Italian linking verbs

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Italian Linking Verb
Essere

“To be, or not to be…” is one of the most famous lines ever written in the English language.  But that phrase would not be possible without a verb to express the very idea that we exist.  Think of how many times a day we say, “I am” or “he is” or “we are” — all forms of the English infinitive verb “to be.”

 

In Italian, the verb essere means to be.  Essere in the present tense is a linking verb, as it connects the subject in the beginning of the sentence with specific information about the subject at the end of the sentence.  No action is described. Instead, with the verb essere, the subject can be thought of as one and the same as, or “linked” to the information that follows.

The complete conjugation of essere in the present tense is given below. Note that essere is an irregular verb and all forms should be memorized given the daily use you will have for this verb! The accented syllables have been underlined.

 

io sono I am
tu sei you (familiar) are
Lei

lei/lui

è you (polite)are

she/he is

     
noi siamo we are
voi siete you all are
loro sono they are

 

Since a linking verb “links” the subject to a descriptor, there are special rules to follow when a verb like “to be” or “essere” is employed. Since the subject in the first phrase and the predicate that follows are “linked” they are essentially “one and the same.” Therefore, the verb tense, as well as the noun and/or adjective that follows, must always agree with the subject. This situation has special implications for Italian, which classifies all nouns into masculine and feminine and requires that all adjectives match their noun in gender and number!

 

The use of essere requires
the  Italian endings for any noun or adjective that follows
to match the gender and number of the subject.
They are, after all, one and the same!

 

Essere is also an essential “helping verb” for compound tenses in Italian, which are made up of more than one verb. Hence essere is also classified as an auxiliary, or “assisting” verb when used in this manner.  For compound tenses, essere requires a change in the ending of the verb that it assists. The passato prossimo, which is used to describe the recent past in Italian (and has been discussed in other blogs in this series), is an example of how essere is used as an auxiliary verb. Now that we know that essere is a linking verb, it  makes sense that the ending of the past participle that follows the conjugated form of  essere must be changed! 

 

Let’s go through some simple examples in the present tense to see how this works.

The sentences below use the nouns that refer to a young girl, a young boy, and the different groups to which girls and boys can belong. For these nouns, one can simply change the ending of ragazzo (boy) to reflect the gender and number of the subject. Remember that in a group of males, or males and females, the Italian ending defaults to the masculine -i.  A group of all females is special, though; the plural feminine ending -e is used.

The descriptor used in the sentences below, is the adjective bravo (good/nice personality), which will change it’s ending to reflect the gender and number of the noun that it modifies.

Both noun and adjective will, of course, reflect back to the subject
when using the verb to be,  which is essere in Italian.

 

In the examples below, the gender of the subject and the noun and adjective endings that match it are given in red for the feminine and brown for the masculine.  The conjugated forms of essere are green.

 

Caterina è una brava ragazza                                 Kathy is a good/nice girl.

Pietro è un bravo ragazzo.                                         Peter is a good/nice boy.

Caterina e Francesca sono brave ragazze.            Kathy and Frances are good girls.

Pietro e Michele sono bravi ragazzi.                       Peter and Michael are good boys.

Caterina e Pietro sono bravi ragazzi.                      Kathy and Peter are good young people.

 

What do we do if the noun after the verb to be (essere) is omitted from the sentence and only an adjective is used to describe the subject?  Simply remember to change the ending of the adjective to reflect the gender and number of the subject.

 

Caterina è brava.                                                         Kathy is good/nice.

Pietro è bravo.                                                              Peter is good/nice.

Caterina e Francesca sono brave.                          Kathy and Frances are good.

Pietro e Michele sono bravi.                                    Peter and Michael are good.

Caterina e Pietro sono bravi.                                   Kathy and Peter are good.

 

One last word on the use of bravo.  If you shout, “Bravo!” in a theater, this is for a single male performer.  Shout Brava!” for a female performer.  “Bravi!” is correct for the entire cast but for some reason is less frequently used than “Bravo!” here in America.

 


 

Italian Linking Verb
Diventare

The Italian verb diventare (to become), like the verb “to be,”  always functions as a linking verb in both Italian and English. By definition, the subject “becomes” what is listed in the phrase that follows this verb.  Although the subject changes, the verb still refers to the subject mentioned at the beginning of the sentence.

Diventare is a regular -are verb.  The full conjugation is below.

 

io divento I become
tu diventi you (familiar) become
Lei

lei/lui

diventa you (polite) become

she/he becomes

     
noi diventiamo we become
voi diventate you all become
loro diventano they become

 

Notice that if we substitute the conjugated form of diventare for essere in our example sentences in the first section of this blog, the endings for the adjective bravo remain the same! I’ve added a qualifier to the first sentence, which can also be used with the sentences that follow with our verb diventare.

