Transitive

Characterized by the passage of some property or characteristic from one place or concept to another place or concept.

When I took French in high school I came across the concept of transitive versus intransitive verbs. Perhaps this distinction was made in my studies of English, but what I recall is a specific conversation in French class.

While trying to grasp what my teacher was telling me, I asked whether a transitive verb was one that required a direct object. I hoped that was a different way of saying what she had been telling us, and that she would confirm that I had it right.

She told me no. It was something else. And she commenced to explain what a transitive verb was, in a way that still sounded to me like «verb that requires a direct object.» I left that class nearly thirty years ago assuming that there was something I just wasn’t getting.

I thought about this incident recently when I was looking for information about the associative property and stumbled across the transitive property. As sometimes happens, my brain stumbled upon a previously unconsidered commonality between uses of different words with the same latin roots.

Transit means movement. Transitive refers to something being in motion, or passing from one place to another. The transitive property of equality states that equality can be considered to transfer from one equation to another. If a = b and b = c then a = c. So once again the memory from high school came to mind and I thought that the application of the word transitive to a verb which inherently includes an object an not just a subject makes too much sense for it not to be the case.

Here Chambers Dictionary came to my rescue. It was not oblique about the definition. The third definition under transitive is:

(of a verb) taking a direct object

So there is no subtlety that I missed. Having a necessary direct object is unequivocally what transitive means. It’s too basic an error and my French teacher was too smart a woman for her to have gotten this wrong; I’m assuming that we simply failed to communicate somehow.

It is, though, a mystery that I can let escape from my head. I had it right all along.