Home / Columns / Italian Past: Avere or Essere?

Italian Past: Avere or Essere?

Every Italian student starts by speaking only in the present tense — that is, about what is happening in the “here and now.”  But what if we want to refer back to an event that has happened in the recent past, such as this morning, yesterday, or last year?  Well, then, will have to learn how to form the passato prossimo past tense!

The passato prossimo translates into English as the present perfect tense and the simple past tense; in effect, when we learn this one type of past tense in Italian, we can substitute it for two types of past tenses in English! To avoid confusion, we will always use the Italian name, the passato prossimo, for this tense.

To get started speaking in the passato prossimo past tense, we must first learn how to form a past participle. Regular past participles in Italian can be recognized by their endings, and will have either ato, -uto, or -ito endings for infinitive verbs with the endings  -are, -ere, and -ire endings respectively. Many common Italian past participles are irregular, though, and will need to be memorized.

Once we have our past participle, we have to decide if we should use the helping verb avere (to have) or essere (to be). English is not much help in this regard, because English always uses the past tense verb “have” as the helping verb with a past participle. For instance, in English we say: ” I bought/I have bought” or “I went/I have gone.” For Italian, avere can be considered the “default” helping verb, although essere is essential as well.

Essere is needed for verbs that describe directional movement, such as coming and going from a particular place, as we touched upon briefly in our last blog, “Going and Returning.”  Essere is also used with verbs that describe the “passage through time” that occurs with living: birth, growing up, and death, or any other change in life. Reflexive verbs and the verb that means “to like,” piacere, always take essere as the helping verb.

Let’s summarize:

When to use Essere + Past Participle for the Passato Prossimo Past Tense
 
1. Verbs of directional motion
2. Birth and growing up
3. Verbs that describe change
4. Reflexive verbs
5. Piacere (to like)
When to use Avere + Past Participle for the Passato Prossimo Past Tense
 
All verb types except those listed under the list for essere

Passato Prossimo with avere…

Below is an excerpt from a conversation between two women, Anna and Francesca, who meet for coffee at a cafe and are talking about what has happened earlier that morning. Francesca went shopping that morning with another friend, Caterina. To describe this activity in the recent past, Francesca uses the helping verb avere (to have) and the past participle comprato (bought) to form the passato prossimo form of the past tense.

You will notice from this dialogue that it takes two Italian words to express what we usually say with one word in English! We could express the same idea in English with two verbs, but usually default to the one-word, simple past tense.

In our dialogue, avere is conjugated to reflect the speaker; the ending for the past participle comprato remains the same, no matter who is the speaker. The Italian pronouns have been left out of the Italian sentences as usual, so these are put into parentheses in English. In most cases, there can be two translations in English. Since the less commonly used English translation usually more closely matches the Italian way of thinking, this secondary English translation is given in gray letters within parentheses.

If you would like to listen to the entire dialogue, recorded with two native Italian speakers, just click on the link from the website www.learntravelitalian: At the Coffee Shop.

Anna:

Francesca:

Anna:

Francesca:

Anna:

Francesca:

Passato Prossimo with essere…

Before we start to use the passato prossimo with the helping verb essere, we must first remember that in this situation the ending of the past participle must change to match the gender and number of the speaker. This follows our usual “matching subject, verb and predicate” rule for the verb essere.  

As a review of this rule with essere and the passato prossimo, below are some simple examples using the verb andare (to go). The masculine names and endings are given in brown, and the feminine names and endings in red.

  1. For masculine and feminine singular, to talk about who has gone somewhere:
Pietro è andato. Peter has gone.
Caterina è andata. Kathy has gone

2. For a group of men or a group of men and women, the masculine plural i ending applies

Pietro e Michele sono andati. Peter and Michael have gone.
Pietro e Caterina sono andati. Peter and Kathy have gone.

3. If the group contains only women, the feminine plural e ending is used.

Caterina e Francesca sono andate. Kathy and Frances have gone.

Also, remember that the past participle for essere is irregular, and is stato.

The past participle for avere is regular, and is avuto.

Below is an example dialogue using both avere and essere as the helping verbs. Caterina and Elena are two travelers who are staying at the same hotel for the Italian holiday Ferragosto. They have just met each other on the beach. The pronouns have been left out of the Italian sentences as usual, so these are put into parentheses in English, and the less commonly used English translation is given in gray lettering with parentheses.

