Choosing the Auxiliary Verb in Italian

Avere or Essere: Not Always Clear-Cut

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Much like English, all Italian verbs in compound tenses require an auxiliary verb: either avere or essere. The auxiliary (or helping) verb allows the main verb—in its past participle mode, or participio passato—to express itself in different tenses.

In English this happens when we say, "I have eaten," or "I had eaten," "I am eating," or "I would have eaten": those have and had and am are the English counterparts of Italian auxiliaries and those tenses translate to the Italian passato prossimo, trapassato prossimo, gerund, and condizionale passato.

Auxiliaries in English and in Italian do not work exactly the same way and certainly do not correspond by tense (and believe it or not, the English auxiliaries in compound tenses are as baffling to learners of the English language). In fact, in Italian verbs use (or get) essere or avere or either not depending on the tense but rather depending on the behavior of the subject and the subject's relationship to the action and the object.

How to Decide?

Which verbs gets essere and which avere? Often you hear that it comes down to whether the verb is transitive—in other words, it has a direct object onto which the action, so to speak, "falls"—or whether it is intransitive—in other words, it does not have such an object. It ends in itself.

According to that rule, transitive verbs get avere and intransitive verbs get essere, and therefore all you need to do is memorize or figure out which ones are which.

But that rule is plainly not accurate. In fact, there are many verbs that while intransitive, get avere. And some verbs can get either, for different uses. 

What's Steadfast

This we know:

  • All transitive verbs get avere.
  • Reflexive and reciprocal verbs get essere.
  • Pronominal verbs also get essere.
  • Verbs in impersonal mode get essere.

Beyond that, verbs of movement or condition of being (to be born, to die, to grow) also are said to get essere, but some verbs in some of those groups can also get either. For example, the verb salire, which is a verb of movement: Ho salito le scale (I ascended the stairs) uses avere (and the stairs are the object), but that same action and verb can be intransitive and get essere: Sono salita a casa (I went up in the house).

Beyond that, many intransitive verbs get avere, and many can get either.

How, then, can one know?

A Way of Explaining

An easy and truer way to think about it is to reflect on the role of the subject, how he, she, or it or them "experience" the action—whether they participate in it or are affected by it—and the relationship between the subject and the object:

If the action only affects the outer world—the explicit outside object—then the verb gets avere. Ho mangiato un panino (I ate a sandwich); ho visto un cane (I saw a dog). It is a pure subject-object relationship.

If, on the other hand, or in addition, the subject of the action, or the agent, is "subjected" or somehow affected by the action (not philosophically but linguistically)—it is its "patient," undergoing the action, rather than only its agent—it takes essere (or it may take both or either).

That—the effects of the action—determines whether the verb uses essere or avere and helps makes sense of the exceptions and variations.

(Remember, of course: Many, many verbs can be used transitively or intransitively, including reflexively: You can wash your car, you can wash yourself, and two people can wash each other. Depending on the effect of the action, the first uses avere; and latter two use essere because in reflexive and reciprocal mode the subject is impacted by the action.)

Intransitives with Essere Only

Many intransitive, non-reflexive, non-pronominal verbs get essere and only essere. The action ends in the subject with no outer object—and, reason bears out, affects the subject. They are verbs of pure movement or state of being on the subject's part. Let's look. Among them are:

  • andare: to go
  • arrivare: to arrive
  • costare: to cost
  • dimagrire: to lose weight
  • durare: to last
  • diventare: to become
  • esistere: to exist
  • essere: to be
  • giungere: to arrive
  • morire: to die
  • nascere: to be born
  • partire: to depart
  • restare: to remain
  • riuscire: to succeed
  • sembrare: to seem
  • stare: to stay
  • tornare: to return
  • venire: to come

Intransitives With Avere

But among Italian intransitive verbs are many that use avere. Why? Because though the verb is intransitive, the action has an impact outside of the subject. Among these intransitive verbs, called accusative, from the Latin, are:

  • agire: to act
  • camminare: to walk
  • cantare: to sing
  • cenare: to dine
  • lavorare: to work
  • sanguinare: to bleed
  • scherzare: to joke
  • viaggiare: to travel

Either Way, No Difference

There are a good number of intransitive verbs that can use either essere or avere with little consequence. Among them are germogliare (to sprout), coincidere (to coincide), tramontare (to set, as in sunset), vivere (to live) and convivere (to live together/coexist).

