Intransitive Verbs vs. Transitive Verbs

How to use intransitive verbs and transitive verbs correctly

This is an entry on my list of Common Errors in English Usage. Visit the main page for direct links to additional entries.

There are a few pairs of common irregular verbs that tend to give people a lot of trouble: lie and lay, rise and raise, sit and set. In each of these pairs, one verb is transitive, meaning that it always takes an object after it (the subject does the action to something else), and one verb is intransitive, meaning that it cannot take an object after it (the subject does the action itself).

What makes lie and lay especially confusing is that the past tense of to lie (when it means “to rest or recline”) is lay

to lie = to rest or recline (intransitive)

Present tense: lie (plural), lies (singular)
Past tense: lay
Past Participle: lain

dogs lie at the foot of the bed every night
a weakness that lies at the root of his failures
laid lay in bed last night, listening to the rain
has laid lain around feeling sorry for himself all day

to lay = to put [something] down (transitive)

Present tense: lay (plural), lays (singular)
Past tense: laid
Past Participle: laid

laid down their weapons
the foundation was laid by our forefathers²

to rise = to move upward (intransitive)

Present tense: rise (plural), rises (singular)
Past tense: rose
Past Participle: risen

sun rises very early
zombies have risen from their graves

to raise = to lift (transitive)

Present tense: raise (plural), raises (singular)
Past tense: raised
Past Participle: raised

raise your hand
raise the flag
concerns risen raised by the students

to sit = to rest on one’s buttocks (intransitive)

Present tense: sit (plural), sits (singular)
Past tense: sat
Past Participle: sat

sits in the sunny spot every morning
 in the chair

to set = to put [something] down (transitive)

Present tense: set (plural), sets (singular)
Past tense: set
Past Participle: set

always sets his glasses on the bedside table
the rules set forth by the officers

¹ To lie in the sense of “to tell an untruth” is a regular verb whose past tense and past participle forms are lied. Many people incorrectly use laid as the past tense form and past participle of the irregular verb to lie (“rest or recline”). See my Verbs page for more information about verb forms and irregular verbs.

² Here laid is used in the passive voice, so its object (foundation) is instead acting as the subject of the clause. The examples “concerns raised by the students” and “the rules set forth by the officers” also have a passive construction. In the active voice it is clear that they are transitive verbs with objects:

our forefathers laid the foundation
the students raised concerns
the officers set forth the rules

For more information about the active and passive voices, see my Verbs page.

Related Resources

Common Errors in English Usage: Errors in diction and idiom commonly made by native speakers of English

List of Common Errors in English Usage (PDF): Printable version of the complete list

Common Grammar Errors: A list of common errors in grammar (topics like subject-verb agreement and parallelism) as distinct from usage

List of Common Errors in English Usage: PDF version

© 2006, 2008, and 2019 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.