Intransitive verbs have no objects, so they can not be used in passive voice, but I have seen many people using intransitive verbs in passive voice sentences. I am much confused how is it possible. The words "listen", "laugh", "work" and "look" etc. are intransitive verbs, but why are they used in passive sentences with preposition "to", "at" and "on" etc.? He laughed at me [I was laughed at by him] I worked on the computer [The computer was worked on by me] I listened to him [He was listened to by me] I looked at him [He was looked at by me]

The important point which I want to ask is that; When intransitive verbs are used with prepositions (laugh at, listen to, work on etc...), are they considered as transitive verbs?


5 Answers 5


This is not as complicated as it seems.

What you are looking at here is called a Prepositional Passive (PP or P-passive), which is sometimes referred to as a pseudo-passive. In this form, the complement of a preposition is realised as the subject of a passivised verb, as in your examples.


He laughed at me ~ I was laughed at (by him)

The complement of the preposition phrase at me becomes the subject I - which is why it changes - of the passivised verb (was) laughed.

  • I did not understand your last line "the complement of a preposition is realised as the subject of a passivised verb". Please make it clear to me, thanks
    – shopDada14
    Jan 3, 2015 at 11:54
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    But you can't always do it: The guided tour met at the hotel, but not *The hotel was met at (by the guided tour). Jan 3, 2015 at 17:26
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    @PeterShor Right, because the PP in your example is an adjunct to the VP and doesn't form a phrase with the verb directly. In syntactic terms we say that the PP must be an complement of the verb for the pseudo-passive to work. For example, we can say that We ate at the hotel and we don't want to say that at the hotel is combined directly with eat in the same way that dinner is in We ate dinner at the hotel. In both sentences at the hotel acts as an adverbial modifier, and hence can't form a pseudo passive.
    – Alan Munn
    Jan 3, 2015 at 18:00
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    @AlanMunn, You have a right idea, but how can we identify verb compliment in a prepositional phrase in order to convert the active sentence into passive sentence? as you said "PP must be an complement of the verb for the pseudo-passive to work", also how can we differentiate between an adjective or adverbial phrase and a complement of a verb?-
    – shopDada14
    Jan 4, 2015 at 8:48
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    @shopDada14 "He fell on the ground" -> "The ground was fallen on"; "He is playing with me" -> "I am being played with"; "you can sit by me" -> "I can be sat by". Where there is no active object, the complement of the prep. phrase can be promoted to the subject of the passive construction. Jan 4, 2015 at 9:17

A verb may have both a transitive and an intransitive function, depending on how it is used. Furthermore, transitive verbs and verbs with verb phrase complements may be conjugated in the passive voice.

When intransitive verbs are used with prepositions (laugh at, listen to, work on etc...), are they considered as transitive verbs?

To answer your question, yes sometimes but this is not why they are considered transitive verbs.

A prepositional verb consists of a transitive verb plus a preposition with which it is closely associated. A verb phrase complement completes the meaning of a verb or a verb phrase.

In each of the examples you have presented, a verb is used with a prepositional phrase as a verb phrase complement. Additionally, as you see in the following example, the word 'laughed' is used as a transitive verb together with the preposition 'at' to form the prepositional verb 'laughed at'. The object is 'me'. Also, the verb 'laughed' is completed by the verb phrase complement 'at me'.

He laughed at me.

At whom did he laugh? the object = me / verb phrase complement = at me


I was laughed at by him

The conjugated verb here is 'was laughed at' and the verb phrase complement is 'by him'.

