Italian Lessons


Essere or Avere?

This week, Daniela concludes 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 - Part 1

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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 - Part 13

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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).



Tris di Assaggi (Three Tidbits)

In a previous episode of the series on food, Gianni Mura talked about trends in restaurant dining. He talked about what quickly caught on as a popular way of getting a little taste of everything. Instead of a primo (first course), secondo (main dish), contorno (side dish), and dolce (dessert), a restaurant would offer a tris di assaggi (three "tastes," or miniature servings) of primi piatti (first courses). This became, and still is, a great way for tourists, or anyone else, to find out what they like. Depending on what's offered, and on the kind of restaurant, the three servings may arrive all on the same plate at the same time, or on separate plates, one after the other. 



At the end of concerts, audiences ask for an encore. In Italian, this is called a bis. It comes from the Latin for "twice." It has come to mean "again" or "more" in a concert setting, where people want to hear a piece played a second time, or something extra once the programmed performance is over. If you're dining with friends at home, and would like another helping, you can use bis:

Posso fare il bis?
Can I have a second helping?

In rare cases you can ask for a bis in a restaurant, but usually in a restaurant setting, bis will indicate two small servings of two different dishes, rather than one normal one. Likewise, a tris (coming from the Latin for "three times") denotes three small servings of a dish rather than one normal serving.

Now that you know what tris means, here's a tris of tidbits about Italian.

1) Past meaning present


In some cases Italian uses il passato prossimo (constructed like the English present perfect) to express an idea that in English would use the present tense. Here's an example. Luca is telling the doctor that Lara will promise to take care of him. She hesitates but then agrees. She uses the past participle of promettere (to promise) rather than the present tense, as we would in English.


Dottore, che... che devo fare? -Senta, se lo dimetto, mi promette di non lasciarlo solo neanche un attimo? Promette, promette... -Eh... sì! Promesso.

Doctor, what... what should I do? -Listen! If I release him, do you promise not to leave him alone, not even for an instant? She promises, she promises... -Uh... yes! I promise.

Captions 47-49, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP7 - Sogni di Vetro

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Capire (to understand) is another word that often gets used in its passato prossimo tense to mean what we think of as being in the present.


Ho capito, ma adesso, qua in mezzo alla campagna... con le mucche, che facciamo?

I get it, but now, here in the middle of the countryside... with the cows, what are we going to do?

Captions 10-11, Francesca - alla guida - Part 3

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As a question tag, the person and auxiliary verb are often left out:


Tiziana, calmati. Ho già fatto richiesta per farti scarcerare, però mi devi dare una mano. Mi devi aiutare, capito?

Tiziana, calm down. I've already put in a request for you to be released, but you have to give me a hand. You have to help me, do you understand?

Captions 21-22, Il Commissario Manara - S2EP9 - L'amica ritrovata

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Ho capito (I understand [literally "I've understood"]) is what you commonly say to let someone know you're listening, much like "I see," "I get it," or even "uh huh." 


2) A common modo di dire


E poi eravamo in giro tutte le notti, perché a quei tempi gli artisti andavano ad alcool e quindi...

And then, we were out and about all night because in those times, artists were fueled by alcohol, and so...

Captions 3-4, L'arte della cucina - La Prima Identitá

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In giro is a very general way to say "out" or "around," when you ask or say where someone is, or where someone has gone. There are many ways to use this expression, so check it out here.


3) Hidden vowels and silent consonants


In an online video lesson, Marika talks some more about object pronouns, this time with the participio passato (past participle). One important thing that can be difficult to grasp is that when the pronoun is used, the object (in the form of a pronoun) comes first. Let's look at this example.


Hai guardato il film? Sì, l'ho guardato.

Did you watch the movie? Yes, I watched it.

Captions 15-16, Marika spiega - I pronomi diretti con participio passato

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We also need to remember that the "h" in ho is silent. L'ho sounds like "lo," but the apostrophe is there to tell us that it's really lo (it) ho (I have). We have "l" + silent  "o" + silent "h" + "o."


One extra tidbit concerning the passato prossimo: While constructed like the present perfect, it often translates with the English simple past tense, just as in the above example. 


That's it for the tris!

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