The Italian Past Participle

Essential in compound verb tenses but also other uses

book in the forest
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In Italian grammar, the participio or participle is, together with the infinitive and the gerund, what is called an unfinished verb mode: On its own, it does not define the person doing the acting or even the tense of the action, until it is put to use in a sentence.

Almost all verbs have participles, present and past (there are exceptions, and some have one but not the other). Among those many that have both, for example: for the verb parlare, they are parlante (present) and parlato (past); for sapere, sapiente (present) and saputo (past); for agire, agente (present) and agito (past). That is what they look like.

The participio presente is used a bit less frequently and generally as an adjective or a noun (for example, amante: "lover" as a noun or as an adjective). The participio passato, on the other hand, is hugely important: it is used, together with conjugations of the auxiliary verbs avere or essere, to create all compound tenses of all verbs. It is also used as a noun, an adjective, and in many secondary clause constructions.

How to Form the Participio Passato

Regular past participles are formed by dropping the infinitive endings -are, -ere, or -ire and adding, respectively, the suffixes -ato, -uto, or -ito. For example:

Among regular past participles of verbs in -are:

Among verbs in -ere:

  • credere (to believe): creduto (believed)
  • sapere (to know): saputo (knew)
  • tenere (to keep): tenuto (kept)

Among verbs in -ire:

  • capire (to understand): capito (understood)
  • finire (to finish): finito (finished)
  • sentire (to hear, to feel): sentito (heard/felt)

But many, many verbs have irregular past participles (and alone that fact suffices to make an Italian verb irregular though the rest of the conjugation is entirely regular—in the case of scrivere, for example, or offrire).

Among the many irregular past participles are, just to mention a few: vissuto for the verb vivere; cotto for cuocere; messo for mettere; rotto for rompere; preso for prendere; perso for perdere; and, in the case of scrivere and offrire as mentioned above, scritto and offerto.

Because of the frequency with which past participles are used, as you learn your verbs it merits spending some time looking them up in an Italian dictionary (to see if they are regular or irregular) and committing the past participles to memory.

In Compound Tenses

Past participles are part of every Italian compound tense, together with a conjugation of the auxiliary verb essere or avere: the indicative passato prossimo, trapassato prossimo, trapassato remoto, and futuro anteriore; the congiuntivo passato and trapassato; the condizionale passato, the past infinitive, and the past gerund.

As you know, some verbs use the auxiliary essere in their compound tenses and some take avere: transitive verbs (with direct objects) mostly take avere; verbs of movement, reflexive and reciprocal verbs, and some other intransitive verbs use essere. But there are many intransitive verbs that take averelottare, for example, to struggle, and ridere, to laugh—and many verbs that, depending on their mode, can take either.

The auxiliary affects the participio only when verbs conjugate with essere, in which case the participio passato in the compound tenses must agree with the number and gender of the subject, or in compound tenses of verbs with avere with direct object pronouns.

Let's look at a verb that can be transitive but also reflexive—vestire—and see how its past participle behaves in one of the compound tenses, the passato prossimo:

  Vestire  Vestirsi 
Io Io ho vestito la bambina. Io mi sono vestito/a. 
Tu Tu hai vestito la bambina. Tu ti sei vestito/a.
Lui, lei, Lei Lui/lei ha vestito la bambina. Lui/lei si è vestito/a.
Noi Noi abbiamo vestito la bambina. Noi ci siamo vestiti/e.
Voi Voi avete vestito la bambina.  Voi vi siete vestiti/e.
Loro, Loro Loro hanno vestito la bambina.  Loro si sono vestiti/e.

As you can see, in the case of the transitive use (dressing the little girl), the past participle vestito goes unchanged through the conjugation; in the reflexive form (to dress oneself) with essere, the past participle changes, much like an adjective.

Other Uses of the Participio Passato

And in fact, aside from this very important clear verbal function (used like a verb), in Italian the past participle also serves other purposes:

  • Ho visto uno sconosciuto. I saw a stranger.

There, sconosciuto, the past participle of sconoscere, is used as a noun.

  • Hanno preso una macchina rubata. They took a stolen car.

There, rubato, the past participle of rubare, is used as an adjective.

And as an anchor to secondary clauses, a bit like a gerund, or, again, like an adjective:

  • Mangiata la pizza, andarono a casa. Having finished eating the pizza, they went home.
  • Nel tempo assegnatogli, gli studenti fecero i compiti. In the time that was given to them, the students did their homework.
  • Stabilita la pace, ricominciarono il lavoro. Peace having been established, they began work anew.
  • Offeso dal professore, lo studente uscì dall'aula. Having been offended by the professor, the student left the classroom.
  • Arrivata a casa, mi sdraiai sul letto. Once home, I lay down on the bed.
  • Date le circostanze, sono partita. Given the circumstances, I left.

In those sentences, the past participles of mangiare (mangiato), assegnare (assegnato), stabilire (stabilito), offendere (offeso), arrivare (arrivato), and dare (dato) have relative, temporal, or causal value in the subordinate clauses.

Buono studio!