What Is Transitivity in Grammar?

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In the broadest sense, transitivity is a method of classifying verbs and clauses with reference to the relationship of the verb to other structural elements. Put simply, a transitive construction is one in which the verb is followed by a direct object; an intransitive construction is one in which the verb cannot take a direct object.

In recent years, the concept of transitivity has received special attention from researchers in the field of systemic linguistics. In "Notes on Transitivity and Theme in English," M.A.K. Halliday described transitivity as "the set of options relating to cognitive content, the linguistic representation of extralinguistic experience, whether of phenomena of the external world or of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions."

An Observation

Åshild Næss explains in his book "Prototypical Transitivity" that "The traditional notion of a 'transitive verb' referred to a simple dichotomy: A transitive verb was a verb which required two argument NPs to form a grammatical clause, whereas an intransitive clause required only one. However, there are many languages where this basic distinction does not adequately cover the range of possibilities."

Verbs That Are Both Transitive and Intransitive

In "Grammar for Teachers," Andrea DeCapua explains that "Some verbs are both transitive and intransitive, depending on how they are used.... In response to the question, 'What are you doing?' we can say 'We're eating.' In this case, eat is being used intransitively. Even if we add a phrase after the verb, such as in the dining room, it is still intransitive. The phrase in the dining room is a complement, not an object.

"However, if someone asks us, 'What are you eating?' we respond by using eat in its transitive sense, 'We're eating spaghetti' or 'We're eating a large gooey brownie.' In the first sentence, spaghetti is the object. In the second sentence, a large gooey brownie is the object."

Ditransitive and Pseudo-Intransitive Constructions

"More complex relationships between a verb and the elements dependent upon it are usually classified separately. For example, verbs which take two objects are sometimes called ditransitive, as in she gave me a pencil. There are also several uses of verbs which are marginal to one or other of these categories, as in pseudo-intransitive constructions (e.g., the eggs are selling well, where an agent is assumed—'someone is selling the eggs'—unlike normal intransitive constructions, which do not have an agent transform: we went, but not *someone sent us," notes David Crystal in "A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics.

Levels of Transitivity in English

"Consider the following sentences, all of which are transitive in form: Susie bought a car; Susie speaks French; Susie understands our problem; Susie weighs 100 pounds. These illustrate steadily decreasing levels of prototypical transitivity: Susie is less and less of an agent, and the object is less and less affected by the action—indeed, the last two don't really involve any action at all. In short, the world provides a very wide range of possible relations between entities, but English, like many other languages, provides only two grammatical constructions, and every possibility must be squeezed into one or the other of the two constructions," according to R.L. Trask, author of the book, "Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts."

High and Low Transitivity

"A different approach to transitivity...is the 'transitivity hypothesis.' This views transitivity in discourse as a matter of gradation, dependent on various factors. A verb such as kick, for example, fulfills all the criteria for high transitivity in a clause with an expressed object such as Ted kicked the ball. It refers to an action (B) in which two participants (A) are involved, Agent and Object; it is telic (having an end-point) (C) and is punctual (D). With a human subject it is volitional (E) and agentive, while the object will be totally affected (I) and individuated (J). The clause is also affirmative (F) and declarative, realis, not hypothetical (irrealis) (G). By contrast, with a verb such as see as in Ted saw the accident, most of the criteria point to low transitivity, while the verb wish as in I wish you were here includes even irrealis (G) in its complement as a feature of low transitivity. Susan left is interpreted as an example of reduced transitivity. Although it has only one participant, it rates higher than some two-participant clauses, as it fulfills B, C, D, E, F, G, and H," explains Angela Downing and Philip Locke in "English Grammar: A University Course.


Crystal, David. A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. 5th ed., Blackwell, 1997.

DeCapua, Andrea. Grammar for Teachers. Springer, 2008.

Downing, Angela and Philip Locke. English Grammar: A University Course. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006.

Halliday, M.A.K. "Notes on Transitivity and Theme in English: Part 2." Journal of Linguistics, vol.3, no. 2, 1967, pp. 199-244.

Næss, Åshild. Prototypical Transitivity. John Benjamins, 2007.

Trask, R.L. Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts. 2nd ed. Edited by Peter Stockwell, Routledge, 2007.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Transitivity in Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/transitivity-grammar-1692476. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is Transitivity in Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/transitivity-grammar-1692476 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Transitivity in Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/transitivity-grammar-1692476 (accessed June 8, 2023).