When I say, read it or drink it or take me, there is no to in-between. Why is it that when I use the verb listen, I have to say listen to me or listen to it?

  • Some volitional sense verbs require a prepositional object. Listen to the concert, Look at the picture. Such prepositions are there only to identify the construction as transitive and mark the direct object. They're "function words", part of the machinery, but governed by the verb. Oh, and it isn't just in imperatives. He listened to her, and she looked at him. Apr 20, 2023 at 19:09
  • Listen didn't always need to, as the quotations under the last sense in this Wiktionary entry show en.wiktionary.org/wiki/listen#English. Note that it is archaic, no longer productive in modern English. This means that to was a semi-logical, yet ultimately arbitrary, development. Jun 10, 2023 at 11:55

7 Answers 7


The verb "listen" takes a prepositional object, while a verb like "read" takes an 'ordinary' direct object.

Why should this be so? Well, to some extent, "because it is": languages allow prepositional objects-- and English allows them readily-- and so some verbs fall into that paradigm. The mechanism for them arising is probably that originally, the preposition has more of its "full" lexical value (e.g. maybe when a person listened "to" another, there was originally the idea of them literally turning their ears towards them), but over time becomes grammaticalised-- i.e. in effect, people become so used to a word occurring in a particular situation, that they become desensitised to its meaning and just "expect" it to be there in that construction. It's in effect how the going-to future arose in English: once upon a time "I'm going to get some water" would have literally implied "I'm going to another place where there is water", whereas now it could mean "There is some water right here where I am and I will now take some of it".

The arbitrary nature of prepositional objects can be seen in the fact that different languages may have them or not to express a particular concept (English "wait for", but in French "attendre (après)", the preposition "après" is optional-- and indeed stigmatised in careful usage), and that within the same language, different verbs expressing the same notion need not share the same argument structure (so "wait for...", prepositional object, but "await ...", prepositionless).

Incidentally, "listen" and other verbs with a prepositional object are still arguably transitive.

  • 4
    I'm not truly an expert, but it seems to me that your water example is flawed. In this example, I think that "to" is not functioning prepositionally, but rather it is casting the verb "get" into the infinitive. Instead of "[going to] get", it's "going [to get]". Feb 17, 2011 at 0:03
  • Yes, today, it's effectively not a preposition; arguably it used to be. Either way, the point is that "going to" no longer has its literal meaning of "moving from one place to another" in this expression. Feb 17, 2011 at 0:28
  • I liked your explanation but I felt it the same way as said by @RolandTumble while I was reading your "going to" example. Yet, I got your point. Thanks. :)
    – ikartik90
    Feb 17, 2011 at 16:23

Listen, in contemporary usage, is not a transitive verb, so it cannot take a direct object meaning “the thing being heard”. It is intransitive, and you must use a prepositional phrase headed by to, as in “listen to something”, in order to specify the thing being heard.

  • 1
    Other intransitive verbs that require a preposition: go (to), arrive (at), lie (on), sit (on), run (to). You can't "go the store" either. Feb 16, 2011 at 20:10
  • N.B. You might still analyse that it's transitive with a prepositional object (e.g. you can passivise to "This music is listened to in many countries"). Feb 16, 2011 at 20:16
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    Does that really answer the question? A transitive verb is one that can take a direct object. "Listen" is not a transitive verb, so yes, it cannot take a direct object. My question would be why are some verbs intransitive, like "listen" and "go", while similar verbs like "hear" and "enter" are transitive? Feb 16, 2011 at 20:58
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    @Malvolio: Well, unfortunately, the answer to that question is really "because they are."
    – Kosmonaut
    Feb 16, 2011 at 21:05
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    @Malvolio: Well, sometimes a verb is created that expresses a relationship between two things (transitive) and sometimes a verb is created that just expresses a property/action of just one thing (intransitive). Expressing these two kinds of notions is fundamental in communication. The actual choice of verb X for one and verb Y for another has to be arbitrary, right?
    – Kosmonaut
    Feb 16, 2011 at 21:26

It's not.

He didn't listen when I told him not to drink arsenic.

  • 1
    I mean in case the statement is like- "He didn't listen to me when I told him not to drink arsenic." Whereas, if you happen to use some other verb, it doesn't, say, "He didn't respect me when I asked him to sit down quietly."
    – ikartik90
    Feb 16, 2011 at 19:19
  • "Listen to" is used in the passive voice. You can use a verb like 'hear' to change the clause to active voice. "He didn't hear me when I told him not to drink arsenic." You can also recognise a difference between "I like to watch the horses" and "I like to look at the horses." Please don't ask me to explain more because I'm already beyond my own understanding of the subject.
    – oosterwal
    Feb 17, 2011 at 3:00

You should listen up; I don't want to have to say this twice.

Whether you listen from over there or whether you listen while laying down, you will hear what I have to say and you will understand eventually. Just because you may listen, does not mean that I must listen as well.

Do you see what I did there?


I'm not good at English, so I'll describe it in Java why listen needs a to:

void drink(fluid);

void read(string);

WavePacket listen();
void listenTo(WavePacket);

As you see, listen() doesn't accept any parameter.

  • 3
    This is unhelpful if you don't know Java.
    – oosterwal
    Feb 17, 2011 at 5:43
  • I up-voted it. I'm a programmer myself. Liked your object-oriented way of explaining things. :)
    – ikartik90
    Feb 17, 2011 at 16:03
  • I like this explanation, trust me, I'm programmer.
    – dwarandae
    Mar 26, 2016 at 13:34
  • @oosterwal I know Java and still consider it unhelpful.
    – tgdavies
    Apr 20, 2023 at 23:43

That phenomenon explains what the intransitive verb is generally.

In your question, although you might believe listen always required an object, listen in English is an action itself of paying attention to a sound.

For example, when you want somebody to turn attention to yourself,

  • a) Listen!
  • b) *Hear!
  • c) Look!
  • d) *See!

Not that the intransitive verb requires a prepositional object but rather that it requires no object.

When you recognise meaning of a certain intransitive verb proper, it would be plausible that that verb doesn't require an object.

  • Standalone 'See!' is idiomatic. Apr 21, 2023 at 11:13

When you are listening TO something, you are receiving sounds from it or it is sending sounds TO you. This is not the case for reading a book or eating something.

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