Recognizing Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Contributor: Kristen Gardiner. Lesson ID: 11794

Transition, transportation, transient, transmogrifications - everyday(?) words that signify action. So, what are transitive verbs? Learn to use them properly with online quizzes and written practice!



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Has this ever happened to you? Can you figure out what is happening?

transitive verb comic

What is a transitive verb?

Can you determine the meaning of the term from the above graphic? Do you think their mom is going to do something to the brother, perhaps punish him in some way?

Take a look at the word, "transitive." What comes to mind when you see or hear the word? Do you think of movement?

Examine the following sentences and pay particular attention to each verb:

  • My brother locked his keys in the car again.
  • Our new puppy chewed my brand new shoes to shreds!
  • Every time my sister washes clothes, she shrinks my sweaters.

There are two specific characteristics you should notice about each of the verbs. Both characteristics have something in common with movement, and together these two things make a verb transitive. Let's begin with the first example:

  • My brother locked his keys in the car again.

Step one is to find the verb. The verb in this sentence is "locked," which is an action verb, and action verbs typically show some type of movement.

Step two is to ask what or who is receiving the action of the verb. If that question can be answered, we have a direct object. Let's see if this sentence has a direct object. Who or what was or is locked? His keys were locked, so "keys" is the direct object. The keys received the action, or, more appropriately, we can say that the action was transferred to the keys. Again, we have movement in the sentence.

So, is the verb "locked" transitive? Here is the formal definition of a transitive verb: A transitive verb is an action verb that has a direct object. Does "locked" meet the two criteria of being a transitive verb?

Yes! Let's move on to the next two sentences.

  • Our new puppy chewed my brand new shoes to shreds!

First, find the verb and determine if it is an action verb. In this case, the verb is "chewed." Now, determine if the sentence has a direct object by asking a question: "What did the puppy chew?" The direct object of this sentence is "shoes," making chewed a transitive verb.

Here is the last example:

  • Every time my sister washes clothes, she shrinks my sweaters.

In this sentence, we have two verbs that both show action ("washes" and "shrinks") and have direct objects ("clothes" and "sweaters"). Be careful, because this sentence also has an indirect object in the second clause (Whose sweaters? "my"). You need to be aware that transitive verbs can have indirect objects along with direct objects.

Just to be clear, here is an example with a direct and indirect object:

  • Debbie's dad bought her a kitten for Christmas.

In the sentence above, "bought" is the transitive verb, "kitten" is the direct object (what he bought), and "her" is the indirect object (for whom).

The two rules for identifying transitive verbs are simple to remember, especially if you keep the idea of motion in mind:

  • Transitive verbs are action verbs
  • Transitive verbs have direct objects (the action is transferred to another word in the sentence), and they may also have indirect objects.

That raises two questions:

  • When is a verb not transitive (or more correctly, intransitive)?
  • Why is this important?

A verb is intransitive when it is an action verb but does not have a direct object. Verbs can sometimes be tricky, and misuse can lead to sentence fragments, unclear meaning, and unintentional passive voice.

Read the following two sentences carefully and determine which verb use is transitive and which is intransitive:

  • My train leaves at noon.
  • Peter usually leaves the door unlocked.

Here we have the same action verb, but only one is transferring the action. Do you know which is the transitive verb? How can you tell?

The first sentence shows an intransitive verb. The action "leaves" is not being transferred to any other word in the sentence; rather it is followed by a prepositional phrase answering the question, "What time?"

The second sentence, however, shows the action being transferred to the "door." What does he leave? "He leaves the door."

Here are a few more examples of intransitive verbs:

  • Sheila sneezes with great forcefulness. Sneezes = Intransitive Verb
  • Laila sits in the front row. Sits = Intransitive Verb

It is important to note that, while some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive depending upon their usage, there are some verbs, including "arrive," "go," "lie," "sneeze," "sit," and "die," that are always intransitive — it is impossible for a direct object to follow. These verbs are always followed by prepositional phrases.

Why is this important? Because a transitive verb without a direct object creates an incomplete sentence, and an intransitive verb without a full prepositional phrase creates bad style.

Have you ever caught yourself lazily shortening sentences when speaking? What's wrong with the following sentences?

  • My friend got for his birthday. (Got what? There is no object.)
  • The president arrived in. (Arrived in what? A car? Tears? This sentence ends in a preposition!)
  • Bob sat Sheila. (Where? In the front row? On a whoopie cushion?)
  • The door slammed behind her. (Who slammed the door? This sentence is in passive voice.)

Did you note the errors in the above sentences? Sometimes, when we speak, the person on the receiving end of the conversation may know our meaning. Yet, when we write, we need to make a consistent and conscious effort to be absolutely clear in our meaning.

Now that know one more grammar-wise bit of information that will help strengthen your writing and help you outperform on standardized tests, it's time to practice what you have learned!

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