Itch vs. Scratch

By Maeve Maddox

Confusion as to whether to use scratch or itch is evident on the web.

For example, the video of a cat scratching its own back has the label, “Cat itches his own back.”

A pet care site features the question, “If a dog is uncontrollably itching an area to the point of bleeding, what can you do to stop it?”

Some people are concerned enough about the difference between scratch and itch as to ask about it at answering sites:

Can “itch” be used as a verb? My girlfriend and I have been going rounds about this. She says you can itch an itch, but I say you scratch an itch. I’ve read it’s a transitive verb, whatever that is.

Let’s start with “whatever a transitive verb is.”

A transitive verb takes an object. That means the action of a verb has a receiver.

In the sentence, The man sang a song, the action is “sang” and the receiver is “a song.”

Many verbs can be transitive or intransitive, depending upon whether or not there is a receiver of the action. In the sentence, The man sang, the action is “sang,” but there is no receiver. The verb is intransitive.

The verb itch can be used transitively or intransitively, but saying “I’m itching these bites on my arm” is not standard usage.

So, if a person can’t “itch something,” when is itch transitive?

Itch is transitive when something itches a person: The label in this tee shirt itches the back of my neck.

As a noun, itch means the feeling on the skin that produces the urge to scratch. Used figuratively, itch means desire: She has an itch to travel. He has an itch for power.

The verb scratch has more than one meaning, but the one that goes with itch is this one:

scratch: transitive verb. to rub or scrape lightly with the finger-nails or claws to relieve itching.

In standard English, itch can be used as a transitive verb, but not by the person who itches.

So, scratch that itch, and cut out the T-shirt labels that itch your neck.

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4 Responses to “Itch vs. Scratch”

  • Dale A. Wood

    This is an amazing fact. I have a hard time grasping as to why.
    “Confusion as to whether to use scratch or itch is evident on the web.”

    Not knowing the difference between intransitive verbs and transitive verbs is equally mind-boggling. Here is an extreme example of this: the verb “to launch” is innately transitive. It requires a direct object, or else it is used in the passive voice, but many writers nowadays try to use “launch” as an intransitive verb. E.g. “The rocket will launch today.” No, “The crew will launch the rocket today,” is correct, or in the passive voice, “The rocket will be launched today.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    So, the article above neglected to mention that there is a set of verbs that are always transitive: they always have a direct object, or else they are used in the passive voice. Some examples of these include:

    break, construct, destroy, expel, inject, insert, launch, make, name, scratch, teach…
    D.A.W.

  • Alice Kemp

    I was surprised to read about the wide-spread incorrect use of itch, thinking that only intellectually challenged people did that. I used to work with such people, and they invariably would say, “I need to itch my back” or something similar. I had no idea that adults of “normal” intelligence (supposedly) also exhibited such usage. Interesting.

  • Lisa Fine

    When there is a bothersome tag inside the collar of a new T-shirt, my husband calls the tag”scratchy”, rather than “itchy”. Shall I divorce him?

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