 

Caterina diventa brava con la prova.                        Kathy becomes good with rehearsing.

Pietro diventa bravo.                                                      Peter becomes good.

Caterina e Francesca diventano brave.                    Kathy and Frances become good.

Pietro e Michele diventano bravi.                              Peter and Michael become good.

Caterina e Pietro diventano bravi.                             Kathy and Peter become good.

 

Since the verb diventare is often used in the past tense, such as when one is talking about a change they have noticed in another, let’s try these sentences one more time with the passato prossimo.  Essere must be conjugated and used as the helping verb with diventare, as with other  Italian verbs that denote a change in one’s state of being.

In the examples below, notice the change in the ending of the past participle diventato to match the gender and number of the subject.  Also, the addition of a specific time frame to the first sentence (which can be used with the remaining sentences as well) to go along with our use of the passato prossimo.  (If you need a refresher on how to use the passato prossimo, visit the Fra Noi blog “Italian Past: Avere or Essere?”

 

Caterina  è diventata brava lo scorso anno.                   Kathy became good last year.

Pietro è diventato bravo.                                                      Peter became good.

Caterina e Francesca sono diventate brave.                  Kathy and Frances became good.

Pietro e Michele sono diventati bravi.                             Peter and Michael become good.

Caterina e Pietro sono diventati bravi.                            Kathy and Peter became good.

 

Many common Italian phrases that speak of life changes use the verb diventare. One can make something of themselves, become a grandfather, or become another’s friend and these ideas can be rendered with phrases that use the Italian verb diventare.

See below for example sentences that describe real life situations with diventare. Once again, notice that the passato prossimo and the noun or adjective that follows all must change to agree in gender and number with the subject!

 

Marco è diventato qualcuno quando lui ha compiuto trentadue anni.
Mark made something of himself when he became 32 years old.

Michelle è diventato nonno alla età di sessanta anni.
Michael became a grandfather at the age of 60.

Maria e Anna sono diventate amiche                                 Mary and Ann have become friends.
Marco e Michelle sono diventati amici                              Mark and Michael have become friends.
Marco e Anna sono diventati amici                                   Mark and Ann have become friends.

 

Several Italian expressions use diventare to refer to emotions that show in a person’s facial expressions or body language. For instance, the act of blushing, showing confusion, freezing up or becoming furious.

diventare di fuoco to blush violently
diventare rosso come un peperone to blush
 to become bright red like a pepper
diventare rosso come un tacchino to blush

to become red like a turkey

diventare di mille colori
diventare di tutti i colori
to blush a million shades of color
to show awkwardness and confusion on one’s face.
diventare una bestia to become furious/ to lose it.
diventare di gelo to freeze up

Maria è diventata di fuoco quando ho detto che a Marco gli piace lei.
Maria blushed violently when I told her that Mark likes her.

Pietro è diventato una bestia* dopo aver guidato nel traffico per due ore.
Peter lost it after driving in traffic for two hours.

Maria e Pietro sono diventati di gelo quando hanno sentito un rumore in casa di notte.
Mary and Peter froze up when they heard noise in the house at night.

 

*The noun bestia is always feminine.

 


 

Italian Linking Verb
Sembrare

The Italian verb sembrare (to seem/to appear/to look like) is the third  verb that always functions as a linking verb in both Italian and English.*  By definition, the subject “seems to be “or “looks like” what is listed in the phrase that follows sembrare.  Although, in reality the subject may not fit the description in the phrase that follows, sembrare still refers back to the subject. and therefore is a linking verb.

Sembrare is a regular -are verb.  The full conjugation is below.

 

io sembro I seem
I look like
tu sembri you (familiar)seem
you look like
Lei

lei/lui

sembra you (polite) seem
you look like
she/he seems
she/he looks like
     
noi sembriamo we seem
we look like
voi sembrate you all seem
you all look like
loro sembrano they seem
they look like

*Sembrare can also mean “to feel like” but this definition is not discussed here.

 

Notice that if we substitute the conjugated form of sembrare for essere in our example sentences in the first section of this blog, the endings for the adjective bravo remain the same!  I’ve translated bravo as nice, as in to have a nice personality, for the examples below that use sembrare.

 

Caterina sembra brava.                                                   Kathy seems nice.

Pietro sembra bravo.                                                       Peter seems nice.

Caterina e Francesca sembrano brave.                    Kathy and Frances seem nice.

