To Be: The Italian Auxiliary Essere and Intransitive Verbs

Learn which Italian verbs want 'essere' as helping verb

4 o'clock
"Che ore sono? - Sono le quattro." (What time is it? It is four o'clock). London Express / Getty Images

Essere is the life-affirming verb whose conjugation is a staple in Italian grammar. The most used word in the language, it means to be and to exist, and when accompanied by the preposition di, it means to be from somewhere.

Its uses are much like those in English: I am Italian; that is a cat; the sky was blue. It is noon. We are inside.

To paraphrase the revered Treccani dictionary, essere is alone among verbs in not determining the subject; rather, it introduces or posits and links to whatever the subject's predicate is, be it an adjective or other descriptor, or a past participle.

And that brings us to essere's other essential role: that of being, with avere, one of two auxiliary verbs whose purpose it is to help other verbs conjugate in compound tenses, by simply introducing their verb predicate, or past participle, which then determines the action.

Essere as an Auxiliary Verb

Compound tenses, or tempi composti, are tenses made of two elements: the auxiliary and the past participle. In the indicativo, or indicative mode, the compound tenses are the passato prossimo, the trapassato prossimo, the trapassato remoto, the futuro anteriore; in the congiuntivo, they are the congiuntivo passato and congiuntivo trapassato; the condizionale passato; and the past tenses of the infinito, the participio passato, and the gerundio.

Those are the tenses. But what kinds of verbs are helped by essere, this majestic verb, versus the other majestic verb, avere?

Remember your ground rules for choosing the right auxiliary verb. Verbs that use essere as auxiliary are intransitive verbs: verbs that do not have a direct object and that are followed by a preposition. Verbs whose action affects the subject alone; in which subject and object are the same; or in which the subject is also somehow subjected or affected by the action.

These are verbs and constructions that use essere:

Reflexive and Reciprocal Verbs

In general, essere is auxiliary to reflexive and reciprocal verbs or verbs when used in reflexive or reciprocal mode—when the action reverts back onto the subject alone or between only two people (one another). In those modes the verbs are intransitive.

Among reflexive verbs are divertirsi (to have fun), arrabbiarsi (to get angry), annoiarsi (to get bored), accorgersi (to notice), lavarsi (to wash oneself or one another), alzarsi (to get up), svegliarsi (to wake up), vestirsi (to get dressed), mettersi (to put on).

Some of those can only be used in reflexive mode (accorgersi, for example: in Italian you do not notice someone; you yourself take notice of them). But there are plenty of verbs that can switch in to and out of reflexive mode and be transitive, accompanied by avere. For example, you can annoiare yourself (to become bored/to feel boredom, intransitive) but you can also annoiare or bore someone else (transitive).

  • Mi sono annoiata al teatro. I got bored at the theater.
  • Ti ho annoiato con i miei racconti. I bored you with my stories.

Take the verb vestire/vestirsi (to dress, to get dressed). Notice the auxiliaries and how they change with the different uses:

  • Ho vestito la bambina. I dressed the child (transitive).
  • Mi sono vestita. I got dressed (reflexive).
  • Le bambine si sono vestite a vicenda. The little girls dressed each other (reciprocal).
  • La signora era vestita a lutto. The lady was dressed in mourning (intransitive, nonreflexive).

Verbs of Movement

Essere is also auxiliary to verbs of movement such as andare (to go), arrivare (to arrive), venire (to come), entrare (to enter), uscire (to go out), cadere (to fall), scendere (to descend or go down), salire (to ascend or go up), and correre (to run). With verbs of movement the action moves, let's say, with the subject and ends there, without an object.

There are exceptions, though. Salire and scendere can be used transitively, with avere, as well: Ho salito le scale (I climbed the steps). Correre also can be transitive: Ho corso una maratona (I ran a marathon), but, Sono corsa a casa (I ran home). Running the marathon places the object altogether outside of the subject; running home, well, there is no object, or, rather, the subject is also "subjected" to the action.

State of Being

Essere is auxiliary to verbs that express state of being: vivere (to live), stare (to stay), nascere (to be born), diventare (to become), durare (to last), crescere (to grow).

In those verbs, the action affects only the subject and in fact stops within the subject, intransitive only. In the case of vivere, though, the verb can be used transitively—to live a good life, for example—with what is considered to be an internal object. So you use vivere with avere if used transitively, or with essere if used intransitively.

  • Sono vissuta a Milano tutta la vita. I lived in Milan all my life.
  • Ho vissuto una bella vita a Milano. I lived a good life in Milan.

Either Or

There are other verbs that straddle the categories of verb of movement and state of being that also can take avere or essere depending on the use: invecchiare (to age), fuggire (to escape), cambiare (to change), cominciare (to start), guarire (to heal) and continuare (to continue).

Pronominal Verbs

So-called pronominal verbs, or verbi pronominali, which incorporate in them one or more little pronominal particles, are mostly intransitive and use essere as their auxiliary (always when they have the particle si in them, which gives them a reflexive component). For example, occuparsene (to handle something) and trovarcisi (to find oneself somewhere).

  • Me ne sono occupata io. I took care of it.
  • Mi ci sono trovata io proprio dopo l'incidente. I found myself there right after the accident.

Verbs in Impersonal Use

Verbs in impersonal form—or verbi impersonali, that use the si impersonale, meaning one, all, we, everyone, for actions without a specific subject—want essere as their auxiliary in compound tenses, even when outside of the impersonal use they are transitive and use avere.

  • Non si è visto per niente Franco. Franco has not been seen around at all.
  • Non se ne è più parlato in paese di quell'evento. In town no one has talked about that event anymore.
  • Fu detto che la donna uccise il marito ma non si è mai saputo di sicuro. It was said that the woman killed her husband, but it has never been known for sure.

Passive Voice

In a passive construction, or voce passiva, the subject and object are reversed: in other words, the object receives the action rather than the subject carrying it out—regardless of whether the verb is transitive or intransitive in active voice (normally). Since the object is "subjected" to the action, in compound tenses the verb essere serves as the auxiliary:

  • La torta era appena stata tagliata quando arrivai. The cake had just been cut when I arrived.
  • La cena fu servita da camerieri in divise nere. Dinner was served by waiters in black uniforms.
  • I vestiti mi sono stati portati stirati e piegati. The clothes were brought to be ironed and folded.
  • La situazione non fu ben vista dal pubblico. The situation was not well viewed by the public.

A Few Rules

As you can tell from all the examples used in each of the categories above, when using essere as the auxiliary, the past participle always agrees in gender and number with the subject of the verb. It can therefore end in -o, -a, -i, or -e.

And, of course, you will never encounter any direct object pronouns in these constructions; only indirect object pronouns.