The words listen, shout, etc. are intransitive verbs, but why are they used in passive sentences with preposition to, at, etc.?


she was never listened to.
I don’t like to be shouted at.

When intransitive verbs are used with preposition, are they considered as transitive verbs?

  • Lots of intransitive verbs with prepositions can be put into the passive. They're still considered intransitive verbs. Aug 24, 2014 at 11:27
  • I listened to her. I shouted at you. Where's the passivity?
    – bye
    Aug 24, 2014 at 11:46

2 Answers 2


The mistake is believing that "intransitive" is an invariant property of verbs.

Transitivity is a property of clauses, not of verbs. Many verbs cannot be used alone in a transitive clause, and therefore transitivizing prepositions are used to make them transitive. These prepositions don't even have their usual meaning -- they're just crutches used to produce a transitive clause. Sense verbs are a good example.

  • Bill heard the sonata. (transitive)

  • Bill listened for an hour. (intransitive)
  • Bill listened to it for an hour. (transitive)

  • Mary saw the painting. (transitive)

  • Mary looked for an hour. (intransitive)
  • Mary looked at it for an hour. (transitive)

Clearly the preposition to in the third sentence does not mean what to normally means.
Likewise, the preposition at in the last sentence is not a normal use. Both are governed by the verb.

When a verb is transitivized by adding a preposition, the transitive verb is the V + P combination,
and it can be passivized like any transitive verb

  • They looked at/listened to/thought about/argued over/made much of it for decades. (active)
  • It was looked at/listened to/thought about/argued over/made much of for decades. (passive)
  • 4
    Very well put. Aug 24, 2014 at 16:07
  • 3
    Are you saying that the third sentence has a structure like Bill [listened to] [it] rather than Bill [listened] [to it] ? Aug 24, 2014 at 20:05
  • 1
    No. I'm not saying "rather than". I'm saying "in addition to". Aug 24, 2014 at 20:19
  • 1
    This answer states "Transitivity is a property of clauses, not of verbs" and then (confusingly) ends by talking about transitivity as being a property of verbs: "When a verb is transitivized by adding a preposition, the transitive verb is the V + P combination, and it can be passivized like any transitive verb." Jan 21, 2017 at 18:48
  • 1
    @Canada - Area 51 Proposal The French verb écouter is transitive, so écoute-moi! (= listen to me!) doesn't take a preposition. / I'm saying that this makes rather redundant the 'is P a real preposition here?' debate in this particular (French) case. I'm representing the development by the French of the single-word transitive verb (I don't actually know how or why it happened; there was probably no intention to simplify analysis involved) as a clever analysis-simplifying device. Jun 6, 2017 at 10:33

A transitive verb is a verb which has a direct object. (e.g. I saw the car, I ate the food)

A prepositional phrase does not count as a direct object, so both transitive and intransitive verbs can have prepositional phrases.

  • 1
    That doesn't answer the question. Aug 24, 2014 at 13:38
  • Transitive verbs take two arguments. The second argument can be a nominal phrase, or a preposition phrase or even a verb phrase. To say transitive verbs can only take nominal objects is nonsense. Aug 24, 2014 at 23:17
  • @curiousdannii If you agree J Lawler's post above is accurate then you agree that clauses and not verbs are in/transitive. A prepn itself is not a DO, and of course neither is a prepositional phrase. To the extent that some verbs tend to take DOs and others PCs and others other types of complements with different semantic roles then epicfaace is not wrong. Shout at someone for example has a verb which takes at as a complement, at takes a noun as complement. The noun, which could be considered object of at is NOT a complement of the verb shout. Aug 24, 2014 at 23:33
  • 1
    You can't "sleep it off"? Aug 25, 2014 at 3:36
  • 1
    ...or, indeed, sleep your way to the top, which actually involves very little sleeping. Aug 25, 2014 at 13:22

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