Transitive and Intransitive Verbs: Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on May 10, 2023

If you're wondering what the difference is between transitive and intransitive verbs, you're in the right place. This article is dedicated to teaching you what each of these terms means and how to know if a verb is transitive or not, and how to use the two kinds of verbs.

In short:

  • A transitive verb takes an object, and an intransitive verb doesn't.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

Knowing the Difference Between Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

  • A transitive verb is a verb that needs an object to make sense.
  • Intransitive verbs don't need an object and, in fact, wouldn't make much sense if they had one.

So I thought I'd start with a quick review of what objects are and how to spot them in a sentence, so you can know if the verb is transitive or intransitive.

What Are Objects?

The first thing to know is that there are two types of objects: direct and indirect. If a sentence contains a subject and a verb - which it always does - then it can also have an object.

The subject is the thing or person doing the action of the verb.

The verb is the action being performed.

  • The direct object is the thing having the action performed on it.
  • The indirect object is the thing or person that receives the direct object.

Finding the Object

If you're trying to locate the object in a sentence, there are some tricks you can use. The first thing you should know is that an object is always a noun, whether that's a regular noun, a proper noun, a pronoun, a gerund, an infinitive, a noun clause, or a noun phrase.

So how do you find the direct object?

If you want to find the direct object, you can ask, "What or whom did the subject-verb?". In other words, what or whom is the verb's action being performed on?

For example, in the following sentence, the action is 'preparing.' What is being prepared? Dinner. So the direct object is 'dinner.'

I'm making dinner.

When it comes to indirect objects, you can ask, "To/for whom is the action of the verb being done?". So let's add an indirect object to the sentence above. Now to/for whom is dinner being cooked? 'You.' So 'you' is the indirect object.

I'm making you dinner.

How to Identify Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Now we've covered the basics around objects, let's get into the meat of this article: transitive and transitive verbs. And guess what? There's going to be a bonus! You'll also learn about ditransitive and ambitransitive verbs.

Transitive Verbs

As we saw briefly earlier, transitive verbs can take a direct object. When that's the case, these verbs perform an action on or to something.

So you know earlier when we mentioned that to find a direct object, you could ask what or whom did the subject 'verb'? Well, a verb that verbs an object will always be transitive.

Okay, I recognize that sentence may have been a little confusing, but you're still with me, right? Let me show you an example.

I love singing that song.

The direct object in the sentence above is 'that song' since that's the thing being sung. Since there's a direct object, that makes 'sing' a transitive verb.

The verb 'love' without an object wouldn't make much sense.

You can't just say:

I love.

Intransitive Verbs

If transitive verbs are verbs that take a direct object, intransitive verbs are the exact opposite.

  • That's right; intransitive verbs are verbs that do not take an object.

It just acts alone in a sentence and doesn't need a direct or indirect object to make sense. So when you ask the question, "What or whom did the subject verb?" the answer will be nothing/no one.

Let's take a look at a sentence example.

 I can't stop coughing.

The subject is 'I,' the verb is 'coughing,' and there is no object. Because you can't cough something, you can cough up something or cough on something, but that's a different story, as those wouldn't be objects.

Ambitransitive Verbs

So here's the cool thing: a verb can be both transitive and intransitive. Ambitransitive verbs can be compatible with having an object and not having an object.

Here are a few examples of ditransitive verbs:

  • read
  • break
  • open
  • paint
  • play

With these verbs and any other ambitransitive verb, you can make sentences with an object and sentences without.

Let's take a look at a few examples.

I like to read.
I like to read books.

We enjoy painting our house.
We enjoy painting.

They're playing.
They're playing a game.

Ditransitive Verbs

Ditransitive verbs are the final type of verb, and they can take not one but two objects. That's right; they have a direct object and an indirect object.

Or, sometimes, it can be a direct object and an object complement.

That should teach him a lesson. 

'Him' is the direct object, and 'teach' is the indirect object.

Here are some more examples:

I bought you a gift.

Can you lend me a pencil?

Concluding Thoughts on Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Well, there you have it. That's everything you need to know to get a handle on transitive and intransitive verbs, as well as, of course, ambitransitive and ditransitive.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • There are two kinds of objects: direct and indirect.
  • Transitive verbs take a direct object, while intransitive verbs don't.
  • Ambitransitive verbs can do both: take an object or not take one.
  • Ditransitive verbs take both a direct and an indirect object.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did and would like to learn about more grammar concepts, check out our free online Grammar Book, a database full of articles on various English grammar concepts.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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