Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Transitive and Intransitive Birds

More than once while editing I’ve come across a construction like this:

  • An eldritch green light emitted from under the door to the teachers’ lounge. X

The problem here is the treatment of the verb emitted. Either the sentence needs a different verb or it needs to have its syntax rearranged.

  • An eldritch green light emanated from under the door to the teachers’ lounge. 
  • The teachers’ lounge emitted an eldritch green light from under the door. 

Emit is a transitive verb, and therefore needs an object, while emanate can be intransitive, and needs none.

Southern Cassowary by snailkites on Tumblr
A transitive bird (in this case, a cassowary) prepares to transmit a message to its object.

Transitive Birds


Transitive has the same root as transit, meaning “movement” or “the conveying of something from one place to another” (as in mass transit). It may help to think of transitive verbs as carrying an impetus they have to deliver to another word.

When a verb is transitive, it must have an object; it always does its verb-ing in relation to something else. Because emit is transitive, you can’t say “the light emits.” Emits what? You have to say “[something] emits light.”

These transitive verbs make no sense without the objects that follow them:

  • I tricked the giant.
  • I donned a natty green suit.
  • I questioned the witness closely.
  • I brushed the sasquatch’s coat.

Intransitive Birds


Intransitive verbs don’t require an object. With nothing to pass on, they are complete by themselves.

  • I stumbled.
  • I ruminated.
  • I cheated.

Identification in the Wild


The same verb can be transitive or intransitive, depending on how it’s used.

  • Natalya often walked by the Volga. (Intransitive)
  • Natalya often walked her snow leopard by the Volga. (Transitive)

  • Dark Dashwood the Desperate was willing to beg, borrow, and steal. (Intransitive)
  • Dark Dashwood the Desperate begged a smoke, borrowed a horse, and stole a herd of cattle. (Transitive)

  • The Dowager did not suffer fools gladly. (Transitive)
  • No one knew how he suffered! thought Niccolò. (Intransitive)

Cover of Dark Dashwood the Desperate from British Library
Dark Dashwood the Desperate was willing to beg, borrow, and steal.

A verb’s transitive and intransitive forms may even have different meanings.

  • Submit your poems to Annabel Lee on black-edged paper sprinkled with tears.
  • Submit!” cried the dominatrix, cracking her whip. 

So pay attention to that little note in dictionary definitions, the one after verb, that says transitive or intransitive. It may keep you from using entirely the wrong word someday.



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