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Essere or Avere?

Daniela has concluded her three-part lesson on the passato prossimo (present perfect) tense. Get caught up here! She gives us some very important information about its construction, but what’s difficult for many of us is just knowing which auxiliary verb to use—essere (to be) or avere (to have)—when using the passato prossimo.


In fact, there’s plenty of gray area, which we’ll delve into further on, but very generally speaking, when the verb is transitive (can take a direct object), the auxiliary verb is avere (to have) and when the verb is intransitive (cannot take a direct object), the auxiliary verb is essere (to be).


The following example contains the direct object film (movie). So we use avere.


Hai guardato il film?

Did you watch the movie?

Caption 15, Marika spiega - I pronomi diretti con participio passato

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In the next example the first verb venire (to come) is intransitive, has no direct object, and thus takes the auxiliary verb essere. The second verb portare (to bring, to carry) is transitive, having a direct object, and thus takes avere. Note that acqua (water) is the direct object of the verb portare.


Il cameriere è venuto e ci ha portato dell'acqua naturale.

The waiter came and he brought us still water.

Caption 20, Anna e Marika - Trattoria Al Biondo Tevere

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What about if Anna and Marika had had a cameriera (waitress)?*


In the example below, there’s a direct object (Lara) in the first part, and a verb (intransitive) that can’t take an object (arrivare) in the second part. Lara is a woman, so the ending of arrivata has the feminine singular ending -a.


Hai visto Lara? -Lara non è ancora arrivata, no.

Have you seen Lara? -Lara hasn't gotten here yet, no.

Caption 38, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP4 - Le Lettere Di Leopardi

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Can you make up a sentence changing the person to Luca (a man)? The first part with avere will not change, but the second part with essere will!**

Can you change the person to two people?***


Attenzione! Intransitive verbs have a great many exceptions to the general rule. Strange as it may seem, some of these verbs have to do with movement:


Camminare (to walk), correre (to run), sciare (to ski), and nuotare (to swim), among others, are intransitive action verbs, but nevertheless take avere when referring to the activity itself.

Ho camminato tutto il giorno.
I walked all day.

Loro hanno corso tre chilometri.
They ran three kilometers.

However, when correre is used to mean “to hurry,” “to rush,” then it takes essere!

Io sono corsa a casa.
I rushed home.

See this resource (in Italian) for a list of intransitive verbs and the auxiliaries they use.


There are two other important situations to be aware of, requiring the use of the auxiliary essere in “perfect” tenses: reflexive verbs and verbs in the passive voice. We’ll have a closer look at them in another lesson.




La cameriera è venuta e ci ha portato dell'acqua naturale.
The waitress came and she brought us some still water.


Hai visto Luca? -Luca non è ancora arrivato, no.
Have you seen Luca? -Luca hasn't gotten here yet, no.


Hai visto Luca e Lara? -Loro non sono ancora arrivati, no.
Have you seen Luca and Lara? -They haven't gotten here yet, no.


Further Resources:

For an explanation of verbi transitivi e intransitivi in Italian, see this article.
Here is a text with many examples of il passato prossimo, and a fill-in-the-blank quiz following it.



- Have a look at some Yabla video transcripts or other Italian written text, and try to identify the two kinds of verbs and their auxiliaries in any given situation.


- Do a Yabla video search of the participle of a transitive verb, such as visto, the past participle of vedere (to see), and you’ll see a list of examples from videos containing compound tenses with this participle. Go to the videos, or just read the examples out loud to get a feel for the auxiliary verb avere.


- Be aware that there may be some exceptions in the list: a passive voice, a noun form, a reflexive form in the masculine, a transitive verb used intransitively, an adjective form of a participle.


- For intransitive verbs taking essere, try doing a search on the participles of these verbs: andarevenirepartirearrivarediventare. Remember that their endings will change depending on gender and number. You’ll see right away that the auxiliary is essere, conjugated per the person and the tense (it might be past perfect).



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