Who was laughed at by him? original object = I





  • I'm not sure that all would agree that 'When intransitive verbs are used with prepositions (laugh at, listen to, work on etc...), [they are] considered as transitive verbs.' Transitive multi-word verbs, possibly. There are sensible comparisons that can be made. 'Listen to' for example has a transitive single-word equivalent in French (écouter). A few MW verbs (eg mock at, juggle with, mourn for, fight against, brush against, rule over, sniff at, appeal against) have transitive single-word equivalents in English (the simplex verbs). Jan 3, 2015 at 11:50
  • @EdwinAshworth Not when they are used with prepositions but when they are used with prepositions as transitive verbs. I guess the answer "yes" to the question is more definitive than that. Thanks.
    – mchid
    Jan 3, 2015 at 14:37
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    I think I'm picking up the ESL or whatever we must now call it slant on 'prepositional v phrasal verbs' in what you write. Please remember, if this approach is informing your answer, that (1) terminology is confused on this topic; (2) the unitary (MWV) - composite (verb + following prepositional phrase) classification glosses over many strings displaying apparently moderate cohesion; (3) not all things one reads in any grammar (even those produced for ESL) are universally accepted. Jan 3, 2015 at 14:46
  • When certain normally intransitive verbs are used with certain prepositions (laugh at, listen to, work on, etc.), then they can undergo Passive. It doesn't work for every verb, and each such verb usually has only one transitivizing preposition; e.g, listen only works with to -- Mary was listened to, but not *Mary was listened for or *Mary was listened with -- and look only works with at. Feb 27, 2017 at 18:17
  • @JohnLawler: “look only works with at.”   What about “The child was looked after”, “The car keys were looked for”, “The mystery was looked into”, “The document was looked over”, “The definition was looked up”, … and, at the risk of pushing it, “Mary was looked down on (or upon)”, “John was looked up to” and ”The party was looked forward to”?   ISTM that “look” is one of the most versatile verbs regarding phrasal verbs: “look ahead”, “look around”, “look in (on somebody)”, “look out!”, etc. Feb 10, 2018 at 16:18

I've just been posing and grappling with a similar question myself. Here is the best answer I've come up with…

In a sentence with an intransitive verb, and therefore no direct object, English is willing to regard the object of a prepositional phrase to the verb as the 'patient', or receiver of the verb's action (as moderated by the preposition). This can be shown by the fact that the 'patient' becomes the subject of a passive construction.

"Squatters lived in that house." "That house was lived in by squatters." The house is the patient, and receives the action 'lived in'.

Sometimes this practice doesn't work. "Sam struck in the heat of the moment." "The heat of the moment was struck in by Sam." But my contention would be that this is just massively clunky, an abuse of a metaphor, rather than ungrammatical. There's simply nothing useful achieved by the construction, it is stretched and absurd (but not ungrammatical).

To my mind, this practice of treating the object of a preposition as the 'patient' blurs and calls into question three distinctions:

  1. Between direct object and object of a preposition.

  2. Between transitive and intransitive verbs.

  3. Between 'phrasal verbs' and any other combination of verb/preposition.

To state it one more time: in "The students lived in the house" the house receives the action (is the patient), 'lived in' is the complete verb and is transitive. Therefore, we can change it to "The house was lived in by the students." OR just "The house was lived in."

I think this means that all verb/preposition combinations are teetering on the edge of being phrasal verbs, which is why phrasal verbs are so common. It's just that some tip over into metaphor, and take on a life of their own.

After all, if I say "He shot down the plane", is 'shot down' really metaphoric, or is it easy to understand from its constituents? I think it's somewhere in between. But it is definitely a phrasal verb because you couldn't say "He shot bullets down the plane". "Down the plane" is not a prepositional phrase here. 'Shot down' is a transitive phrasal verb. But then, I would say so is 'lived in' or 'died in'. Where you draw the line is largely arbitrary.


It is not sufficiently definitive to say :

Intransitive verbs have no object.

I think it should be stressed that intransitive verbs have no direct object.

The reason is that, conceptually, they do not supply enough information about the interaction between the subject and the direct object.

I laughed him / I breathed him / I listened him / I looked him / I worked him

simply have not granted the hearer or reader sufficient information to know what concept is being expressed. In the very nature of the activity which the verb describes, it needs more to be said in order to envisage how the action is accomplished and/or to what effect.

I laughed at him / I laughed with him

I breathed on him / I breathed away from him

It is a matter of concept. And a matter of information.


I was once asked the question "Can we use the verb 'go' in the passive voice?" by a friend of mine who was a teacher of English. My answer was "no".

But I myself wasn't satisfied with the answer and searched through the web. Finally, I got the fact that such intransitive verbs can be used in passive forms when they are followed by a prepositional object (preposition+noun/pronoun).


Many Asian students go to America for their higher studies.

Here, the intransitive verb "go" is followed by the preposition "to" and its object "America". Therefore, it can be converted into passive as

America is gone to by many Asian students for their higher studies.

  • That isn't passive voice.
    – tchrist
    Feb 27, 2017 at 15:13
  • "is gone to..." sounds extremely awkward.
    – herisson
    Jul 3, 2017 at 14:42
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    Sure, ‘‘is gone to’’ sounds extremely awkward, but it quacks like passive voice, it swims like passive voice, and it waddles like passive voice. It’s basically the prepositional passive equivalent of “America is visited …”, which is clearly passive (although it’s not exactly synonymous). Feb 10, 2018 at 16:19

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