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As intransitive verbs, I mean not phrasal verbs used transitively and transitive verbs with to infinitive

For example :

I attempt to climb the tree


Is it correct to surmise that intransitive verbs take an object preceded by a preposition?

For example :

She smiled at me, we can only guess at the cause of global warming or news appeared in print media.

Is my comprehension about transitive verbs correct?

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  • 1
    Do you mean to ask if that's all they do, or if that's something they can do? Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 9:44
  • Intransitive verbs? Some verbs appear to be strictly intransitive (John arrived / they chatted), but most 'take an object' 'under the right conditions' (the ... regime has disappeared scores of dissidents / he slept the sleep of the righteous). Most verbs seem ambitransitive (I can read / I read a book). The exact nature of a direct object is moot (the piano had a stool; they had a ball [not the round type]; the piano resembled a pianola : Allerton says that these should not be considered objects but are 'best regarded as belonging to a slightly different category'. Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 10:11
  • Do all verbs used intransitively accept a prepositional phrase? I can't offhand think of any that can't be modified by acceptable adverbials of time (carriages arrive at dawn), location etc (he sleeps in a four-poster), manner etc (they chatted about their holidays).... Of course, when you '[remove from the equation] phrasal verbs', you make the tacit assumption that all {V + prepositiony-thing + noun phrase} strings are unequivocally classifiable as either {[MWVtrans] + [DO]} or {[V] + [PP]}. Studies have shown that there is a complex gradience. Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 10:21
  • I couldn't understand symbol MWVtrans. I am an Indian and learnt (or rather learning ) English as a foreign language.So my doubts may appear a bit odd for native speakers of English language.However,I make every endeavor to fine tune my command over English language.Finally,I couldn't fully comprehend the last sentence of your comment "studies have shown that there is a complex gradience".What does it imply? Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 18:09
  • On the gradience between transitive and intransitive, see this summary of the Thompson and Hopper proposal: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 19:35

3 Answers 3

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The notion "transitive" is not entirely clearcut. One definition I've seen is that a transitive verb is one that requires a following direct object to complete its meaning. (At least, it follows ordinarily.) But this is a grammatical classification, not a notional one.

Let's take your example "I attempt to climb the tree" and compare "attempt" with "try". Answering "Will you attempt to climb the tree?", I could say, using a direct object:

I will attempt it.
I will try it.

but, not using a direct object, there is a difference between these verbs:

*I will attempt.
I will try.

Evidently there is a difference between the verbs: "attempt" requires an object to complete its meaning, but "try" does not. In the way I would usually use the term "transitive", this is a difference in transitivity. "Attempt" is transitive, but "try" is not.

In your example, I would say that "to climb a tree" is a noun phrase and is a direct object. It satisfies tests for being a noun phrase, e.g. it can be pronominalized, and it can even be passivized: "To climb a tree has often been attempted."

Wikipedia has an article on Transitivity, which was first elevated to an interesting topic in syntactic theory by Sandra Thompson and Paul Hopper.

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  • @tchrist How does the fact that "to climb a tree" is a verb phrase show that it is not a noun phrase? Ordinarily, in TG and some other theories, whatever occupies "some NP's slot" is a NP.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 22:22
  • NPs do not need to have head nouns. "To err is human" has a subject which is a headless NP. It seems to me you're assuming that the category of a phrase can always be deduced from the words it contains. Maybe dependency grammar is a theory with this assumption (I don't know). But it is an unusual assumption, and I don't believe it's true. Why should I?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 22:41
  • Yeah ok, you re right.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 4:05
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This can sometimes be tricky because there are a variety of constructions which will change a verb's valency. But the archetypal categories of intransitive, transitive and ditransitive are still easy to grasp. I like to use these three verbs to show the base categories:

  • Intransitive: I slept
  • Transitive: I kicked the ball
  • Ditransitive: I gave the ball to you / I gave you the ball

It doesn't really make a difference whether the argument of the verb is a bare noun phrase or a prepositional phrase (gave is still ditransitive whether 'you' is fronted by 'to' or not): what matters is how many obligatory arguments there are. So "Is it correct to surmise that intransitive verbs take an object preceded by a preposition?" Nope, that's complete wrong. An intransitive verb is a verb which has one argument. Transitive verbs have two, and ditransitive have three (their name comes from their two objects however.) Attempt is definitely transitive, because it is like kick, not sleep.

Sometimes it gets tricky. Smile is fundamentally an intransitive verb; you do not "smile something". Some at phrases, like temporal phrases, are clearly adjuncts: "She smiled at 3 o'clock" has an intransitive verb. Whether "She smiled at me" should be considered intransitive is a bit harder to judge. I lean towards saying it is intransitive. However these tricky edge cases do not define the terms, the clear archetypal cases do, verbs like sleep and kick.

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  • Is "I slept" truly intransitive? "I slept the day away" -> "The day was slept away"
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 17:47
  • You do not "smile something"?? But you can smile a smile. youtube.com/watch?v=BR3xcZ-osqE
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 17:54
  • @GregLee Interesting counter examples. But realise that my whole point is about identifying the archetypal examples, and the simple "I slept" is definitely an archetypal intransitive sentence. Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 0:46
  • Then you'd classify "move" as a ditransitive verb, since in "He moved from Idaho to Florida" there are three obligatory arguments (archetypally speaking)?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 1:59
  • @GregLee No I'd probably classify move as intransitive there, with two locative (source and destination) adjuncts. Or I'd classify it as reflexive. Maybe my method isn't the best, but it makes sense to me. Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 2:01
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Intransitive is an imprecise term as it can mean

1 the verb has no object at all, neither a direct object nor a prep-object.

2 a verb with a prep-object as to wait for the bus, to click on a button, to talk about sth etc.

Huddleston and Pullum in CGEL use the terms transitive/intransitive in a different way.

By the way, there are 717 posts on ELU about transitive/intransitive.

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