Transitive Verbs

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The grammatical term “transitive verb” occurs in numerous posts on this site, usually with a reminder of what it means, but perhaps a dedicated post will be useful to readers who remain shaky on the concept.

Note: To keep this post focused on the concept of transitive verbs and their direct objects, I am not going to mention terms that apply to other kinds of objects or verbs.

The prefix trans occurs in many English words. It’s from Latin transire, a combination of the Latin preposition trans, “across” and the infinitive ire, “to go.” English words beginning with trans usually have something to do with moving something “across” to something or someone else. For example:

transatlantic: passing or extending across the Atlantic Ocean.

transcribe: to make a copy of something in writing; to copy out from an original, i.e., move the original writing “across” to another place.

transfuse: to pour a liquid from one vessel or receptacle into another. In the case of blood, cause to flow from the donor or bag “across” to the recipient.

The trans in “transitive verb” indicates that the action of an action verb carries across to a receiver of the action. The receiver that receives the action of a transitive verb is called its “direct object.”

The dog bit the intruder. (Bit is an action verb. Intruder receives the action.)

The batter hit the ball out of the park. (Hit is an action verb. Ball receives the action.)

A flock of sheep halted traffic from here to the highway. (Halted is an action verb. Traffic receives the action.)

Here’s how to decide if an action verb is transitive:

First, identify the main action verb in the sentence. For example, in the first sentence, the main verb is bit.

Then, ask the question, “Bit what?” The answer to “what?” will be the direct object: intruder.

Not all action verbs are transitive. For example, the action verb kick may or may not have a receiver. For example, compare these sentences:

1. The girl kicked the football over the goal.
2. The baby kicked furiously in the bath.

In the first sentence, when you ask “kicked what?” you find the answer “football.” In this sentence, kicked is a transitive verb because the action of kicking is received by the football. Football is the direct object of kicked.

In the second sentence, when you ask “kicked what?” you do not find an answer to the question. The action does not travel across to any receiver. There is no direct object. In the second sentence, kicked is not transitive.

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8 thoughts on “Transitive Verbs”

  1. I hope you’ll continue with grammar. I’m taking German and I have to relearn a lot of grammatical concepts, such as the cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive.

  2. Robin,C,
    American English teachers rarely use these terms anymore. Note that the noun or pronoun that receives the action of a transitive verb is said to be in the accusative case.

  3. “Trans” can also mean “through” as well as “across”
    transalpine = “through the Alps”
    transdermal = “through the skin”
    transfrontier = “across the frontier”
    transmontaine = “across the mountains”
    transjunction = “across the junction” or “through the junction”
    transpiration, from the verb “transpire”, and you can look this one up.
    transonic = “through the sound barrier” or “about the speed of sound”
    for example: “transonic flight”.
    Transylvania = “through the woods” or “through the forest”
    Note that besides the Transylvania in Romania and its adjacent countries, there are some places in the United States named Transylvania, including Transylvania College. Look them up to find out more.

    “Transluminal” only occurs in fiction because it means “through or above the speed of light”, and as far as we know, no physical object can do that. Sorry, no “warp speed”, yet.

  4. The word “transistor” was developed by the noted American electrical engineer J.R. Pierce at Bell Telephone Laboratories. This happened right after the device was invented in late 1947 by Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley at Bell Labs, and they asked several of their colleagues to help them find an apt name for it. Out of several suggestions, they liked “transistor” the best, so it was chosen.

    In mathematical and engineering terms, the operation of a transistor can be expressed in terms of a quantity called “transresistance”, so that is the root of the name. If we express things a little bit differently in the math, then we would use “transconductance”, and ever since the 1970s (when I was in engineering school), and earlier, the expressions with transconductance have been a lot more common.

    The name “transistor” has remained in use, though, because it is shorter, sweeter, and easier to remember than “transconductor”.
    Don’t get me started on the names of the different varieties of transistors because there are at least six different ones. Some of you might have heard of CMOS – a form of electronic memory – and that acronym comes from the name of one of the special kinds of transistor that has an acronym of its own: MOSFET.

    By the way, one of the key equations that describes the operation of transistors is called Shockley’s Equation.

    Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention of the transistor and understanding why it works, and years later, Bardeen shared another Nobel Prize for helping to explain how superconductivity works. He was one of the very rare double winners of the Nobel Prize, along with Marie Curie and Linus Pauling – who won his in Chemistry and in Peace.

  5. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you are leaving out a very important aspect of transitive verbs, at least as I was taught them. And I am seeing a trend lately of what I think is incorrect usage. For example, words such as advocate had an inferred meaning of “to support, to be in favor of…, to take action on behalf of…” etc. One would advocate freedom of speech, universal education, etc. Now, however, I am hearing the following usage: “He advocates FOR freedom of speech, we need to advocate for human rights” etc. Isn’t this type of usage redundant and incorrect? Also “defend against;” this one is a complete puzzle to me–usually, a lawyer DEFENDS a person in court, rather than defending AGAINST…what? The jury? The judge?

    I’m hearing these strange uses, and others, among supposedly educated people: speakers, journalists, broadcasters, etc. Is it more of the “dumbing down” of America, and poor school standards?

    Please clarify this for me as well as interested others. Perhaps I am mistaken and would really like to know if that’s the case. Many thanks.

  6. Susie,
    I don’t see what aspect of transitive verbs I’ve left out in this post. I try to focus tightly on one concept per grammar post. The purpose of this one is to explain the term “transitive.”

    The strange things that are happening with the traditional uses of transitive and intranstive verbs certainly deserve attention, but I’ll have to deal with them piecemeal.

    I think that one reason American speakers in general find grammar confusing is that teachers slam them with too many concepts at a time, not breaking things down into small enough segments and moving on to the next concept before students have had time to master the last one.

    I’ll start looking for examples of the “advocate” usage you mention.
    Thanks for your comment.

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