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GMAT Grammar: Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

This is a funny grammar topic.  It’s so basic, that it would not be tested directly on a GMAT Sentence Correction question, and yet getting clear on these issues can clear up some confusion about grammar questions.


Direct Object

The direct object is the noun that receives the action of the verb.  The subject of an active verb is the “doer” of the action, and the direct object has the action done to it.

1) The man bought a loaf of bread.

Of course, in that sentence, the “man” is the subject, the “doer” who is performing the action of “buying”, and the “loaf of bread” is the direct object, the passive recipient of the action. It would be nothing noteworthy for a human being to be the subject, to buy or sell: we do that all the time.  It would be a crime throughout the civilized world for a human being to the direct object, to be bought or sold: that implies slavery, which is banned by all nations but regrettably continues in some forms.  Being a subject or a direct object makes a big difference!

Notice that neither the subject nor the direct object has to be a noun-word: either could be a larger grammatical structure acting as a noun.  Infinitive phrases and substantive clauses act as nouns, and could be either the subject or the direct object.

Also, notice what happens to personal pronouns:

2) I saw him.  He saw me.

The subjects are in the both in the subjective forms (I, he, she, we, they), and the direct objects are both in the objective forms (me, him, her, us, them).

Now, you may wonder, do all verbs take direct objects?


Transitive and Intransitive

As it turns out, all verbs are divided into two categories: transitive and intransitive.  A transitive verb is a verb that takes a direct object, that “feels incomplete” without a direct object.  Examples include:

to buy

to lay

to say

to sell

to suspect

to visit

Each one of these takes a direct object.  If I say simply: “He bought” or “He said” or “He suspected”, then you would be want to know “WHAT?” — what did he buy? what did he say? what did he suspect?  The verbs, by their meaning, demand a direct object and sound logically incomplete without one.

Intransitive verbs do not take direct objects.  They aren’t designed to accommodate a direct object.   Examples include:

to breathe

to exist

to go

to lie

to rank

to walk

None of these need a direct object.  If I say, “he breathed” or “he went” or “he walked”, then you might be curious about “when? where? how? why?”, but there is no sensible “what” question to ask.  In each case, the verb-idea is complete without a direct object.

Now, the issue is made much more confusing by the fact that many verbs can be used both in a transitive or intransitive sense.  Examples include:

to clean

to close

to concentrate

to eat

to open

to sing

It makes perfect sense to use each one of these without a direct object.  “He spent the day cleaning.”  “The store opens and closes each day.”  “I am not able to concentrate.” “Right now, she is eating.”  “I enjoy singing.” — Those examples include a selection of verb forms, but in each case, the verb-idea is complete without a direct object.  At the same time, for any of them, we could add a direct object and the verb would make sense.  “She cleaned the carburetor.”  “He closed the window.”  “The scientist concentrated the acid.”  Many verbs have this flexibility.


Active & Passive

The GMAT prefers active language, but at times passive verbs are correct on the GMAT Sentence Correction.  Whether a verb is active or passive is called verb voice: the active voice and the passive voice of a verb.   Suppose P is the “doer”, the person or agent that performs the action, and suppose Q is the object that receives the action.  If the active voice form is P [active verb] Q, then the general passive voice form is Q [passive verb] “by” P.  For example,

3a) Rachel made the announcement.  = active voice

3b) The announcement was made by Rachel. = passive voice

Notice that the direct object of the active voice form becomes the subject of the passive voice form.  This means: in order to put a verb in the passive form, it must be a verb that, in the active form, can take a direct object.  Only transitive verbs, or those verbs that have a transitive form, can be put into the passive voice.



Every verb has two main participles: (a) the present participle, i.e. the –ing form of the verb, and (b) the past participle, the form of the verb that followed “has” or “have” or “had“; for regular verbs, the past participle is just he –ed past tense form of the verb.   These are used in constructive of verb tenses, such as the progressive or perfect tenses.

In addition to their role as parts of verbs in various tenses, participles also take on a life of their own as modifiers.   Participles and participial phrases can act as adjectival phrases, modifying nouns, or as adverbial phrases, modifying verbs and entire clauses.

Consider the verb “to eat” and its participles: the present participle “eating” and the past participle “eaten”.  Notice that the present participle, “eating”, would describe a consumer, someone performing the action of eating, but the past participle, “eaten” would describe food, something that has been subject to the action of eating.  In other words, the present participle is active, and the past participle is passive.  A direct corollary of this is that only transitive verbs, or those verbs that have a transitive form, have a past participle that can used as a modifier. 

I’ll just add: there is seldom used third participle, the perfect participle, which is always “having” + [past participle].  This is a past tense active participle, so this can be used as a modifier for all verbs, both transitive and intransitive, although this is a rare and highly sophisticated form that seldom appears on the GMAT.  Here’s a sentence using a perfect participle as a modifier:

4) Having crossed the Rubicon, Caesar was in violation of Roman law.



I hope this brief post clarified concepts in your mind and helped you understand why some forms of some verbs do not exist.  If you would like to add anything or ask a question, please use the comment section below.


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4 Responses to GMAT Grammar: Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

  1. Jason Leach February 18, 2016 at 11:07 pm #

    Is it possible to have the direct object in front of a transient verb if the passive voice is not used? The example I found was this:

    “If (such and such) happens, fees may incur.”

    This seems wrong to me. Incur is a transitive verb, so it requires a direct object, but it’s unclear to me if it can be before the transitive verb in a sentence with the active voice such as this one. In other words, is such a construction awkward but correct, or is it just incorrect?

    My sense is that it is incorrect, but it may have sounded correct to the author because incur sounds similar to occur, and occur would be perfectly fine in such a construction, as it is an intransitive verb.

    Also, please correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that it would be correct if it were changed to the passive voice like this:

    “If (such and such) happens, fees may be incurred.”

    Please let me know your thoughts on this. Thank you!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 19, 2016 at 9:21 am #

      Hi Jason,

      The verb “incur” must have an object, so “fees may incur” is 100% incorrect.

      “If X happens, fees may be incurred.” –> This is correct.

      Transitive verbs must have an object paired directly with the verb. “Such and such” is not what is incurring, it’s what is happening.

  2. Jason Thomas February 18, 2016 at 3:41 am #

    I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading that ‘laugh’ is intransitive.
    However, some say ‘laughed at’ is transitive.

    I think people have read that laugh is intransitive and therefore a sentence containing ‘laugh’ cannot be passive.
    It would be more accurate to say that a verb is intransitive if it can’t take an object.

    So, ‘laugh at ___’ clearly takes an object, so modifying ‘laugh’ with ‘at’ makes it transitive.
    Is my reasoning correct?

    Strange as it is, using Stanford NLP, these sentences are parsed as:
    “`You have not been laughed at by us“` – passive
    “`You have not been laugh at by us“` – active

    The second sentence doesn’t make sense at all, but I’m curious, does the present tense of laugh make it intransitive?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 18, 2016 at 11:39 am #

      Hi Jason,

      Your reasoning looks good to me.

      “He laughed” –> no object; intransitive.

      “He laughed at the cat” –> object; transitive.

      (Both of these are in active voice).

      “They were laughed at by the schoolchildren” –> transitive, passive.

      The tense of the verb does not make it transitive or intransitive. All that matters is whether there’s an object involved.

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