Choosing the Auxiliary Verb in Italian

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In Italian, an auxiliary verb—either avere or essere—is used whenever forming compound tenses. The auxiliary (or helping) verb, in combination with another, gives a particular meaning to the conjugated verb form.

For example, compound tenses such as the passato prossimo are formed with the present indicative of the auxiliary verb avere or essere and the past participle (participio passato).

When forming the passato prossimo, which auxiliary verb should be used—avere or essere?

How do you decide?

Transitive Verbs Take Avere

Avere: 1 to have (got): Ho molti amici. I have many friends; 2 to have, to own: Ha una villa in campagna. He has a house in the country; 3 to have on, to wear: Maria ha un vestito nuovo. Maria has on a new dress.

Like the verb essere (to be), avere is used in myriad grammatical and linguistic situations. Learning the many conjugations and uses of the verb is crucial to the study of the Italian language.

Transitive verbs are those that take a direct object. For instance:

  • Io ho mangiato una pera. (I ate a pear.)
  • Loro hanno già studiato la lezione. (They already studied the lesson.)
  • Non ho mai visto Genova. (I've never visited Genoa.)

The compound tense of a transitive verb is formed with the present indicative of the auxiliary verb avere and the past participle (participio passato). The past participle is invariable and ends in -ato, -uto, or -ito. In phrases with a transitive verb, the direct object of the verb may be expressed explicitly or implied.

For example: Io ho mangiato tardi. (I ate late.)

Intransitive Verbs Take Essere

Essere: 1 to be: La bambina è piccola The child is small; Chi è? - Sono io Who is it? - It's me; Siamo noi it's us 2 to be: Che ore sono? - Sono le quattro What time is it? It is four o'clock.

Essere is an irregular verb (un verbo irregolare); it does not follow a predictable pattern of conjugation.

Note that the form sono is used with both io and loro.

Grammatical Notes

Essere is used with di + name of a city to indicate city of origin (the city someone is from). To indicate country of origin, an adjective of nationality is generally used: He is from France + He is French = È francese.

Simply put, intransitive verbs are those that do not take a direct object. These verbs usually express movement or a state of being. The auxiliary verb essere plus the past participle is used to form the passato prossimo and other compounds of almost all intransitive verbs (and the past participle must agree in number and gender with the subject.) The table below contains conjugations of arrivare, crescere, and partire in the passato prossimo.

Conjugating Verbs in the Passato Prossimo With Essere

iosono arrivato(-a)sono cresciuto(-a)sono partito(-a)
tusei arrivato(-a)sei cresciuto(-a)sei partito(-a)
lui/lei/Leiè arrivato(-a)è cresciuto(-a)è partito(-a)
noisiamo arrivati(-e)siamo cresciuti(-e)siamo partiti(-e)
voisiete arrivati(-e)siete cresciuti(-e)siete partiti(-e)
loro/Lorosono arrivati(-e)sono cresciuti(-e)sono partiti(-e)