Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading this mystery series about a samurai detective in feudal Japan. I like it a lot. It’s well-written and engaging, and the author has really done her research into the details of Bushido and life in Japan in the 17th century.

But she has one habit that bothers me quite a bit. On almost every page, she uses an intransitive verb for a transitive verb. Things like “Thunder rumbled the sky,” and “Tension tingled the air.” It makes me cringe. Every. Time.

I can understand why she might have done this. As writers, we’re encouraged to “use active language” to engage readers and keep the story moving. The problem is, not all “active” verbs are equal. You simply cannot substitute any old verb for any other verb you like better, because it has a more “active” sound.

Transitive and intransitive, people. Both can be “active.” But they do different things.

Transitive verbs take objects. “The boy threw the ball.” “I broke my coffee mug.” The verb indicates that a change in state has occurred. Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, do not take objects. “I walked down the street.” “She appeared in the doorway.” They are often followed by prepositional phrases, and they have less to do with a change in state than with describing an ongoing process. Both transitive and intransitive verbs can be either active or passive in voice, and both can tell the reader that something is happening. But a transitive verb tells you about something happening to something else. An intransitive verb just tells you what took place.

The author of those mysteries could have corrected the sentences in the two examples I gave simply by adding a few words. She could have said, “Thunder rumbled through the sky” and “Tension tingled in the air.” Yeah, okay–that last one is a bit of a stretch. I personally would turn it around to say, “The air tingled with tension.” My point is, both tingling and rumbling are ongoing states of being. They don’t depict a change.

The thing is, there are so many transitive verbs the author could have used. She could have said, “Thunder shattered the sky.” Perfectly good transitive verb chock full of imagery. Or, “Tension electrified the air.” I can’t imagine why she would have made the choices she made unless she didn’t know the difference. She may not; I’m not sure she’s a native English speaker. But I would have hoped an editor would catch that kind of thing before the books went to print.

This subject carries over into another pet peeve of mine: Please, people, learn the difference between “lie” and “lay.” When I hear educated people saying things like “I’m going to go lay down,” it hurts my brain.”Lay/Laid/Laid” is a transitive verb. As I made clear above, transitive verbs take objects. “The chicken lays an egg. She laid one yesterday, and she had laid one the day before that.” “Lie/Lay/Lain” is the intransitive verb. “I lie down in the grass, I lay there yesterday and I had lain there for years.” I do understand the confusion that comes from common misuse combined with the fact that the present tense of the transitive verb is the same as the past tense of the intransitive. But I do expect people who love words and writing to get it right.

Just to reiterate: Transitive verbs take objects. Intransitive verbs don’t, and, more importantly, can’t. It’s that simple.

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