Today’s post begins a series of English grammar lessons that will present over the next few months an orderly review of the major topics important to better writing and speaking. These will coordinate with the Tuesday evening seminars, now called Tuesday Evening Grammar, so if a particular morning post addresses a topic you have been curious about, the discussion that same evening will explain the subject in more detail, amplify it with examples, and place it within the larger scheme of English grammar by reviewing topics connected with it. Three previous posts, The Essential Minimum, The Parts of Speech and Thought, and Verbs and the Verb, will give you a good foundation for the coming weeks in this new series.
Think of language as always moving, like a pendulum, in two great arcs: perceiving and telling. We see something in the world about us or in our imagination, and we say something about what we see. Our minds swing between these two points, perceiving and telling, setting down a subject and stating a predicate, composing clauses, asserting thoughts, writing sentences. And fundamental to the life that we observe and say something about is action. Things move, sometimes doing things to other things, and sometimes simply moving. This is why it is so important to understand how verbs work, because using them well can vivify our language, conforming it more closely to how the world appears to our attention: something is always going on.
There are two great kinds of action: transitive and intransitive. The term transitive, a word of Latin derivation, means goes across (you can see in it our word transit, as in public transit, which goes across a city), and the image is that action that is transitive goes out from the doer, the one undertaking the action, and across into something else. That something else is called the direct object of a transitive verb, and together these three players, subject, transitive verb, and direct object, conjure a little scene on the stage of our readers’ minds in an effort to tell what we have seen going on. And this word order of subject, then verb, then object (sometimes represented by the letters SVO) forms the grammatical skeleton of standard word order in English: I planted a flower. To reverse the order of subject and object changes the diction, the manner in which we intend our thought to strike the reader: A flower I planted. This reverse is called inverted word order, and it can create, as here, a poetic diction or style, a way of seeing and saying that is very different from the workaday manner of the standard SVO form.
The direct object of a transitive verb may take its shape as any of the three grammatical elements: word, phrase, or clause. I may say I planted flowers, and there the direct object of the transitive verb planted in a single word, flowers. I may say too that I planted a row of flowers, in which case now the direct object of the same transitive verb is a phrase, a row of flowers. And I may even say I planted what will be a beautiful garden, where now the direct object of the verb planted is an entire clause, a group of words with its own subject and verb: what will be a beautiful garden. Transitive verbs, then, are verbs of action that have a direct object, whether in the form of a word, a phrase, or a clause.
Intransitive action, on the other hand, does not aim itself at anything else, so intransitive verbs do not work with a direct object. If I say I worked all afternoon in the garden, I am not saying that I worked anything, but rather just that I worked. I may have added notions of time (all afternoon) and space (in the garden), but both of these ideas are adverbs, not things (in the form of word, phrase, or clause) that I could work directly. An intransitive verb, then, will often have an adverbial element in its predicate, but oftentimes not. To say that my little boy giggled when I tickled him is simply to bring out an action complete in itself; his giggling does not go anywhere else, but remains in him and with him, though seeing him giggling will certainly move someone else.
Both transitive and intransitive verbs represent the dynamic character of life as we see it, whether in the external world we share or in the more private world of our imagination. These verbs of action stand in contrast to the other great class of verbs called verbs of state, and that will be the topic of next Tuesday morning’s post.
Verbs of Action
Tuesday, March 16
6:30 to 7:30 p.m. CT
Writing Smartly begins a new series on March 16 called Tuesday Evening Grammar. As with our previous seminars, each week we will discuss an important topic of English grammar relevant to better writing, but the subjects will now move systematically, covering more basic ground in more detail over the next few months. Each week’s review will stand on its own, so there will always be something to learn. On Tuesday, March 16, we will look at verbs of action, and explain how they work effectively with the three grammatical elements of word, phrase, and clause. Tuition is $25, and you may enroll now through this registration link. A confirmation and Zoom link will be emailed shortly after you register. Tuesday Evening Grammar begins each week at 6:30 p.m., Central Time.