Transitive and Intransitive Verbs - English Grammar

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

English Grammar

Verbs in English can be divided into two groups:
Transitive verbs and Intransitive verbs.


Transitive verbs require an object to complete their meaning.

Imagine that I say:

This sentence is incomplete. There is information that is missing.
You are probably wondering what I bought. (What did you buy Rob?)

Why is this sentence incomplete?

Because BOUGHT (the past of buy) is a transitive verb and a transitive verb needs an object after it to complete the sentence. The object after a transitive verb can be a noun or a pronoun.

Now the sentence is complete and we can understand it. We added the object “a car” after the verb.

Let’s look at some other examples.

If someone says:

You probably think … She likes WHAT? (What does she like?)
Like is a transitive verb so we need an object after the verb.

Now we know what she likes so this sentence is complete and correct.

You cannot just say I invited because the sentence is incomplete. The person who is listening would probably ask “Whom did you invite?” So we need an object (in this case a person) after the transitive verb invite.

You cannot just say I cut because the sentence is incomplete. The person who is listening would probably ask “Cut what?”

Cut is a transitive verb because you need to cut something (an object, a thing).

We need to say WHAT the man stole in order to understand the sentence/situation. Steal (stole is the past tense of steal) is a transitive verb. The object in this sentence is the bike.

So we have seen that transitive verbs need an object after them.
This object receives the action of the verb.

Transitive verbs always ask “what?” or “whom?”

Subject + transitive verb + object

The same rules apply to phrasal verbs.

If someone says: “I’m looking for”
You would automatically think “Looking for what? Looking for whom?”

We need to add an object to make the sentence complete.

My passport is the object (that you are looking for)

More about transitive phrasal verbs here: Transitive and Intransitive Phrasal Verbs

Transitive Verbs – Passive Form

Transitive verbs can have a passive form.
Active: Subject + transitive verb + object
Passive: Object + was/were + transitive verb (+ by subject)

Learn more about the passive voice.

Example sentences using TRANSITIVE verbs


Intransitive verbs cannot have a direct object after them.

The subject is doing the action of the verb and nothing receives the action. An intransitive verb does not pass the action to an object.

Here we cannot have an object after the intransitive verb arrive.
You cannot “arrive something” (incorrect).
An intransitive verb expresses an action that is complete in itself and it doesn’t need an object to receive the action.

Here we cannot have an object after the intransitive verb smiled.
You cannot “smile something” (incorrect).

You cannot “fall something” so the verb is intransitive.
“From the tree” is not an object, it is an adverbial phrase ( = it acts like an adverb and tells us where it happened).

The same rules apply to intransitive phrasal verbs. You cannot have an object after an intransitive phrasal verb.

Example sentences using INTRANSITIVE verbs

Verbs that are Transitive and Intransitive

Many verbs can be both transitive and intransitive.
They can be transitive in one sentence and intransitive in another sentence.
(These are called ambitransitive verbs)

Sometimes the meaning changes depending on whether the verb is transitive or intransitive

Example sentences of verbs that are both transitive and intransitive

(transitive) - (intransitive)

I stopped the car. –  The car stopped.
I broke my coffee mug. – My coffee mug broke.
The summer heat melted my ice cream. – My ice cream melted.
She speaks Arabic. –  She speaks very quickly.
Mike is reading a book. – Mike is reading.
New Zealand won the match. – New Zealand won.

A good dictionary will tell you whether a verb is transitive (usually vt. or tr. next to the verb in dictionaries) or intransitive (vi. or intr.)

Summary Chart

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs in English

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