Transitive verbs are verbs that take an object, which means they include the receiver of the action in the sentence. In the example sentence “she gives a gift,” the verb gives is transitive and a gift is the direct object because it receives the action (a gift is what is being given).
Even though they’re a common part of most languages, people often ask, What are transitive verbs? In this guide, we explain what you need to know about transitive verbs, including how to use them, and give you plenty of transitive verb examples.
What is a transitive verb?
You can categorize all verbs into two types: transitive and intransitive verbs. Transitive verbs use a direct object, which is a noun that receives the action of the verb. Intransitive verbs do not use any objects.
Let’s look at an example with one of the most common transitive verbs, need.
- We need a bigger boat.
Here, the transitive verb need takes the direct object a bigger boat. The phrase a bigger boat answers the question “What is needed?” or “What do we need?” (Technically, the direct object is the noun boat, but the article a and the adjective bigger describe boat, so all three words work together as a unified noun phrase, or a noun and all its modifiers.)
Be careful not to confuse the object with the subject; the sentence’s subject is the person or thing that does the action—in this example, it’s we—whereas the object receives the action.
If you remove the direct object of a transitive verb, the sentence becomes incomplete.
This is not a complete sentence because the transitive verb doesn’t have a direct object. Essentially, transitive verbs require a direct object.
Now let’s compare transitive verbs to intransitive verbs, which do not take an object.
- The shark swam around the boat.
Here, the intransitive verb swam stands alone, without any objects. The prepositional phrase around the boat describes where the shark swam but does not receive the action. In fact, nothing receives the action—intransitive verbs don’t need any additional nouns to complete the action like transitive verbs do.
Although simple, this sentence is still correct and complete. Intransitive verbs can work without any additions.
- We made cookies for our hiking group.
- Send the email to my assistant.
- I took off my glasses but couldn’t see where I put them.
- She filled in the test answers without reading the questions.
However, some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, depending on how they’re used and the context of the rest of the sentence. These verbs are called ambitransitive.
- [transitive] Dad cooks the turkey on Thanksgiving.
- [intransitive] Dad cooks on Thanksgiving.
What is a ditransitive verb?
If you’re familiar with English grammar, you might be wondering why we haven’t mentioned indirect objects yet. While some transitive verbs use only a direct object, a special type of transitive verb can also use indirect objects. These verbs are called ditransitive.
Ditransitive verbs use both a direct and an indirect object, although the indirect object is optional. As a reminder, an indirect object is a noun that receives the direct object, whereas a direct object receives the action of the verb. To put it simply, the direct object gets the action, and the indirect object gets the direct object.
- The student asked the teacher a question.
In this example, asked is a ditransitive verb. The direct object is a question because that is what the student asked. The indirect object is the teacher because the teacher receives the question (the direct object).
Here’s a quick list of the common ditransitive verbs to help you remember:
How to use transitive verbs
You use transitive verbs just like any other verb. They follow subject-verb agreement to match the subject, and they can be conjugated into different verb tenses, like the past continuous or present perfect. They include both regular and irregular verbs.
The confusing part about transitive verbs isn’t how you use the verb itself but rather where to put the objects.
If the transitive verb does not have an indirect object, the direct object comes right after the verb.
[subject] + [transitive verb] + [direct object]
- I brought my laptop to my grandma’s house.
Here, brought is the transitive verb and my laptop is the direct object.
On the other hand, if the transitive verb has an indirect object, the indirect object comes right after the verb and before the direct object.
[subject] + [transitive verb] + [indirect object] + [direct object]
- She gave her girlfriend a little smile.
Here, gave is the transitive verb (in this case, ditransitive), her girlfriend is the indirect object, and a little smile is the direct object.
Keep in mind that direct and indirect objects are often noun phrases, so they can include extra words like articles (the, a, an) or adjectives (bigger, my) in addition to the noun.
If the objects are pronouns, be sure to use the right pronoun case: both direct and indirect objects use the objective case (when a noun or pronoun is used as an object) instead of the subjective case (when a noun or pronoun is the subject of a verb).
- I taught my friend trigonometry.
- I taught him it.
How do you identify transitive verbs?
Even English-language experts still confuse transitive and intransitive verbs. That’s why it’s important to understand how to identify transitive verbs, especially when you’re dealing with ambitransitive verbs that can be either transitive or intransitive.
The easiest method to identify a transitive verb is to find the direct object. Remember that transitive verbs need a direct object to form complete sentences, so if there’s no direct object, the verb is intransitive (or used incorrectly).
See what we mean with the examples below. Both use the ambitransitive verb walk, but in one example walk is transitive, and in the other it is intransitive.
- [transitive] They walk the dog every day.
- [intransitive] They walk every day.
Another method for identifying transitive verbs is to rephrase the sentence in the passive voice. Intransitive verbs cannot be used in the passive voice, so if you’re having trouble rephrasing the sentence in the passive voice, it probably means the verb is intransitive.
Let’s look at another example using the verb play, which can be either transitive or intransitive.
- Jaya plays football.
We can easily turn this sentence into the passive voice, so in this example play is transitive.
- Football is played by Jaya.
But what about when play is used as an intransitive verb?
- Jaya plays tonight.
Here, we can’t turn this sentence into the passive voice, so it means play in this example is intransitive.
Transitive verb FAQs
What is a transitive verb?
A transitive verb is a verb that uses a direct object, which shows who or what receives the action in a sentence. In the example “she gives a gift,” gives is a transitive verb and a gift is the direct object (what is being given).
How do transitive verbs work?
Transitive verbs require a direct object to form a complete sentence, and the direct object usually comes right after the verb. Some transitive verbs can also use an indirect object, in which case the indirect object comes after the verb and before the direct object.
Transitive verbs vs. intransitive verbs?
While transitive verbs use direct objects, intransitive verbs do not. In fact, intransitive verbs don’t need any additions to form a complete sentence.