ImageI recently encountered some marketing language that was remarkable in its violation of verbs. Among other offenses, the writer promised to show his readers how they could “skyrocket” their profits. He likewise promised to share the language that could “sink or swim” their copy.

To this marketeer's credit, it is possible to sink advertising copy with the wrong language. But the right language certainly can't swim it.

Which brings us to our old friends transitive and intransitive verbs, a grasp of which can spare you embarrassment and perhaps even boost your bottom line.

Transitive: Characterized by having or containing a direct object; designating a verb or verb construction that requires a direct object to complete its meaning.

Intransitive:
"It is possible to sink advertising copy with the wrong language. But the right language certainly can't swim it."
Characterized by not having or containing a direct object; designating a verb or verb construction that does not require a direct object to complete its meaning.

"Swim" is an intransitive verb. You swim; I swim; we swim; they swim; he swims; she swims; it swims. You — the subject — do the swimming; the swimming is not done to you.

"Sink" is both an intransitive verb and a transitive verb: You (subject) sink to the bottom of the pool, but you can also sink my battleship (object).

"Skyrocket" is an intransitive verb. Your profits (subject) can skyrocket (and we hope they will), but you can't skyrocket them.

As a record executive, your profits will surely skyrocket if you release a hit record. "Release" is a transitive verb. You (subject) release a record (object); she (subject) released a statement (object); he (subject) released the hounds (object). These things can't release themselves — they need a subject to release them. Thus you cannot use "release" intransitively. For instance, you wouldn't say, "The record releases Feb. 8"; you'd need to say, "The record will be released Feb. 8."

About now you may find yourself thinking, "What difference does it make? I knew what that guy meant when he promised to share the language that could sink or swim my copy."

But would you make the leap from knowing what he meant to buying his product or service? Would you take advice about copy from someone whose own copy is grievously garbled? Would you trust someone with your hard-earned cash who just doesn't sound that smart?

The fact is, intelligence sells — which would make "sell" both a transitive and intransitive verb, but you knew that, right?