Verbs, Part 3: Transitivity and Voice

This post covers verb transitivity and its relationship to the fourth verb feature, Voice.

Objectives:

  1. Compare transitive, intransitive, and ditransitive verbs.
  2. Rearrange transitive verbs from active to passive voice, and vice versa.

Skill level: Intermediate

Transitivity

Transitivity is, strictly speaking, not a function that applies only to verbs, even though we typically discuss it in that context. Andrew Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction [ISBN: 0-521-54275-8] defines “transitive” and “intransitive” as follows:

“A word is traditionally said to be transitive (in a given use) if it assigns accusative case to a noun or pronoun expression which it c-commands. […] An intransitive verb/preposition etc. is one which does not assign accusative case to some other expression.” (p. 362)

For now, disregard the term “c-command” (unless you really want to delve into deep syntactic functions, in which case, google it to your heart’s content). Transitivity is associated with the presence or absence of accusative case. In English, accusative case (most easily seen in pronoun forms me, him, her, us, and them) is the case assigned to grammatical objects, specifically to direct objects and objects of prepositions. (Object of a preposition = an indirect object; also, any noun/determiner phrase can be a grammatical object. We’re not talking semantic objects here.)

Examples of accusative case:

  • She saw him leave the house.
  • She watched him from her hiding place in the bushes.
  • She focused the telephoto lens on her camera.

A transitive verb, then, is a verb that takes a direct object as its compliment. Conversely, an intransitive verb does not take a direct object as its compliment.

Example:

  • Tom killed Jerry. [transitive verb]
  • Jerry died. [intransitive verb]
  • *Jerry died Tom. [ungrammatical nonsense]

This brings us to…

Transitivity and Voice

Voice is the fourth verb feature, after Tense, Mood, and Aspect; Voice has two options: Active and Passive. Passive Voice is generally frowned upon in writing. (You see what I did there?)

Passive Voice removes the active subject (the agent or experiencer) from the head of a sentence, and sometimes from the sentence entirely. In so doing, it creates an impersonal method of discussing a topic (or theme), where the active agent has minimal or no rhetorical reference. It’s a handy construct when you don’t know who or what the active agent is. (Think of a crime scene with no suspect: “The bike was stolen.” “By who?” “We don’t know.”) It’s also a handy construct when you don’t want others to know who or what the active agent is. Three cheers for manipulation!

Passive Voice was once the hallmark of intellectual papers and studies, because it gave an air of “objectivity” to its writer (note the root-word “object”). That practice is on its way out these days, last I heard, as researchers step up and admit that, yes, they’re the ones performing the research. Surprise!

[We interrupt this post for a Tangential Soapbox Lecture.]

At least two types of people still use pervasive Passive Voice: (1) BS-ing college students who want to look intellectual and (2) sleazy politicians who want to avoid blame for the snafu-du-jour. Don’t be a BS-ing college student or a sleazy politician. Use Active Voice as your default construct. Save Passive Voice to build tension or selectively withhold information, but don’t bludgeon your readers over the head with it. That’s just obnoxious.

[Thank you for tuning in to this Tangential Soapbox Lecture. We now return to our regularly scheduled grammar post, already in process.]

To form the Passive Voice, combine auxiliary “be” with the perfect participle of the main verb. The object in Active Voice becomes the subject in Passive Voice. The active subject becomes an object of the preposition “by” or drops out of the sentence entirely.

Examples [Active → Passive]:

  • She saw him leave the house. → He was seen leaving the house.
  • Tom killed Jerry. → Jerry was killed [by Tom].

Because the transition from Active to Passive Voice requires both a subject and a direct object, the easiest way to identify an intransitive verb is to test it for passive voice. If it fails, it’s intransitive. For example, “to go”:

  • I went home.
  • *Home was gone by me.

The passive voice is ungrammatical because “to go” is intransitive, even though it appears structurally to take a direct object, “home.” (In this case, “home” bears the theta-role of goal, not the required role of theme; more on that elsewhere.)

Ditransitive Verbs

Ditransitive verbs [di- ‘two’ + transitive] are verbs that take two objects of differing theta-roles (which, again, I will discuss more in-depth in another post). Ditransitive verbs can move from active voice into two variations of passive voice, depending on which object receives the focus of the passive sentence.

Example #1:

  • Active Voice: Mary gave John a book.
  • Passive Voice #1: John was given a book [by Mary].
  • Passive Voice #2: A book was given to John [by Mary].

Example #2:

  • Active Voice: Bob tells Julie a joke.
  • Passive Voice #1: Julie is told a joke [by Bob]
  • Passive Voice #2: A joke is told to Julie [by Bob].

If you compare the two Passive Voice options, you can easily identify the direct object from the indirect object: the indirect object gets “to” added in front of it when it stands alone (“to John,” “to Julie”), even though the Active Voice requires no such marker.

Note, however, that if the direct object is moved next to the verb in the Active Voice construction, the indirect object must have its marker again:

  • Mary gave a book to John.
  • Bob tells a joke to Julie.

Exercises:

A: Identify the following verbs as transitive, intransitive, or ditransitive.

  1. Janice groaned.
  2. The dog rambled across the meadow.
  3. Bambi’s mother was shot by a deer hunter.
  4. My boss is hosting a party next week.
  5. He heard a flute in the distance.
  6. She read the boy a story.
  7. Some cats like strangers.
  8. An interesting thing occurred yesterday.
  9. We will loan you some money tomorrow.
  10. The clock fell off the mantle.
  11. Our hen lays an egg every day.
  12. She is flying to London next week.

B: Rearrange these sentences from Active to Passive Voice, or vice versa, as required.

  1. Clean-up crews removed the graffiti from the 7th Street bridge.
  2. Most people prefer donuts over broccoli.
  3. The meeting was skipped by most of the staff.
  4. Mrs. White stabbed him in the library with the knife.
  5. Linguists often use morbid examples.
  6. A good time was had by all.
  7. Roger showed Erin his new watch.
  8. We keep a key under the doormat.
4 Responses to Verbs, Part 3: Transitivity and Voice
  1. Sister says:

    Here are my answers to the homework. How did I do?
    A
    1. Intransitive
    2. Intransitive
    3. Transitive
    4. Transitive
    5. Transitive
    6. Ditransitive
    7. Transitive
    8. Intransitive
    9. Ditransitive
    10. Intransitive
    11. Transitive
    12. Intransitive

    B.
    1. The graffiti was removed by clean up crews from the 7th Street Bridge.
    2. Donuts are preferred over broccoli by most people.
    3. Most of the staff skipped the meeting.
    4. He was stabbed by Mrs. White in the library with a knife. (Which part of the body is the library? Haha)
    5. Morbid examples are often used by linguists. [Have to make it entertaining somehow. 😉 ]
    6. All had a good time.
    7. I can’t find a non-awkward way to word this. Erin was shown Roger’s new watch by Roger? Erin was shown by Roger his new watch?
    Roger’s new watch was shown by Roger to Erin?
    I am at a loss. Hmmm. Maybe, Roger’s new watch was shown to Erin by him? Fail!
    8. A key is kept by us under the doormat.

    • kstradling says:

      The key to #7 is to leave the Active subject out all together: “Erin was shown his [Roger’s] new watch” or “His new watch was shown to Erin” both work.

      The original sentences of Exercise B are, admittedly, didactic examples rather than anything taken from actual usage. Mea culpa on the semantic awkwardness, but this is a structure exercise after all.

  2. Sister says:

    P.S. Feel free to not publish my comments if you don’t want me to give the answers away. 🙂

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