Pietro e Michele sembrano bravi.                              Peter and Michael seem nice.

Caterina e Pietro sembrano bravi.                             Kathy and Peter seem nice.

 

In life, sembrare is commonly used to describe how a person comes across, or presents him or herself, as above.  Just replace bravo with any one of many characteristics or personality types to create many more descriptive sentences.

Lei sembra intelligente, contenta, bella, etc.
She seems intelligent, happy, pretty, etc.

Or, on the negative side…

Lei sembra maleducata, triste, brutta, etc.
She seems rude, sad, ugly, etc.

 


 

How to Choose Italian Verbs
Sembrare vs. Somigliare

Sembrare is also often the verb used to describe when someone resembles, or “looks like” someone else, such as when a child looks like their parent or when someone you know resembles a famous actor.  Notice that in this case the idea contained in the English phrase “looks like” is expressed with sembrare alone in Italian; no  preposition or other clarifying word is needed.

The verb somigliare, followed by the  preposition a,  is often used in this situation as well. Since the two people or groups are similar to each other, it stands to reason they will be equivalent in gender and number.  In the passato prossimo, though, sembrare uses essere as its helping verb, while somigliare uses avere.

If you want to embellish your statement, provide specific characteristics using either entrambe for a feminine comparison, or entrambi for a masculine comparison or a comparison of a group of males and females.

Maria sembra sua mamma;                                  Maria looks like her mother;
entrambe sono alte e belle.       
                            both are  tall and beautiful.               

– or –

Maria somiglia a sua mamma.                              Maria looks like her mother.
entrambe sono alte e belle.                                     both are  tall and beautiful.   

 

Pietro sembra Marcello Mastroianni;                 Peter looks like Marcello Mastroianni;
entrambi sono alti e belli.       
                                  both are  tall and handsome.               

– or –

Pietro somiglia a Marcello Mastroianni.            Maria looks like  Marcello Mastroianni.
entrambi sono alti e belli.                                         both are  tall and handsome.

 

A place or object  can also look similar to another place or object, depending on one’s perspective. Be careful when stating your opinion, though, since the sentence structure may require use of the subjunctive mood! If you are not familiar with the subjunctive mood but still want to emphasize that you are uncertain or stating an opinion, start your sentence with one of the following phrases: forse (perhaps), per me (for me), or secondo me (according to me).  These three phrases do not require the use of a subjunctive mood verb.*

Secondo me, Roma sembra New York:                         According to me, Rome seems like New York;
entrambe (città) sono rumorose e pieno di gente.    both (cities) are noisy and full of people.

– or –

Per me, Roma somiglia a New York:                              For me, Rome is similar to New York;
entrambe (città) sono rumorose e pieno di gente.    both (cities) are noisy and full of people.

 

La nuova versione del software sembra la vecchia;     The new version of the software appears like the
old;

non ho notato alcuna differenza.                                        I haven’t noticed any difference.

– or –

La nuova versione del software somoglia alla vecchia;  The new version of the software seems like the                                                                                                                               old;
Non ho notato qualunque differenza.                                    I haven’t noticed any difference.

 

*If you are interested in learning more about the subjunctive mood, visit my blog series “Speak Italian!” on this topic in my blog.learntravelitalian.com. The first blog in the series is Italian Subjunctive (Part 1): Speak Italian!

 

Remember how to use the Italian linking verbs
Essere, Diventare, and Sembrare 
and I guarantee you will use them every day!

For “All the Italian you need to enjoy your trip to Italy” click on the links for my Conversational Italian for Travelers books  -Kathryn Occhipinti

 

 

Conversational Italian for Travelers books are shown side by side, standing up with "Just the Verbs" on the left and "Just the Grammar" on the right
Conversational Italian for Travelers “Just the Grammar” and “Just the Verbs” books: Available on  amazon.com  and Learn Travel Italian.com
The cover of Conversational Italian for Travelers "Just the Important Phrases" book is viewed on a smartphone
Conversational Italian for Travelers “Just the Important Phrases” book downloaded onto a cell phone from www.learntravelitalian.com

About Kathryn Occhipinti

Dr. Kathryn Occhipinti is a radiologist who has been leading Italian language groups in the Peoria and Chicago areas for more than 10 years. She is the author of the “Conversational Italian for Travelers” series of books to teach adults Italian with the vocabulary they need to travel to Italy. She is very active on social media promoting Italian language and culture through her Facebook group Conversational Italian! as well on Twitter @travelitalian1. Links to audio for her Italian language dialogues and her blogs for beginning and intermediate Italian can be found at www.learntravelitalian.com.

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