Transition to transitives

Exploring verbs, intransitive and transitive, and the transition of the former to the latter, and the formation of transitive verbs.

VERBS can be categorised as intransitive and transitive. Intransitive is said “of a verb (or sense or use of a verb) not taking a direct object, e.g. look in look at the sky”; and transitive is said “of a verb (or sense or use of a verb) able to take a direct object (expressed or implied), e.g. saw in he saw the donkey” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004).

Let us explore the terms further.

The verb “to be” is invariably intransitive, as in “I am”, where the sentence is complete (meaning “I exist”) and the verb am does not and cannot take an object. In another example, “I am a dreamer”, the verb am is still intransitive – a dreamer is not the object of the verb; rather it is the complement which follows from the verb, for the sentence to make complete sense. Similar examples include: (1) “His name is Mutu.”; (2) “She seems contented.”; and (3) “He studied to be an engineer”.

Depending on context, certain verbs can be both intransitive and transitive. In each of the following pairs of sentences, the verb is illustrated firstly as an intransitive and secondly as a transitive, with the object shown underlined: (1) learn – “Kiyaasa learns fast” vs “Sajida learns algebra in school”; and (2) walk – “The boy walks to school” vs “Politicians rarely walk the talk”.

The object of a verb can be direct or indirect. Some verbs can govern two objects, a direct and an indirect object. In the sentence, “She sent him a letter”, him is not the direct object of the verb sent. The direct and the indirect objects become obvious when the sentence is recast as “She sent a letter to him”, where a letter is the direct object and him the indirect object.

Changing to passive voice

A transitive verb can be converted to the passive voice by the use of the past participle of the verb preceded by the appropriate auxiliary verb; for example, saw (active voice) becomes was/were seen (passive voice), AND the sentence that contains the verb is reconstructed with the subject and the object switched around. Thus the sentence, “Two passers-by saw the snatch thief”, on conversion, becomes: “The snatch thief was seen by two passers-by” – where the object, the snatch thief, in the first sentence becomes the subject of the second sentence (in the passive voice), AND the original subject, two passers-by, becomes the object (preceded by the preposition by).

It is almost redundant to state that an intransitive verb (that which does not take an object) cannot be converted to the passive voice. Converting the sentence, “Ah Tee went to town yesterday” (containing the intransitive verb went, the past tense of go, for which the past participle is gone), to the passive voice, “The town was gone to by Ah Tee yesterday”, is a no-no.

Phrasal verbs

Many a verb can tag on a preposition or an adverb or both, to form what is called a phrasal verb. In use, a phrasal verb is idiomatic and has a nuance quite different from the meaning of the verb on its own; for example: (1) “The plane touched down at KLIA” = “The plane landed at KLIA; and (2) “The boss promised to look into the proposal” = “The boss promised to study the proposal”.

Phrasal verbs may be intransitive or transitive. The first example above, touched down, is intransitive, and the second example, look into, is transitive.

Further examples of transitive phrasal verbs are: (1) to look down on (somebody) = to despise; (2) to look upon (someone as, say, a hero) = to regard; (3) to come up with = to produce (something, especially when pressured or under threat); and (4) to put up with (somebody) = to tolerate.

A phrasal verb, if transitive, may be turned into the passive voice. Example: “People look upon Nicol David as the world’s best squash player” becomes, in the passive voice: “Nicol David is looked upon as the world’s best squash player (by people)” – the phrase, by people, within parentheses, is implied and may be omitted.

Transitive-forming affixes

Intransitive verbs can be transformed into single-word transitive verbs by affixing with the appropriate prefixes, shown underlined in the following examples: wait for = await, and mourn for = bemourn. In the broader picture, intransitive verbs – as well as nouns and adjectives, whether pre-existing or in the form of the Greek or Latin stems – can be converted into transitive verbs with the prefixes or suffixes shown in the accompanying table. (What should I call such affixes? Enabling affixes? Transitivising affixes? In absence of an appropriate term, I settle for the term transitive-forming affixes.)

n Dr Lim Chin Lam’s next article for Ramblings will appear on March 20.


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