Italian Verb Overview for Beginners

Moods and Tenses of Italian Verbs

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

When learning the grammar of any language, it is fair and helpful to look for patterns and similarities to what we know, and nowhere is that more appropriate than in seeking to make sense of Italian verbs. Indeed, patterns run through the language lengthwise and crosswise in every aspect, including verbs, allowing us to find reassurance and guidance in what we have learned.

Yet, exceptions to the patterns arise at every corner, and the similarities with English go only so far. So, in exploring the fascinating world of Italian verbs, it is helpful to reach for the nature of the verbs themselves and to try to find logic in their individual background, meaning, and purpose.

Let's take a look at the general Italian verb families, persons, tenses, and moods.

The Trinity of Verbs

Italian verbs subdivide in three big families or lineages, classified according to the endings they have in their infinitive tenses (the English "to be," to eat," "to talk"): first conjugation, which are verbs that in the infinitive end in -are and constitute a great majority of Italian verbs; second conjugation verbs, which are verbs that in the infinitive end in -ere; and third conjugation verbs, which in the infinitive end in -ire (part of the third group are the so-called verbs in -isc or -isco, that are their own family but are still -ire verbs).

Among the common verbs in -are are parlare (to speak), mangiare (to eat), giocare (to play), telefonare (to phone), guidare (to drive), and fare (to do, to make); among the verbs in -ere are sapere (to know), bere (to drink), conoscere (to know), and prendere (to take); and among the -ire verbs are dormire (to sleep), sentire (to hear), offrire (to offer), and morire (to die).

These endings come from the Latin origin of Italian verbs; sometimes the infinitive is as it was in Latin; sometimes slightly transformed (and that can have an impact on how the verb conjugates). For example, the Italian avere (to have) comes from the Latin habere, and that greatly affects its conjugation. The Latin infinitive of the Italian verb fare was facere, and that greatly affects the conjugation of that verb; same for addurre (to lead or set forth), from the Latin adducere.

In any case, it is generally by removing those Italian infinitive endings -are, -ere, and -ire that we get the root to which all the specific tense, mode, and person endings are affixed as we conjugate the verb.

Changing Endings: Number and Gender

As in English, Italian verbs are conjugated by person:

  • Io (prima persona singolare, or first person singular, I)
  • Tu (seconda persona singolare, or second person singular, you)
  • Lui/lei (terza persona singolare, or third person singular, he/she/it)
  • Noi (prima persona plurale, or first person plural, we)
  • Voi (seconda persona plurale, or second person plural, you all)
  • Loro (terza persona plurale, or third person plural, they)

Third person singular (he or she) and plural (they) in Italian encompass also the formal voice: Lei, used for "you" as a form of respect when addressing someone you do not know, speaking to them as if they were a third person singular (he or she); and Loro, used to address "you" in the plural ("you all"), speaking to them as if they were a third person plural (them). The loro has become largely archaic (though you will still find it in some areas of Italy and in verb tables): you use voi for "you all," formal or not.

In verb tables you will also sometimes find the personal pronouns egli/ella and esso/essa for he, she, and it (third person singular), and essi/esse for they (third person plural), but those pronominal forms have largely fallen in disuse, replaced by lui, lei, and loro (though the esso/a/i/e forms are still used for inanimate things or animals).

Each verb tense and mode has a different ending for each person, and it is there mostly, in those changing endings, that the verb manifests its patterns and irregularities (there are some that change root entirely, including the verb essere, to be).

As you will see, the gender as well as the number of the subjects (whether they are feminine or masculine and singular or plural) adds a layer of complexity to most verb conjugations.

Regular or Irregular

Each of the three groupings we mentioned above (-are, -ere, and -ire) has a particular way of conjugating thorough the tenses that can be considered regular—a pattern of endings, in other words—and that regular pattern typifies the behavior of hundreds of verbs. For example, all first conjugation verbs in the second person singular in the present indicative tense end in i; all verbs of every stripe in the first person singular in the present tense end in o; all -are verbs with regular imperfect tenses go -avo, -avi, -ava.

But, because of their descendance, many verbs in each of those three groupings (particularly those in -ere) also have some irregularities, or odd ways of conjugating: they can be irregular in one tense or in several, and there, too, you will come to find patterns, often related to the Latin infinitive. In fact, families of verbs with common irregularities thread across those three main families; for example, verbs that share a similarly irregular past participle, which is used to make all compound tenses. Having an irregular past participle (a common irregularity) is sufficient to make a verb so-called irregular; many have an irregular passato remoto, or remote past.

Tenses and Moods

Of course, verbs express actions in a certain time, and the realm of time spans the past, present, and future. Did the action take place an hour ago, a week ago, ten years ago, or hundreds of year ago? When did it finish? Is it a repetitive action or a finite singular action? In Italian, each of those factors place an action in a different verb tense.

