Grammar Gremlins: Verbal Distinctions

Quick: what’s the past tense of shine? If you said shined or shone, you’re right at least half the time. My dictionary gives shone when shine is intransitive (“The moonlight shone through the trees”) and shined when shine is transitive (“She shined her flashlight into the dark room” or “He shined his shoes”). (This is American standard usage, but your British heroine may well have shone her torch into that dark room, another reason I stick to writing American characters.)

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gremlin-2Of course we all remember transitive and intransitive verbs from Junior High School English class, right? Sure we do. I have a pretty good working grasp of the difference—in most cases, most of us do. But I went to Pinckert’s Practical Grammar for the details.

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A transitive verb requires an object, a noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb. She shined that flashlight. George threw the ball. The dog caught the frisbee.

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An intransitive verb does not require an object. The moonlight shone through the trees. Jane fell off her bike. The dog barked loudly.

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Many verbs, like shine, can be either transitive or intransitive; most, unlike shine, have only one past tense. Jane danced like Snoopy; Jane danced the Happy Dance. George read out loud; George read a book. The canary sang in its cage; the chickadee sang its song.

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We don’t give much thought to those all-purpose verbs (not an official grammar designation!) when we write, but knowing those that are always one or the other can be very helpful.

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Always transitive, requiring an object: lay, raise, and set. Hens lay eggs; yesterday the hen laid three eggs. We raise kids; yesterday the construction crew raised the roof. Jane sets the table every night; did you set that book aside?

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Always intransitive, not acting on an object: lie, rise, and sit. Jane never lies on the floor; she lay in bed this morning. The sun always rises; the moon rose at 9 PM. Sit down; he sat on the steps.

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So, when struggling with the difference between lay and lie (which I have looked up more often than I care to admit), remember that if your verb needs an object (she laid the bookgremlin-3 on the table), your sentence needs lay. If there is no object (please take off your clothes and lie down), lie is the verb you need.

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As for “he lied to me while he lay on the bed,” or why the present tense of lay and the past tense of lie are the same word, I have no explanation. Let’s chalk those up to the mysteries of the English language, since we can’t find anyone to blame.

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