  • La pianta ha germogliato/è germogliata. The plant sprouted.
  • Il sole ha tramontato/è tramontato. The sun set.
  • Marco ha convissuto/è convissuto per due anni. Marco lived with someone for two years.

Also, weather verbs can use either, depending on subtleties such as how much it rained or snowed and regional use: ha piovuto or è piovuto; ha nevicato or è nevicato.

A Matter of Meaning

Some verbs can use essere when they are intransitive and use avere when they are transitive, but take on different meanings. The verb passare, for example: Intransitively, it is a verb of movement that affects the subject and, used as such, it gets essere: Sono passata per casa. But passare can also mean to experience (something), and in that case it has an object and it uses avere: Giulia ha passato un brutto periodo (Giulia experienced/lived a difficult time).

Same with correre, to run.

  • Il dottore è corso subito. The doctor ran/came immediately.
  • Ho corso una maratona. I ran a marathon.

Among the many verbs whose meaning and use changes depending on whether they are transitive or intransitive and use essere or avere are:

Affogare (to drown):

  • Gli uomini sono affogati nella tempesta. The men drowned in the storm.
  • Paolo ha affogato la sua tristezza nel vino. Paolo drowned his sadness in wine.

Crescere (to grow/raise):

  • I bambini di Maria sono cresciuti molto. Maria's children have grown.
  • Maria ha cresciuto due bei figli. Maria raised two beautiful children.

Guarire (to heal/cure):

  • Il bambino è guarito. The child healed.
  • Il sole ha guarito il mio raffreddore. The sun cured my cold.

And seguire (to follow/ensue):

  • Poi è seguita la notizia del suo arrivo. Then followed/came the news of his arrival.
  • La polizia ha seguito la donna fino all'aereoporto. The police followed the woman to the airport.

Clearly the verbs with avere have a more active impact on the outside world; the actions with essere concern the very nature of the subject itself.

In some cases the difference is subtle. Take volare, to fly:

  • L'uccello è volato via. The bird flew away.
  • L'uccello ha volato a lungo sopra il paese. The bird flew at length over the town.

Servile Verbs Adapt

So-called verbi servili (servile verbs) such as potere, dovere, and volere can take essere or avere depending on whether the verb they are supporting at that moment uses avere or essere: For example:

  • Sono dovuta andare dal dottore. I had to go to the doctor.
  • Ho dovuto portare Alessandro dal dottore. I had to take Alessandro to the doctor.

Andare uses essere and portare uses avere; hence the difference.

Or:

  • Marco è potuto restare a Londra. Marco was able to stay in London.
  • Marco non ha potuto vedere il museo. Marco was not able to see the museum.

Restare gets essere and vedere gets avere; hence the difference.

Remember the Past Participle Agreement!

Regardless of verb mode or reasoning, remember that whenever you use essere as the auxiliary the past participle must agree with the gender and number of the subject (or the object):

  • Ci siamo lavati. We washed ourselves.
  • Mi sono scritta una canzone per rallegrarmi. I wrote myself a song to cheer up.
  • Ci siamo portati i cani dietro tutto il viaggio. We took the dogs with us the whole trip.

In the second sentence the scriversi looks reflexive, but it is not: it means to write for myself; in the third sentence, the portarsi dietro is used pronominally to emphasize the effort of taking the dogs. The function is still transitive.

Think and When in Doubt Look It Up

Rather than memorization, the best advice on how to is properly choose the auxiliary is to really ponder the relationship between the subject and the object and the action between them. Does the action transcend the object? Is there an explicit or implicit object? And, is the agent only an agent or also a "patient" of the action?

And remember: When you are learning a foreign language it helps to consult a dictionary: Resources such as Treccani, Garzanti, or Zingarelli will tell you whether a verb is transitive or intransitive and whether it gets essere or avere or both and when. You will be surprised by how much you learn.

Buono studio!