Grammar Jargon – What the heck does “transitive” and “intransitive” mean?

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another rendition of Grammar Jargon. As always we will try to explain one grammatical term in words every one can understand and this time

IT’S PERSONAL!

What we will look at today is the infamous concept of transitive vs. intranistive. While certainly not without use in linguistics, these 2 words have been among the least appreciated grammar terms for me… that is to say:
I pretty much hate them! 
I speak English and French, I am able to hold conversation in Italian and I was able to write grammatical texts in Finnish… though that skill is currently off-line. Anyway… whenever I was learning a language, be it by myself or in a course, I was confronted with the transitive – intransitive babble at some point and yet, it was only when I started teaching that I finally grasped what those mean. The information about transitivity or transitiviteness or transigiveashit has NEVER helped me one little bit. Whenever it was mentioned in a book I would just ignore it. Any language I learned I learned DESPITE those terms.
I have sat in several German classes and I have made myself familiar with a fair number of textbooks and transitive is all over the place…. just as if anyone taking a B1 course automatically knows what this is supposed to be … a transitive verb.
So long rant short… I find the category one of the least useful in language teaching… it is highly abstract and has little to no benefit.

With that said, let’s explain the damn thing.
Transitive and the opposite intransitive are qualities or modes of verbs. So you can call a verb long, useful, funny, shopping related or transitive. Ok… that is a little misleading… whether a verb is transitive is of course not a matter of  personal opinion like the other qualities I just mentioned but I hope you get the idea. What’s important to realize – especially in English – is that many verbs can be used in both ways – transitive AND intransitive… so it is not the verb but the verb in context that gets the label.
By the way… many dictionaries indicate the use mode with a little trans. or intr. If you look up lassen at Pons you will get one million translations filed under trans., then another million under aux. and then some more under intr.
Now what does it mean to call a verb transvestite… put in simpler terms it means that the verb dresses in womens clothing… but… that is kind of off topic so…
The label transitive is not uniquely defined. More on that later. For now let’s just say, that we talk about the English definition here… this may contradict the definition you are used to from your native language.
So… Transitive in English linguistics means that the verb takes a direct object… this is the explanation in most books. Now what is a direct object? It is the thing or person that is “verbed”.

  • I drink a coffee.

The action in that sentence is drinking, I am the one doing it and the coffee is the thing  that I do it to… poor coffee, poor and yet too tasty and energizing to spare.

  • I see a tree.

Now here it is not so easy to look at the tree as something that experiences something but technically it is the very same structure as the first example. The action is seeing, I am the one doing it and the tree is the thing I do it to. So generally we could boil a transitive structure down to this:

  • I verb something or someone.

This is the transitive situation. As soon as you have a preposition it does not count because here the object is NOT direct … it needs to be introduced.

  • I verb to/with/of/by… someone or something.

This would be an intransitive situation as there is no direct object. Once again.. you can have a million things in your sentence… they are only direct if not preceded by a preposition and even for those there are exceptions.

Now some verbs can only be used in a transitive way, that is with a direct object, some can be used either way and some are always intransitive. An example for transitive-only would be to try. This just doesn’t make any sense without direct object.

  • I try…. WHAT???

But what about “I try to sleep?”? Where is the direct object there? The answer is that there is none but the action to sleep is considered one… for… some linguistic reason… so this would be a transitive use too… in English linguistics that is.
Now let’s look at a verb that can’t take a direct object… to laugh.

  • I laugh something or someone.

That won’t make sense no matter what you put in there. So to laugh can only be used in an intransitive way and… oh… my red exception phone is ringing… gotta take that call real quick… Hey John man, we haven’t talked in a while… yeah I know I know… bet you did hahaha… so… what do you have for me… oh… oh yeah right that IS confusing, I’ll mention it… yeah thanks a lot man. Bye.
So John, my exception watch dog actually spotted something important… look at this sentence.

  • I laugh 10 minutes.

That does totally fit the structure of “I verb something” … but only superficially. 10 minutes comes right after laugh but it is not really connected to it. 10 minutes gives the information about time. It answers to the question How long?. A direct object always answers to who or what. So “I laugh 10 minutes” is an intransitive situation.

What’s missing now is a verb that can be used either way… those are also called ambitransitive … a term you may forget immediately :). A good example for an ambitransitive verb is to help… what? You want to know what ambitransitive means? Well it is the term if a verb can be used… kidding… moving on.

  • How can I help?
  • How can I help you?

The first sentence is intransitive, the second is transitive because there is the direct object you in there.

And now, still looking at the last example, we shall ask ourselves what is the use of such distinction… and the answer is:

None.

Don’t get me wrong. It surely has its use in linguistics but for normal people it is just superfluous jargon. And this is not only because a direct object is kind of abstract but also because a transitive verb in English might be intransitive in German and vice versa. This is actually the biggest problem I have with this whole matter: as I mentioned before, the definitions do not match. For example, in French also an indirect object makes a verb transitive.

  • I dream of Paris.
  • Je rêve de Paris.

According to the English definition it is intransitive, according to the French it is transitive… so why should I care??? If the definitions are so flexible the concept can’t be that essential… I mean look at the concept verb… or past … those are a bit more relevant ;).

What really tears it though is the fact that people throw around the terms so much. And they use them without really making sure that they have they right definition. They even use them for basic rules. I have found a French grammar in German that is just plain wrong. First they say that transitive verbs are those with an accusative object – and that is the German definition… in a grammar for FRENCH, I mean, shouldn’t we use the FRENCH definition there???. Then they say that all those transitive (by German standards mind you) verbs build their past with avoir while the others need être. That is just wrong because the German definition of transitive has nothing to do with the French reality. If I did what said grammar told me to, I would end up speaking ungrammatical French. Their explanations sound all smart and yet it is but a load of crap. And why… because they just use the terms without ever thinking about them or knowing some background.

So to sum this up… transitive is a label that expresses something with objects but the exact definition may vary from language to language. Let’s say if you can do whatever you do to something or someone. That is a very rough but ok summary of the idea. As mentioned before a 100% definition depends on the language you look at… German transitive is NOT the same as the English, English is NOT the same as the French and so on.

Let’s imagine a fictional language and let’s name it…. hmmmm…”Coolian”. So in Coolian the action of sitting is actually done to the chair. They say:

  • I sit the chair.

if they want to say

  • I sit on a chair.

Taking a closer look might show that their word is actually not exactly to sit but “to burden” if translated literally. So they say “I burden the chair” but they mean “I sit on a chair”. Now if you want your students to understand that they must say “the chair” after “sit” you can either say:

  • Hey students… in Coolian, to sit is transitive.

Or you can say:

  • Hey students… in Coolian you don’t “sit” on a chair. They don’t have that word. They say “I burden a chair” but it means the same.

Both explanation have the same effect… students will use the verbs transitively… either because they know that they are supposed to do so or because the think of it as “to burden” which they know can be used transitively. And if I have to decide which way I want it explained to me,
I’ll definitely go for the latter because it is just closer to my every day language reality.
I hope that language teachers and textbooks stop to throw the words transitive – intransitive at the students… some day.

So… this was our Grammar Jargon for this time. It was quite personal and purely subjective and I am actually interested in what you think about all that. Do you like the concept? Have you even heard of it before in class? Do you think I’m an ignorant idiot who’s writing a drunk rant abo… anyway, leave you’re thoughts in the comments and if you have any questions about the article or I have said something wrong somewhere. please leave a comment as well.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.