Cross-threading through the tenses is the substrate of verb moods or modes, which have to do with the action's position vis-à-vis reality (or the speaker's attitude toward that action). There are four finite moods (modi finiti) in Italian: the indicativo or indicative, used to express events in reality; the congiuntivo or subjunctive, used to express actions or feelings in the realm of dream, possibility, wish, conjecture, probability; the condizionale, which is used to express what would happen in a hypothetical situation, on the condition that something else happened; and the 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 implicitly tell who is doing the acting (you, we, they): the infinito (infinitive), the participio (participle), and the gerundio (gerund).

Each mode can have more than one tense. The wishing of the subjunctive, for example, could have happened in the past, or it could take place in relation to something in the future: I wished it had happened; I wish it would happen.

Therefore, tenses and modes cross to create an intricate pattern of possibilities:

In the Indicativo

In the Congiuntivo

In the Condizionale

The imperativo, used for orders and exhortations, only has a present tense; the infinito, the participio, and the gerundio have a present and a past tense.

Some people like to organize verb tenses in a chronological order, starting from the closest to the present and moving out to the farthest past and future tenses. Others like to organize them based on whether they are simple tenses or compound tenses.

Avere and Essere: Transitive and Intransitive

Simple tenses are made of one element: mangiavo (I was eating; I ate). Compound tenses are made of two terms: a so-called auxiliary verb, which in Italian are essere (to be) and avere (to have), and the past participle. For example, ho mangiato (I ate) or avevo mangiato (I had eaten).

Just like their English counterparts, essere and avere are essential verbs in their own right, but they also aid linguistically as auxiliary verbs, allowing us to make those compound tenses in both languages: "I had read," or "I was reading," or, "I would have read." Their purpose is similar. But whether a verb in Italian uses one or the other is a matter of the nature of the verb rather than a matter of verb tense.

The matter of choosing the right auxiliary in Italian, one of the most important you will learn, has to do with the essential question of whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. Threading across the groupings and modes and tenses is the issue of how a verb impacts subject and object: In other words, whether the action transits to an outside object (transitive); whether it transits directly or through a preposition (indirect, thus intransitive); whether it transits also partially onto the subject and the subject is also affected by or subjected to the action (it can vary). And depending on all of that, every verb will take essere or avere as its auxiliary (or some can take either depending on their use at the moment).

Other Shades of Verb

Whether a verb is transitive or intransitive—a matter that threads through the whole of Italian grammar—and the relationship between subject and object determines a few other stripes of Italian verbs. Consider these verb groups as having specific behavioral characteristics, but still being part of the plaid fabric we have designed above: they still are either -are, -ere, -ire; they are either regular or irregular; and they have all the modes and tenses of every other verb.

Reflexive or Reciprocal

There are verbs in which subject and object are the same—in other words, the action falls back onto the subject, or the subject carries out and is the object of the action. For example, svegliarsi (to wake up), farsi la doccia (to take a shower), and pettinarsi (to comb one's hair)—which are called reflexive verbs (verbi riflessivi). There are also reciprocal verbs, whose action is between two people. When used in a reflexive or reciprocal mode, verbs make use of certain specific pronouns, or pronominal particles, which you will learn about.

But there are many, many verbs that can have transitive, intransitive OR reflexive modes, or can be used transitively, intransitively and reflexively. For example, vestire, the action of dressing: It can be reflexive (to dress oneself), reciprocal (two people dressing each other), transitive (to dress a child), and intransitive (vestire bene, or vestire di nero, to dress well or to dress in black, in which the action is described but does not transfer). In other words, verbs can put on different outfits and have different relationships with their subjects and objects, and that is part of their nature.

Verbs of Movement

Verbs of movement (to go, to leave, to depart, to come, to ascend, to descend) fall in their own category as being strictly intransitive (the action does not transit outside of the subject), and they share the behavioral characteristics of other intransitive verbs that use essere as their auxiliary verb. Verbs that describe a state of being do the same: nascere (to be born), morire (to die), cambiare (to change), diventare (to become), crescere (to grow) do the same.

Passive or Active Voice

Threading through Italian verbs is also the matter of whether the verb is being used actively or passively: "I serve dinner," or, "Dinner is served." As you will see, the passive voice has an important role in the Italian language: consider it a dress that a certain type of verb can put on.

Special Relationships

There are other categories of verbs that have special purposes. For example, what are known in Italian as verbi servili or verbi modali (modal verbs)—potere (to be able to, can), volere (to want), and dovere (to have to, must), which serve the important function of enabling other actions in the infinitive: non posso studiare (I can't study); devo partire (I must leave); voglio mangiare (I want to eat).

In the course of your travels through the world of Italian verbs you will learn about their textured relationship with pronouns and propositions. You will learn about so-called pronominal verbs, and the many, many verbs that demand to be followed by a proposition, creating different relationships with the objects or other verbs that follow them.

As you embark on this voyage, it is helpful to have as escorts a good Italian verb handbook and a good Italian dictionary.

Buono studio!