I was reading about transitive and intransitive verbs from a website and it said that some words can be both transitive and intransitive: like the verb "run" in,

  1. He runs for four miles daily. (Intransitive)
    1. He runs the marathon whenever it's in town.

But then I thought of this: when we convert a sentence from active to passive voice, the object becomes the subject but the subject doesn't become the object, it becomes the object of preposition or we don't write it at all. So, the verb becomes intransitive now.

Wikipedia entry for "Intransitive Verb" agrees with me too.

In languages that have a passive voice, a transitive verb in the active voice becomes intransitive in the passive voice.

So, is it true that all, not just some, of the transitive verbs are intransitive too?

  • @Andrew, what do you mean by "I don't know if that makes it officially intransitive"? Commented May 28, 2018 at 15:35
  • >> "Keep in mind the intransitive version of the verb may have quite a different meaning, e.g. "He smells the brewing coffee" vs. just "He smells"." : @Andrew, but if we convert the first sentence into passive, we have, "The brewing coffee is smelled by him" and, as far as I see, the meaning of the verb "smell" here is the same as that of the verb "smell" in the active form. So, how does the different meaning of "smell" in "He smells" matter here? Commented May 28, 2018 at 15:41
  • @JaaonBassford, it seems like you have downvoted this question, can you explain why? Commented May 30, 2018 at 20:20

2 Answers 2


Perhaps you are right, but still the argument seems highly contrived. For example,

The cook kneads the dough to make bread.

With knead, the object is required. You can shift it to the passive,

The dough is kneaded (by the cook)

where the adverbial phrase is optional, but I don't know if linguists would label it is as passive transitive or intransitive, since we're still talking about an action taken on an object by an unnamed subject.

I think you're starting to get into the fine distinctions of how to label things, a subject primarily of interest to linguists (and not to everyday speakers like myself). See for example Ambitransitivity which I think is a better label for most English verbs.

Many English verbs are both transitive and intransitive, but the meaning changes if you exclude the object. For example:

He smells the brewing coffee


He smells.

Even if you change the first sentence to the passive,

The brewing coffee is smelled by him.

I think it's likely it would be labelled as passive transitive and not intransitive. For example, here's an opinion by a blogger who asserts "all passive verbs are transitive".

Meanwhile, "He smells" (which, in case it's not clear, means that his body emits an offensive odor) is without object and definitely intransitive, although possibly better labeled as reflexive (or maybe pseudo-reflexive since it's other people who are actually smelling him).

(Edit) The point of the passive tense is to allow the speaker to relate the action and the object of the action without revealing the subject. If I say the dough was kneaded, the dough is not doing its own kneading. The passive voice doesn't magically change the object into the subject. As I said from the start, that argument seems tenuous at best.

  • I didn't understand the example. In "The dough is kneaded by the cook", dough is the subject and cook the object of preposition. But I don't see any object. Commented May 28, 2018 at 18:07
  • @JasonBassford, I highly suspect that. See, for example, the accepted answer at: googleweblight.com/i?u=https://english.stackexchange.com/… . Many other sources I have seen say the same thing. Can you point out some references supporting your claim? Commented May 28, 2018 at 19:28
  • @JasonBassford, but all the examples there are in active voice. It says nothing about the subject or the object in passive voice. Commented May 28, 2018 at 19:38
  • @JasonBassford, then what do you make of the answer on the link I gave earlier? Also, nearly every source (which includes my grammar textbook too) on which I read up on about this says the same thing: When a sentence is changed from active to passive voice, the object becomes the subject, which is "the dough" here and the subject becomea the object of preposition or isn't written at all. You haven't provided any source that denies this, that actually says that "on an active-to-passve transformation, the subject and object do not change". Commented May 28, 2018 at 20:02
  • @JasonBassford, again, what you're saying contradicts every opinion on this matter I've read: can you provide some actual, credible sources backing up your claim? Commented May 28, 2018 at 20:09

With greatest respect for Andrew, I am going to disagree slightly with his answer. A clear and complete distinction between intransitive and transitive verbs is that intransitive verbs never have a direct object whereas transitive verbs may, and usually do, have a direct object when in the active voice. An alternative definition is that an intransitive verb has no passive voice. These are the meanings effectively used by those who write about English grammar. It simply invites confusion to say that transitive verbs become intransitive verbs when in the passive voice because they then lack a direct object.

There are two meanings of smell. The transitive verb means, when in the active voice,that the subject of the verb receives a particular type of sensory impression attributable to something else, namely the direct object. That transitive meaning of smell can be rendered in the active or passive: Sara smells the coffee and The coffee is smelled by Sara mean precisely the same thing.

There is another meaning of smell, namely that the subject of the verb gives off an odor. As I suspect Andrew was quietly alluding to, it is said that the lexicographer Johnson did not approve of the intransitive meaning of smell and corrected a woman who said he smelled with, No, Madame, you smell [me implied]; I stink. That meaning of smell cannot be put into the passive.

English is a hard language. Using good definitions will help learners. I suspect that the OP will benefit from learning what everyone else means by transitive and intransitive.

  • >>"transitive verb may, and usually do, have a direct object when in the active voice": Thank you, this is what I was looking for. But can you provide some references that say this? I've never heard transitive verbs defined in relation to active voice anywhere. Commented May 28, 2018 at 18:32
  • You can find in any grammar that subject transitive verb object is a standard form. Then they will say that you can say the same thing by former object (now subject) transitive verb in passive voice. It is so ingrained in a native speaker of English that no one mentions that the first form is in the active voice. Commented May 29, 2018 at 1:06
  • @JeffMorrow I don't really see any disagreement -- I think you said what I was trying to say in my fumbling way, namely that putting a transitive verb into the passive doesn't somehow turn it intransitive.
    – Andrew
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 5:01
  • @Andrew Oh I thought you gave a good answer. I am up voting it. My only disagreement was that starting with "Perhaps you are right" does not stress that the OP was not working with the actual definitions understood by native English speakers. The OP was confused by an incomplete definition. Like him, I was not able to find a formal grammar that made the point clear so I wanted to be very clear from the start. If you viewed my opening sentence as disparaging, I apologize. Commented May 29, 2018 at 14:14
  • 1
    @MrReality I understood what you were asking. I did not find a reference work giving these two propositions as I have worded them. (1) Intransitive verbs have only the active voice and never have a direct object. (2) Transitive verbs have both a passive and active voice and usually do have a direct object when in the active voice. Yes, transitive verbs are called transitive verbs even when they are in the passive voice and so lack a direct object. In other words, the distinctive mark of a transitive verb is that it has a passive voice. Commented May 30, 2018 at 21:22

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