Transitive & Intransitive Verbs in English

Here are two sentences, the first with a Transitive Verb, the second with an Intransitive Verb:

She held her breath.

She laughed.

This illustrates at a glance the basic difference between the two types of verbs‏‎.

Transitive Verbs

Quite simply transitive verbs must take an object‏‎. We can say:

She held the puppy.

She held his hand.

She held the door open.

But we cannot say:

* She held.

* an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence denotes an ungrammatical sentence

This does not make sense. We need to hold something!

Intransitive Verbs

Intransitive verbs on the other hand do not take an object. We can say:

She laughed.

She laughed loudly.

She laughed at me.

In the examples above we’ve followed the verb with either an adverbial phrase‏‎ or a prepositional phrase‎ but we can’t follow the verb with an object (which is usually a noun phrase‏‎):

* She laughed me.

* She laughed his hand.

Transitive & Intransitive Verbs

Some verbs can be used both as transitive and intransitive. Compare these sentences:

I ran a marathon.

(the verb here is used transitively, with marathon being the direct object)

The dog ran in the garden.

(the verb is used intransitively)

More examples:

He watched TV all day long yesterday.

He just sat there and watched.

They moved one day and nobody knows where they went.

They moved the furniture.

Tips To Help You Classify a Verb As Transitive or Intransitive

Here is a quick tip to help you establish whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. All you need to do is to ask ‘verb + WHAT?’ If the ‘WHAT’ question can be answered logically then the verb is transitive, often regardless of whether the object is expressed or not. For example:

Laugh WHAT?

(no logical answer; we cannot ‘laugh’ something)


(an apple; dinner; the cake; all logical answers)


(no logical answer; we cannot ‘die’ something)

Write WHAT?

(an e-mail; my name; an article; all logical answers)

Good dictionaries will also provide you with a classification. After a verb entry you will usually find these abbreviations: (verb transitive) or v.intr. For example:

spoil (spoil)
v. spoiled or spoilt (spoilt), spoil·ing, spoils
a. To impair the value or quality of.
b. To damage irreparably; ruin.
2. To impair the completeness, perfection, or unity of; flaw grievously: spoiled the party.
3. To do harm to the character, nature, or attitude of by oversolicitude, overindulgence, or excessive praise.
4. Archaic
a. To plunder; despoil.
b. To take by force.

1. To become unfit for use or consumption, as from decay. Used especially of perishables, such as food.
2. To pillage.

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Posted in Parts of Speech.

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