To Be, or Not To Be?

The Verb Essere in Italian

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

Essere: 1 to be: La bambina è piccola The child is small; Chi è? - Sono io Who is it? - It's me; Siamo noi it's us 2 to be: Che ore sono? - Sono le quattro What time is it? It is four o'clock;

And on and on, for more than a page, in the Harper Collins Sansoni Italian Dictionary. As in English, essere is used in myriad grammatical and linguistic situations. Learning the many conjugations and uses of the verb is crucial to the study of the Italian language.

Essere is an irregular verb (un verbo irregolare); it does not follow a predictable pattern of conjugation. Note that the form sono is used with both io and loro.

Grammatical Notes
Essere is used with di + name of a city to indicate city of origin (the city someone is from). To indicate country of origin, an adjective of nationality is generally used: He is from France + He is French = È francese.

Io sono di Chicago: tu di dove sei? (I'm from Chicago; where are you from?)

Essere + di + proper name is used to indicate possession. No apostrophe s is used in Italian to indicate possession: It is Anna's = It is of Anna = È di Anna.

Questa chitarra è di Beppino; non è di Vittoria. This guitar is Beppino's; it's not Vittoria's.)

To find out who the owner of something is, ask Di chi è + singular or Di chi sono + plural.

Di chi è questo cane? Di chi sono questi cani? (Whose dog is this? Whose dogs are these?)

Essere is also used as an auxiliary verb in the following cases:


  • Reflexive verbs: those verbs whose action reverts to the subject, as in the following examples: I wash myself. They enjoy themselves.

  • Impersonal form: as in the English equivalents one, you, we, they, or people + verb. Si mangia bene in Italia - People (They) eat well in Italy.

  • Passive voice: in a passive construction the subject of the verb receives the action instead of doing it, as in the sentence: Caesar was killed by Brutus.

The present tense (il presente) of essere is as follows:


(io) sono I am(noi) siamo we are
(tu) sei you are (fam.)(voi) siete you are (fam.)
(Lei) è you are (form.)(Loro) sono you are (form.)
(lui) è he is(loro) sono they are (fam.)

The compound tenses are verb tenses, such as the passato prossimo, that consist of two words. The appropriate tense of avere or essere (called the auxiliary or helping verbs) and the past participle of the target verb forms the verb phrase.

When using essere, the past participle always agrees in gender and number with the subject of the verb. It can therefore have four endings: -o, -a, -i, -e. In many cases intransitive verbs (those that cannot take a direct object), especially those expressing motion, are conjugated with the auxiliary verb essere.

The verb essere is also conjugated with itself as the auxiliary verb.

Some of the most common verbs that form compound tenses with essere include:

andare—to go
—to arrive
—to fall, to drop
—to cost
—to grow
—to become
—to last, to continue
—to enter
—to die
—to be born
—to leave, to depart
—to stay, to remain
—to return
—to exit
—to come