We can divide English verbs into two broad categories:
Let’s look at the differences.
A sentence with an intransitive verb only has a subject and a verb. The subject is the person (or thing) that is doing the action. There is no direct object to the verb.
Mark is sleeping.
In this sentence, we only have a subject (Mark) and the verb (sleep). Notice that there is no direct object to the verb. “sleep” isn’t being done to anything or to anyone.
An intransitive verb simply describes the action being done by the subject of the sentence. Intransitive verbs often describe physical behaviour or movement.
List of common intransitive verbs:
arrive, die, fall, go, laugh, sleep, smile, stay
The man has died.
Jane is laughing.
I would like to stay.
Prepositional phrases (or adverbial phrases) are often after an intransitive verb. But it is important to understand that these prepositional and adverbial phrases are NOT a direct object. The verb is still intransitive.
The door opened slowly.
Sarah is walking to the office.
A sentence with a transitive verb has a subject, a verb and a direct object.
A direct object is the person (or thing) that is acted upon by the subject.
Mark is writing a letter.
Direct object: letter
Mark is playing football.
I have made a sandwich.
Jane is drinking a cup of coffee.
How to find a direct object
Here is the process:
1) Say the subject and verb followed by the question “what?” or “whom?”
2a) The answer to the above question is the direct object. Therefore the verb is transitive.
2b) If there is no answer, there is no direct object. Therefore the verb is intransitive.
Let’s try with process with 2 example sentences:
David is eating a sandwich.
1) David is eating what or whom?
2a) “sandwich” is the direct object. Therefore “eating” is transitive.
Mark is sleeping.
1) Mark is sleeping what or whom?
2b) No answer. There is no direct object. Therefore “sleeping” is intransitive.
Ditransitive verbs are a special type of transitive verb. They can have two objects – a direct object and an indirect object. An indirect object indicates the person or thing that receives the direct object.
Jane is giving me an apple.
Common ditransitive verbs:
bring, buy, give, make, offer, pass, sell, show, wish
Transitive and intransitive
Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive with the same general meaning of the verb.
The door opened. (intransitive)
I opened the door. (transitive)
The children are playing. (intransitive)
Last night we played cards. (transitive)
Jane is reading. (intransitive)
Jane is reading the newspaper. (transitive)
Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive with a different meaning:
Mark is sitting on a chair. (intransitive with a prepositional phrase)
Meaning: This sentence is describing Mark’s physical position.
Mark is sitting an exam. (transitive)
Meaning: “sit an exam” as a transitive verb means “take an exam”. This meaning is very different to the intransitive meaning of “sit”.
How to know if a verb is transitive or intransitive?
When you learn a new verb, look in the dictionary. A transitive verb will have the letter “T” in brackets after it and an intransitive verb will have the letter “I”.
If a verb can be used as both transitive and intransitive with different meanings, it will have separate entries in the dictionary with the different definitions and examples.
Let’s look in the dictionary. We will find these 2 entries:
verb [ I ] = to move quickly, faster than walking
This is the intransitive use and meaning. Therefore we know that we do NOT use a direct object for this meaning.
Example: “Mark is running.”
verb [ T ] = to manage something. To organise something.
This is the transitive use and meaning. Therefore we know that we MUST use a direct object for this meaning.
Example: Mark runs a hotel.