Italian Direct Object Pronouns With Passato Prossimo

Learn how to use use direct object pronouns with compound tenses

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In almost any language, pronouns play an important part in enabling fluid conversation, keeping us from repeating the same word over and over and sounding like this: "Did you find the glasses? Where are the glasses? Oh, I saw the glasses earlier. Oh, I found the glasses. Let’s put the glasses on the table."

Here we are discussing direct object pronouns: those that substitute nouns that answer to the questions who or what without the use of any preposition (not to whom, or for which, or to that). Hence, they are called direct; they substitute the object and link it directly to the verb. For example, I eat the sandwich: I eat it; I see the boys: I see them; I buy the glasses: I buy them; I read the book: I read it; I love Giulio: I love him.

In English, when pronouns substitute nouns they do not alter or color the verb or other parts of speech; not even the word order changes. In Italian, however, they do. Here, we are going to look at direct object pronouns and how they interact with compound verb tenses such as the passato prossimo.

Pronomi Diretti: Direct Object Pronouns

To quickly refresh your memory, in Italian the direct object pronouns are:

mi me
ti you
lo him or it (masculine singular)
la her or it (feminine singular)
ci us
vi you (plural)
li them (masculine plural)
le them (feminine plural)

As you see, the mi, ti, ci and vi stay the same regardless of gender (I see you; you see me; we see you; you see us), but the third person singular and plural—he, she, it, and them—have two genders: lo, la, li, le. For example, il libro (which is singular masculine) or a male person is substituted by the pronoun lo; la penna (singular feminine) or a female person by la; i libri (plural masculine) or plural male persons by i; le penne (plural feminine) or plural female persons by le. (Do not confuse pronouns with articles!)

These pronouns require a bit of mental dexterity, but once your mind has become used to the process of automatically attaching gender and number to everything (because one must), it becomes automatic.

Using Direct Object Pronouns in the Present

In Italian, with verbs in the present tense the direct object pronoun precedes the verb, which is counterintuitive in English, but the verb itself stays the same. For example:

  • Capisci me? Do you understand me? Sì, ti capisco. Yes, I understand you (you I understand).
  • Leggi il libro? Do you read the book? Sì, lo leggo. Yes, I read it (it I read).
  • Compri la casa? Are you buying the house? Sì, la compro. Yes, I am buying it (it I buy).
  • Ci vedete? Do you see us? Sì, vi vedo. Yes, I see you (you I see).
  • Leggete i libri? Do you read the books? Sì, li leggiamo. Yes, I we read them (them we read).
  • Comprate le case? Are you buying the houses? Sì, le compriamo. Yes, we are buying them (them we buy).

In the negative, you place the negation before the pronoun and the verb: No, non lo vedo.

Passato Prossimo: Agreement of the Past Participle

In a construction with direct object pronouns in a compound tense such as the passato prossimo—any tense with the past participle—the past participle acts like an adjective and must be modified to suit the gender and number of the object.

So, you choose your pronoun, going through the same assessment of whether the object is feminine or masculine, singular or plural; then you quickly modify your past participle to agree accordingly as if it were an adjective. Remember that we are talking about direct objects here: objects that are in a direct relation to a transitive verb, which has an object and uses avere as the auxiliary (in the case of reflexive verbs and other intransitive verbs with essere as auxiliary, the past participle modifies but for different reasons and that's a topic for another day).

Let’s take a look at what happens with the pronoun and the past participle in an example in the passato prossimo. Let's use a question since questions are natural constructions for pronouns:

Avete visto Teresa? Did you see Teresa, or have you seen Teresa?

We want to answer that, yes, we saw her yesterday at the market.

Immediately you determine the following:

  • The past participle of vedere: visto
  • The correct passato prossimo conjugation: abbiamo visto
  • The object: Teresa, feminine singular
  • The corresponding direct object pronoun for Teresa: la

Your past participle is quickly made feminine and singular; your direct object pronoun moves to the beginning of the sentence, before the verb, and you get your answer: La abbiamo vista al mercato ieri. If you want to answer in the negative—no, we have not seen her—you put your negation before both the pronoun and the verb, but the same rules follow: No, non la abbiamo vista.

