How to Use Direct Object Pronouns in the Past Tense

Learn how to use use direct object pronouns with il passato prossimo

Traditional building, Monopoli, Puglia, Italy
Traditional building, Monopoli, Puglia, Italy. Cultura Exclusive/Jacabel / Getty Images

Pronouns, while they can be tricky when learning Italian, are such an essential part of sounding fluid and natural in conversation.

Who wants to say “glasses” a hundred times in a situation like, “Where are the glasses? Oh, I found the glasses. Let’s put the glasses on the table”.

You start to sound like a robot, which, let’s be honest, makes it a bit more difficult to make friends.

To avoid this, you can use direct object pronouns, which you may know are mi, ti, lo, la, ci, vi, li, and le.

Me (m') - MeCi - Us
Ti (t') - You (informal)Vi - You (all)
Lo (l') - Him, itLi - Them (masculine)
La (l') - Her, itLe - Them (feminine)
La (L') - Him/her (formal)Li, Le - You (formal) (masculine & feminine)

 

In the present tense, using direct object pronouns is easier.

For example, “I see it”, when “it” refers to a “un libro - book”, would be, “Lo vedo”.

But what about when you want to express something in the past tense, like “I saw it”, with “it” still being “un libro - a book”?

It would be, “L’ho visto”.

So what is going on, and how can you use direct object pronouns in the past tense?

How to Use Direct Object Pronouns in the Past Tense

There are four moving parts to using direct object pronouns in the past tense.

  1. Is the noun you’re talking about masculine or feminine?

  2. Is the noun you’re talking about singular or plural?

  3. What conjugation must you use from the verb “avere” or "essere"?

  4. What is the past participle of the main verb?

    Once you’ve answered these questions, which trust me, will happen automatically after enough practice, you’ll be able to put together past tense sentences with direct object pronouns with ease.

    Let’s take a look at some examples and break down what’s happening.

    Abbiamo visto Teresa. - We saw Theresa.

    We want to say, "We saw her".

    1. Is “Teresa” masculine or feminine? FEMININE.

    2. Is “Teresa” singular or plural? SINGULAR.

    3. What conjugation must I use from the verb “avere”? ABBIAMO

    4. What is the past participle of the main verb “vedere”? VISTO/VEDUTO

    So, “We saw her” would be, “L'abbiamo vista.”  

    Why does “visto” end in an -a? That’s because the ending of the past participle, in this case “visto”, must agree in gender and number with the noun, which is “Teresa”.

    Notice how the pronoun “la” is shortened and combined with the verb “abbiamo”. This is because “abbiamo” begins with a vowel.

    Ho comprato i pantaloni. - I bought the pants. 

    We want to say, "I bought them".

    1. Is the noun “i pantaloni” masculine or feminine? MASCULINE.

    2. Is the noun “i pantaloni” singular or plural? PLURAL.

    3. What conjugation must you use from the verb “avere”? HO

    4. What is the past participle of the main verb “comprare”? COMPRATO

    So the sentence, “I bought them” would be, “Li ho comprati”.

    Notice here how the last letter of the past participle “comprato” changes from an -o to an -i. This is because the ending of the past participle MUST agree in gender and number with the noun.

    Here’s another example.

    Ha ricevuto le lettere. - He received the letters.

    We want to say instead, “He received them”.

    1. Is the noun “le lettere” masculine or feminine? FEMININE.

    2. Is the noun “le lettere” singular or plural? PLURAL.

    3. What conjugation must you use from the verb “avere”? HA

    4. What is the past participle of the main verb “ricevere”? RICEVUTO

    So, the sentence would become, “Le ha ricevute. - He received them”.

    TIP: When you have a singular pronoun, like “lo” or “la”, it will almost always combine with the verb, like “L’ho letto. - I read it.”

    Let’s do one more.

    Sono andati a trovare il nonno. - They visited their grandfather.

    We want to say, "They visited him".

    1. Is the noun “nonno” masculine or feminine? MASCULINE.

    2. Is the noun “nonno” singular or plural? SINGULAR.

    3. What conjugation must you use from the verb “essere”? SONO

    4. What is the past participle of the main verb “andare”? ANDATI

    So if we wanted to change the sentence to “they visited him”, it would be:

    Sono andati a trovarlo. - They visited him.

    Notice that the pronoun “lo” is not at the beginning of the sentence like in the past three examples. You’re able to attach it to the end of the full verb, “trovare”, by just removing the -e. This is possible when there are two verbs (like “andare” and “trovare”) in the phrase. Also, when the auxiliary verb is "essere", the verb must agree with the subject.