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A Partially False Friend: Assistere

When we look at the verb assistere, and its noun form, l’assistenza, we naturally think of the English verb, “to assist.” We’re right only part of the time.


But here’s the trick. When assistere is transitive, that is, having a direct object, it means much the same as the English “to assist,” “to help.” But when assistere is intransitive, with no direct object, it means something entirely — or almost entirely —  different. If you’re not privy to this little detail, it can cause confusion.


Normally when assistere is intransitive, we will see a proposition after it, as in the following example.


Stiamo parlando di Federico Fellini

We're talking about Federico Fellini

che ci ha invitati qui ad assistere alla ripresa de "La dolce vita",

who has invited us here to watch the filming of "La Dolce Vita,"

Captions 11-12, Fellini Racconta - Un Autoritratto Ritrovato

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When intransitive, assistere is about being present, so someone might say:

Ho assistito ad un incidente grave in autostrada.

Before looking at the translation, let’s look at the sentence in Italian. Let’s look for a direct object to see if it’s transitive, or a preposition to see if it’s intransitive.

Well, there happens to be a nice preposition right after assistito(with a d after it since there’s a vowel after that) so we know right away that the speaker did not necessarily help anyone, but that he or she was indeed present, and saw the accident. Assistere often implies more than just seeing it from afar as you whiz by in the fast lane. It gives the idea of being present, or close by. We might translate it as follows:

witnessed a serious accident on the super highway.

Assistere is often used when talking about shows or events. We could say:

Ho visto uno spettacolo (I saw a show).

But it’s very common to say:

Ho assistito ad uno spettacolo (I attended a performance, I was present at a show).


Assistenza, one of the nouns associated with assistere, is often used in conjunction with health care. Assistenza sanitaria is the national health care system in Italy. There’s also la pubblica assistenza  (the [local] public health station) where you can get first aid or an ambulance. It’s often a structure where people go to see their assigned doctor. Waiting may be long and there are no appointments, but seeing the doctor is free.


Un assistito is the beneficiary of health care, legal aid, or social services: someone who is in care.


Italian also has the noun un assistente, which is much the same as the English “assistant,” but it is also used in job titles, as in the following example.


Ecco, questo è proprio il modo in cui non ti devi esprimere

There, this is exactly the way you should not express yourself

davanti all'assistente sociale, per favore.

in front of the social worker, if you please.

Captions 61-62, La Tempesta - film

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See this WordReference entry for more jobs using assistente.


And there you have it: assistere.


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