be used as both transitive and intransitive verbs, intransitive verb examples, and transitive verbs examples.

  • Open
  • To set
  • Move
  • Say
  • Break 
  • Grow

Other transitive and intransitive verbs that are considered ergative include start, write, live, do, and close. Intransitive verbs are the hardest to remember out of the two. But with a little practice, you will know what is a transitive verb and intransitive without a workbook and add more to your transitive verb definition. Think of different ways to use a transitive verb and intransitive verb and afterwards, grab a buddy and see if you both can:

  1.  Define a transitive verb.
  2. Tell the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs,
  3.  Write an intransitive verb definition 
  4. Explain what is an intransitive verb.
  5. Create your version of transitive verbs examples, intransitive verb examples and make lists of each.

When you’re done, see this link for more information about action words and transitive verbs examples.


Published March 5, 2019. Updated April 23, 2020.

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