When using the third person singular and third person plural direct object pronouns, the past participle must respect gender and number (with ti, for example, it can stay the same—visto/a—and with vi too— visto/i).

Both in writing and in speaking, the third person singular pronuns la and lo can be contracted if followed by a vowel or h: l'ho vista; l'abbiamo vista; l'avete vista. You do not contract the plural pronouns.

Let's Practice: Facciamo Pratica

Let's go through the steps with another couple of examples:

Dove hai comprato i tuoi pantaloni? Where did you buy your pants?

You want to answer that you bought them in America last year.

Again, you identify your needed pieces of information:

  • The past participle of comprare: comprato
  • The correct verb conjugation: ho comprato
  • The object: pantaloni, masculine plural
  • The correct direct object pronoun for pantaloni: li

Adjusting your past participle accordingly and moving your pronoun, you find your answer: Li ho comprati in America l'anno scorso.

Again:

I bambini hanno ricevuto le lettere? Did the children get the letters?

We want to answer that, yes, they received them.

  • The past participle of ricevere: ricevuto
  • The correct verb conjugation: hanno ricevuto
  • The object: le lettere, feminine plural
  • The correct direct object pronoun for lettere: le

Adjusting the past participle for gender and number, your answer is: Sì, le hanno ricevute. Or, in the negative, No, non le hanno ricevute.

Remember, you do not contract the plural pronouns.

Other Compound Tenses

In other compound tenses in any of the verb modes, the pronominal construction works the same way.

Let's make the sentence above indicative trapassato prossimo: I bambini non avevano ricevuto le lettere? Hadn't the children received the letters?

You want to answer that yes, they had received them but they lost them. Perdere also is transitive and its participle is perse (or perdute); your direct object pronoun is still le. You make your new past participle agree, and move your pronoun, and you have your answer: Sì, le avevano ricevute ma le hanno perse.

Let's look at a variation of the same sentence in the congiuntivo trapassato: La mamma sperava che i bambini avessero ricevuto le lettere. Mother had hoped that the children had received the letters.

You want to answer that, yes, they received them and they read them, but then they lost them. Your object is still the same lettere; all the verbs involved are transitive (with the addition now of the past participle of leggere, letto) and your direct object pronoun is still le. You move your pronoun and you modify your past participles and you have your answer: Sì, le avevano ricevute e le hanno lette, ma le hanno perse.

Direct Object Pronouns and Infinitives

Note that in pronominal constructions that use the infinitive together with helping verbs volere, dovere, and potere, but also with other so-called servile verbs such as sapere, andare, venire, cercare, sperare, and riuscire, the direct object pronoun goes before either of the verbs OR can be attached as a suffix to the infinitive (minus the final e).

  • Voglio comprare la frutta: la voglio comprare or voglio comprarla (I want to buy fruit: I want to buy it).
  • Veniamo a prendere i bambini: li veniamo a prendere or veniamo a prenderli (we are coming to get the children: we are coming to get them).
  • Vado a trovare il nonno: lo vado a trovare or vado a trovarlo (I am going to visit Grandfather: I am going to visit him).
  • Cerco di vedere i miei nipoti domani: li cerco di vedere domani or cerco di vederli domani (I will try to see my nephews tomorrow: I will try to see them).
  • Vorrei salutare mio figlio: lo vorrei salutare or vorrei salutarlo (I would like to say hello to my son: I would like to say hello to him).

Direct or Indirect

Only transitive verbs in Italian are followed by direct objects, though there are some subtle exceptions, such as piangere (to cry), vivere (to live), and piovere (to rain), which are intransitive but have an implicit object. However, transitive verbs may also have indirect objects (or both), and they do not necessarily match from English to Italian. In English, you say hello to someone and it gets a preposition; in Italian, salutare (to say hello) is transitive, uses no preposition, and therefore gets a direct object and a direct object pronoun. In English you call someone (direct); in Italian you call to someone (and telefonare is, in fact, intransitive). A word of advice: When thinking about Italian pronouns in relation to verbs, it is helpful to not compare how things work in English.

Buon lavoro!