When people ask me about the relative importance of grammar (Yes, it is only relatively important), I often mention that a rudimentary knowledge is all that is really necessary for most students. As an example, I would say it's not important for a ninth grader to know if a verb is transitive or not. But I've changed my mind. There's actually a pretty good reason for understanding the concept of transitiveness. I'll get to that in a second.
One quality of verbs is transitiveness (sometimes called transitivity...but not transitivism or transitivocity, and definitely not transitivitiousness). It's a big word, but a simple concept. Some verbs take a direct object; others don't. Verbs with a direct object are transitive -- they transfer an action to something. Verbs without an object are intransitive.
You buy grapes.
You don't just buy; you have to buy something. The verb buy is transitive. But you just sleep. You don't sleep something. Verbs like buy, which need an object to make sense, are transitive. Sleep is intransitive.
Of course, most verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on the context (these are sometimes called ambitransitive). You can climb a tree (transitive), or you can just climb (intransitive). Barbara can eat breakfast (transitive), or she can just eat (intransitive).
Here's why I think this idea matters: Many people confuse the verbs lie and lay. Another troublesome pair is rise and raise. It's understandable that people confuse them because they sound similar to each other, and their definitions are almost identical. So what's the difference between lie and lay and between rise and raise? You guessed it -- transitiveness!
Lay is always transitive. You have to lay something. A chicken lays an egg. A waiter lays silverware on the table. Oscar lays his toupee on his bald spot. Lie, on the other hand, is always intransitive. You just lie. You lie on a sofa. A dog lies on the front porch. A dead fly lies in your tomato soup. Lay means to place. Lie means to recline*.
Raise and rise work the same way. Raise is transitive. You raise things. Tommy raises his hand. The trooper raises a flag. Rise, then, is always intransitive. Nobody rises anything. The sun rises. Prices sometimes rise (because somebody raises them -- get it?).
So, if you find yourself befuddled by lie, lay, rise, and raise, you probably ought to learn what it means when we say a verb is transitive or intransitive. It just might solve the problem.
*What makes lie and lay even more confusing is that the past tense of lie is -- wait for it -- lay, as in "Yesterday, the pigs lay in some mud." I know, crazy, right? No wonder we goof this up so often.
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