Let's consider this situation. A mother asks her child, "Who ate this apple?" Then her son replies, "I didn't eat." In this situation, is "eat" an intransitive verb when "the apple" is omitted? I think "eat" is transitive verb originally. What do you think?

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    I assume a mom is female and would address her child.
    – user10893
    Mar 30, 2013 at 15:42
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    But this brings up the extremely common illusion -- to which we often contribute -- that a verb is intrinsically transitive or intransitive. This is why I talk about transitivity being a property of clauses, not verbs. If you want to say there's a missing but understood indefinite edible direct object of eat in this sentence, then you'll want to say it's Transitive. If you don't want to insert missing words and pretend they're there, then you'll want to say it's Intransitive. Same with Passive; same with Dative; same with any rule that changes object configuration. Mar 30, 2013 at 15:52
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    @JohnLawler: Most of the questions at ELU ask for binary choices; where does that idea come from? -And when one attempts to answer what one feels is the question-behind-the-question, one is accused of 'not answering my question'. The good old "Have you stopped being stupid yet?" ploy. Mar 30, 2013 at 16:22
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    @JohnLawler I’ll bet that consigning all choices to binary, and indeed boolean, selections is driven by ESL tests whose facile questions can be marked only right or wrong by some mindless algorithm, not carefully graded for excellence or completeness, let alone for actual understanding, by a human agent. Everything is only ever right or wrong, and no allowance is made for multiply correct, shaded responses.
    – tchrist
    Mar 30, 2013 at 16:30
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    @tchrist It wouldn't be so bad if one of the offered answers was correct - or even both of them - or even if the question allowed sensible discussion in an approach to an answer - or even if the question made sense - all the time. Mar 30, 2013 at 16:41

1 Answer 1


I will try to avoid begging the transitive question.

When eat is used without a direct object it usually has a somewhat different meaning than it does when used with a direct object: something closer to ‘take a meal’. For instance:

  • You're in plenty of time, we haven't eaten yet = Dinner has not yet been served.
  • No, thanks, I ate already = I already had lunch.

In some circumstances, to be sure, it does imply eat something:

I'm famished, I haven't eaten at all today = I haven't eaten anything today.

But U.S. children would not answer the question Who ate this apple? with I didn't eat—that would be non-responsive, because it answers a different question. They would be more likely to say something like I didn’t eat it!

Actually, this question would probably not be asked, since the apple is no longer present. The question would probably be Who ate that apple?

Actually, they would probably answer Not me!—which would come out Dobbe!, because their mouth would be full.

  • ...... Beat yer. Mar 30, 2013 at 16:42
  • @EdwinAshworth So you did. I'm a  s l o w  writer. Mar 30, 2013 at 16:49

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