Transitive verbs, weasels, and you

Nov 19th, 2008 | By John Roach | Category: Grammar

We’ve all been there: It’s 3 a.m. and you’re tossing and turning, asking yourself, “What are transitive verbs?” Sleep well, little ones, for I am about to tell you.

Transitive verbs are those that take an object. Intransitive verbs, by a cruel twist of fate, are verbs that don’t take an object. But wait! There’s more.

Objects of your affection

A quick refresher in basic grammar: Sentences are built of a few simple building blocks. In this case, we’re talking about subjects, verbs, and direct objects.

I chased the weasel.

In this case, the subject is “I,” the verb is “chased,” and the direct object is “weasel.” As you can see, the direct object receives the action. Same with “He threw the ball,” “I broke the window,” and “I saw the sign (and it opened up my mind.)”

All of the above verbs, at least in these cases, are transitive: They require an object to make sense. “I chased,” “He threw,” or “I broke” would leave your poor reader leaning on the edge of the seat shouting “Chased what?” while everyone else on the plane shushed them and called for one of those federal marshals with the special bullets that don’t exit the body and therefore puncture the hull of the airplane. Do you really want to put your reader in that kind of situation? Of course not, make sure to use verbs correctly, ok?

I’m going to gloss right over intransitive verbs, because you are a smart, capable reader and can figure out by inference what they are. I’ll give you a couple of sentences to lead you along, though:

“The cat slept.”

“The words emanated from the loudspeakers.”

“The dude abides.”


Then there’s the verbs that can’t make up their minds. They can be either transitive or intransitive, depending on their meaning, mood, or lunar cycle. Dr. Goodward calls these verbs ambitransitive. Consider the following:

“Children grow at an alarming rate.” vs. “I grow plants”

“I drink milk every day” vs. “I drink to forget.”

“The car hummed along.” vs. “He hummed ‘Stayin’ alive’ so often I had to experiment with heated screwdrivers on his ear canal.”

There’s one more case that I’ve heard of exactly once: Fowler’s ditransitive. Apparently, this is a verb that takes both an indirect object and a direct object without a preposition.

He gave me the business.

I’m not exactly sure that such a distinction is necessary, and quite frankly I’m surprised you’ve read this far.

But don’t trust me

For further reading, check out Daily Writing Tip’s treatment of the subject of transitive verbs, which admittedly has 100% fewer weasels. Once you’re done there, find out why the military is all wrong about “please advise.”

This article was written by John Roach

John is a writer and copy editor. You can follow him on twitter at @johnwroachiii. To see more posts click here

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  1. Every time I read one of your posts I think of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Linthicum. She was a harridan if there ever was one! But she did teach me grammar (or else).

    I love your posts. Keep up the good work!

    Mike Nicholss last blog post..Dizzy? It May Be an Anxiety Disorder!

  2. Good explanation, though I must confess that it's the who/whom dilemma that keeps me up nights. ;)

  3. Thank goodness, an easy one!

    Skipping past such technical terms as subjects and objects, we'll go straight to the mnemonics: If you can answer the question with "he," it's "who." If it needs "him," it's "whom." "Whom" and "him" both end with 'M's, you see.

    Sorry, sexist language is critical for this one.

    "Who went to the store with whom?"

    Who went to the store? HE did.
    With whom did he go with? With HIM.

  4. may I ask?

    I don’t like and I don’t know. Are both sentences correct?As I think I dont like is wrong and I dont know is right, but I dont know why is it right or wrong…

  5. “I don’t know” is correct. Know can be used intransitively.

    “I don’t like” is incorrect. Like cannot be used intransitively in that sense. It can be in such constructions as “We can do whatever you like,” but never as the primary verb in a sentence.

    Hope that helps.

  6. thanks John..

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