Italian Verbs For Beginners

Mood and Tenses of Italian Verbs

Woman reading cookbook
"Luisa legge un libro" (Luisa reads a book). Kathrin Ziegler / Getty Images

When learning Italian, students naturally tend to look for grammatical patterns. Studying Italian verbs in a programmatic fashion is a wise idea, because it's an efficient use of time, and Italian verbs are classified in a variety of ways.

When studying Italian verbs, though, avoid the temptation to make absolute comparisons to English. Although there are many similarities between the two languages, there are also many fundamental differences.

In addition, there are always exceptions to the rule. So while taking an organized approach to Italian verbs is a terrific way to improve your Italian, think of it like ordering in an Italian restaurant: be prepared to order a different primo if your favorite dish isn't available.

The Santa Trinità of Verbs
Verbs are fundamental to any language, and Italian is no exception. There are three primary groups of Italian verbs, classified according to the ending of their infinitives: first conjugation (-are verbs), second conjugation (-ere verbs), and third conjugation (-ire verbs).

Most Italian verbs belong to the first-conjugation group and follow a highly uniform pattern. Once you learn how to conjugate one -are verb, you've essentially learned hundreds of them. And what about those Italian verbs that don't end in -are? Second-conjugation (-ere) verbs account for approximately one quarter of all Italian verbs.

Although many have some sort of irregular structure, there are also many regular -ere verbs. The final group of Italian verbs are those that end in -ire.

Feeling Tense? A Little Moody?
Feeling tense studying Italian verbs? Or maybe you're a bit moody. There is a difference. Mood (a variation of the word "mode") refers to the attitude of the speaker toward what he or she is saying.

There are four finite moods (modi finiti) in Italian: indicative (indicativo), which is used to indicate facts; subjunctive (congiuntivo), which is used to express an attitude or feeling toward an event; conditional (condizionale), which is used to express what would happen in a hypothetical situation; and imperative (imperativo), which is used to give commands. (Note that modern English only has three finite moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative.)

There are also three indefinite moods (modi indefiniti) in Italian, so-called because the forms do not indicate the person (i.e., first, second, or third): infinitive (infinito), participle (participio), and gerund (gerundio).

Moods are divided into one or more tenses, which indicates the time when the action of the verb takes place (present, past, or future). For reference, the chart below lists the mood and tenses of Italian verbs in English and Italian.

Indicative / Indicativo
present / presente
present perfect / passato prossimo
imperfect / imperfetto
past perfect / trapassato prossimo
absolute past / passato remoto
preterite perfect / trapassato remoto
future / futuro semplice
future perfect / futuro anteriore

Subjunctive / Congiuntivo
present / presente
past / passato
imperfect / imperfetto
past perfect / trapassato

Conditional / Condizionale
present / presente
past / passato

Imperative / Imperativo
present / presente

Infinitive / Infinitivo
present / presente
past / passato

Participle / Participio
present / presente
past / passato

Gerund / Gerundio
present / presente
past / passato

Conjugating Italian Verbs
For all of the Italian verb tenses in the four finite moods, there are six different verb forms corresponding to each of the six persons used as the subject:

I person
II person
III person
I person
II person
III person

Learning six forms for every verb would be an endless task. Fortunately, most Italian verbs are regular verbs, meaning they are conjugated following a regular pattern.

In fact, there are only three irregular first conjugation verbs. Once the regular verb endings are memorized the pattern can be applied to other verbs of the same group. Or, they are irregular, and do not follow a regular pattern.

Although numerous, even the irregular second and third conjugation verbs fall into a few groups that make it easier to memorize.

Essere and Avere: Don't Leave Home Without Them
Language means action, and you can't speak Italian without the verbs essere (to be) and avere (to have). These two essential verbs are used in compound verb formations, idiomatic expressions, and many other grammatical constructions. Become the maestro of these two verbs and you'll have taken a giant step towards learning Italian.

In Transit
Ready for action? Then it's time for a transitive verb—those that take a direct object (complemento oggetto): Luisa legge un libro (Luisa reads a book).

Transitive verbs can also be used in the absolute sense; that is, with an implicit direct object: Luisa legge (Luisa reads [a book, magazine, newspaper]). Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, are those that never take a direct object: Giorgio cammina (Giorgio walks). Some verbs can be classified as either transitive or intransitive, depending on the context of the sentence.

Verbs With Voice!
Italian verbs (like verbs in many other languages) have two voices. A verb is in the active voice when the subject carries out or performs the action of the verb: Marco ha preparato le valigie (Marco packed the suitcases). A verb is in the passive voice when the subject is acted on by the verb: La scena è stata filmata da un famoso regista (The scene was filmed by a famous director). Only transitive verbs with an explicit direct object can be transformed from the active voice to the passive voice.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
You wake up (svegliarsi), take a shower (farsi la doccia), comb your hair (pettinarsi), and get dressed (vestirsi). You couldn't start your day without reflexive verbs (verbi riflessivi). Those are verbs whose action reverts to the subject: Mi lavo (I wash myself). In Italian, reflexive pronouns (i pronomi reflessivi) are required when conjugating reflexive verbs.

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
There are three important Italian verbs known as verbi servili or verbi modali (modal verbs). These verbs, potere (to be able to, can), volere (to want), dovere (to have to, must), can stand alone, taking on their given meaning. They can also follow the infinitive of other verbs, functioning to modify the meaning of those verbs.

Verbs That End In -sene, -sela, -cela
There are a group of Italian verbs that are conjugated with two different pronoun particles. Verbs such as meravigliarsene and provarcisi are called pronominal verbs (verbi pronominali). In fact, they are still classified as either first-conjugation (-are verbs), second-conjugation (-ere verbs), or third-conjugation (-ire verbs) according to the ending of their infinitives. Many pronominal verbs are used idiomatically.

Shadowed By A Preposition
Certain Italian verbs (and expressions) are followed by specific prepositions such as a, di, per, and su. But to the consternation of students of all levels and abilities, there is no hard-and-fast set of rules governing this grammatical usage. This is one instance in which language learners must familiarize themselves with tables that include Italian verbs and expressions followed by specific prepositions as well as verbs followed directly by the infinitive.