One of the lines in our dialogue uses the imperfetto past tense, which will be the topic of the next blog in this series. Can you find it in the dialogue?

If you would like to listen to the entire dialogue, recorded with two native Italian speakers, just click on the link from the website www.learntravelitalian: On the Beach at Last.

Elena:

Caterina:

Elena:

Caterina:


 

Passato Prossimo with avere vs. essere…

There are some Italian verbs of motion that intuitively would seem to take essere as the helping verb in the passato prossimo past tense.  And yet… these verbs of motion instead take avere as their helping verb! 

Camminare and ballare are two verbs of movement that take the helping verb avere, rather than essere.

This may seem a bit curious, although one could say that dancing is movement without any set direction; spinning and turning are common, of course, and there is no set beginning or end to a dance, except in a performance.

Why does camminare take avere, and not essere? Maybe because it is sometimes used with the meaning of “to stroll,” which implies a leisurely walk without any set direction? Or maybe that is just the way it is, and there is no real explanation!

Take home lesson: to use essere as the helping verb, the main verb must be a verb that takes us from one place to another; in short, a verb of directional motion! Otherwise, we must use avere.

Below is a list of non-directional verbs of motion that take avere:

camminare to walk /to proceed /to function
ballare to dance
passeggiare to stroll /to walk
nuotare to swim
sciare to ski
pattinare (sul ghiaccio) to ice skate
pattinare (a rotelle) to roller skate
fare windsurf to windsurf

And, what about correre, you ask, the verb that means “to run” in Italian? Predictably, correre will take essere if one has run toward a destination.  Also, in order to say “to quickly go” in a figurative way in Italian, use essere + correre + appena. The past participle for correre is corso(a).

Lui è corso a casa sua. He ran to his house.
“Sono corsa appena mi hai chiamato.” “I came as soon as you called me.”

If one has simply “run around” without a destination, correre will take avere. Also, use the helping verb avere to describe that you have actually run during a sport activity. 

Lui ha corso. He ran.
Ho corso 20 km oggi. I ran 20 km today.

For a final exercise in the passato prossimo past tense, let’s imagine some activities that may take place during a typical day, and describe them in the past tense.

There are four situations in which we will need to use the passato prossimo past tense:

Activities that occurred once, or a specific number of times in the past will use the passato prossimo past tense in Italian.
Activities that were performed within a specific time period, such as an hour, a morning, a day, or a year, will also use the passato prossimo. 
A state of being that occurred in a specific time frame will use the passato prossimo.
A state of having something during a specific period of time will use the passato prossimo.

You will notice a common thread in the reasoning behind when to use the passato prossimo: use the passato prossimo for a specific, time-limited activity.

Below are the example sentences from daily life.  As an exercise, match each sentence below with one of the explanations given above for why the passato prossimo should be used.

Also, notice when essere is chosen as the helping verb and how the ending of the past participle changes with essere to match the gender and number of the subject. All past tense verbs have been underlined. Buona fortuna!  Good luck!

Un giorno nella vita di Roberto:                        A day in the life of Robert:

Stamattina, mi sono svelgiato presto. This morning, I woke up early. (masculine)
Ho preparato la prima colazione per mia sorella minore. I made breakfast for my little sister.
Mia sorella è andata a scuola. My sister went to school.
Ho letto il giornale. I read the paper.
Alle nove di mattina, sono andato a lavorare. At 9:00 in the morning, I went to work.
Sono dovuto andare a lavorare per ogni giorno questa settimana. I had to go work every day this week.
Mi sono sentito molto stanco tutto il giorno oggi. I felt very tired  all day today.
Dopo le feste, ho avuto molto lavoro da fare. After the holidays, I had a lot of work to do.
Mi sono piaciuti molto gli spaghetti per cena stasera!  I really liked the spaghetti for dinner tonight!

Of course, there are many, many more activities that can happen in a single day than what we have listed here. You may want to keep a short diary to practice using the passato prossimo; every night before going to bed, write one or two sentences to describe important events that have happened during the day. Soon it will be second nature know when and how to use the two verbs in the passato prossimo past tense!

Remember how to talk about the past using the passato prossimo and I guarantee
you will use this Italian past tense every day!

 

*If you’d like to read earlier posts in the series, “Italian Phrases We Use EVERY Day!” just click HERE.

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.

One comment