Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Some days, I feel like I’ve spent too much time in Academia and have begun to lose touch with the way the rest of the word understands language. The biggest barrier between the public and heavy grammar description, in my mind, is the terminology.

Each and every native English speaker reading this can use past participles, gerunds, and can distinguish transitive verbs from intransitive verbs, simply by virtue of being native speakers. However, when you couch it in fancy grammar terms, it seems insurmountable or confusing.

Part of my goal here is to make the most mysterious aspects of Linguistics less mysterious to the general public, and to that end, I’d like to discuss and explain a bit of Linguistics and grammar jargon today that you’ll see come up from time to time.

Transitive Verbs and Intransitive Verbs: Not as scary as they sound

First, just for grins, let’s look at the Linguist’s definition of this concept, taken from pg. 171 of Thomas E. Payne’s Describing Morphosyntax:

A transitive verb is one that describes a relation between two participants such that one of the participants acts toward or upon the other. An intransitive verb is one that describes a property, state or situation involving only one participant.

As you can see, when it’s presented in a very complex, jargon-filled way, it seems very complicated, and thus, intimidating. Really, though, it’s not that difficult a concept.

Sometimes, in the action described by a given verb, one person is doing something to or towards another person. These are verbs like “to hit” (Stacy hit John), “to see” (I see penguins). In linguistics terms, we say that these verbs take an “argument”. This means that in addition to having a subject (a do-er/“agent”) , the verb also has an object (a do-ee/”patient”). When a verb represents somebody doing something to somebody else, it’s called a “transitive verb”.

Intransitive verbs are, as the name implies, not transitive. The actions in intransitive verbs are performed by a subject, but just in general, and are not directed at anybody or anything. Some examples are “to sleep” (I sleep after dark) and “to smile” (He smiled). You’ll never see an intransitive verb with an object (*“I sleep John” or *“I smiled her”). So, if a verb doesn’t take an object, it’s considered “intransitive”.

So, here’s a quick quiz: Are the bolded verbs being used as transitive verbs or intransitive verbs?

1) John ate the cake.
2) Varinia hugged Spartacus.
3) Lisa sang in the shower.
4) The Mona Lisa hangs on the wall.

Answers (No Cheating): Because they both take an object, numbers one and two are transitive, and three and four are not.

You might be wondering why I phrased the question as I did, adding “are the verbs being used as transitive or intransitive verbs”. Well, all but one of the example verbs could be used either transitively or intransitively (‘to hug’ is always transitive). Here are the other possibilities for the other three:

1) John ate quickly last night.
3) Lisa sang “Con te partiro”.
4) I alwayshang paintings with duct tape.

As you can see, some verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively. As a speaker of English, you quickly begin to learn when a given verb can be used either way (like “to eat” or “to sing”), and when you can’t (like “to smile” or “to whip”).

While we’re on the subject and explaining strange grammar terms, there are some verbs that are what linguists call “ditransitive”. This means that they can “take two arguments”, or, in plain terms, they can have a subject and two objects. Examples of verbs like this are “to give” (I gave John a book) and “to bake” (John baked Susie a cake). Ditransitive verbs are common in English, and more information about them is available at the Wikipedia page on Ditransitivity.

Transitivity in Modern Culture

This can be a bit of a dry topic, and I’m sorry I can’t make the explanation more interesting. However, the distinction can be interesting, and can show up in very interesting ways.

Let’s look at the verb “to facebook”. It can have two completely different meanings depending on how it’s used.

Used intransitively, it means ‘to access the facebook’. An example might be the sentence “I was up until 3am facebooking”.

However, when used transitively, it shifts meaning. “to facebook somebody” means ‘to look somebody up or communicate with them via the Facebook’. For instance, you’ll hear sentences like “I facebooked that cute brunette from the LSA convention” or “You should facebook her before you ask her out”.

So, as dry as the explanation may seem, transitivity can definitely be relevant, even to the most grammar-resistant of young internet users.


So, now you understand what the difference is between a transitive verb and an intransitive verb. If you’d like more information, Wikipedia’s transitivity page has some good links, and any linguistics textbook will discuss it in more depth.

In addition to being able to better understand grammar talk, you can also use this newfound skill to better understand when to use “who” versus “whom”. Perhaps the greatest benefit of all is the coolness factor of discussing verb transitivity at parties.

However, I must warn you: Pick up lines involving intransitive verbs and the phrase “I won’t take any argument” will be punished swiftly, decisively, and transitively.

Have a question, comment, or concern about this post? Contact me!