The verbs essere and avere haunt many learners of Italian — they are used very frequently, but are also quite complex. There is some serious grammar lurking just beneath the surface of these "basic" verbs. This article aims to shed some clarity on those murky waters by breaking each of the verbs down, giving names to the grammatical ideas they work with, and supporting all of that with tons of example sentences.

AVERE – To have

To get started, here are a few situations which call for the verb avere in Italian:

  • When talking about your age or someone else’s (Anna ha 15 anni – Anna is 15 years old)
  • When talking about feelings like thirst or hunger (Ho fame, ho sete, ho sonno – I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m sleepy)
  • When talking about possession (Maria ha due cani e un gatto – Maria has two dogs and one cat)

Note that it doesn't work to simply learn that avere translates to to have in English: Age is something that we are in English, whereas it's something we have in Italian. As you continue learning you'll encounter more examples where the "same" word in English and Italian have different use-cases, so moving forwards, try to learn not only the translations of a given word but also the situations it's used in.

And now for the conjugation of avere:

English
Presente (Present)
Passato prossimo (Present perfect)
I have Io ho Io ho avuto
You have Tu hai Tu hai avuto
He/She has Lui/Lei ha Lui/Lei ha avuto
We have Noi abbiamo Noi abbiamo avuto
You have Voi avete Voi avete avuto
They have Loro hanno Loro hanno avuto

Note:

  • In both English and Italian, the present tense is used for actions that are happening at the present moment moment or for expressing things that are general truths. If you say Ho una macchina rossa (I have a red car), it means that you currently own a red car.
  • In English, the present perfect tense is used to say how long you've been doing something. In Italian, this is accomplished with the present tense and the preposition da instead. Compare the following sentences: Vivo in Italia da dieci anni (I have lived in Italy for ten years.)  
  • In Italian, the present perfect tense is also used for actions that happened in the recent past. In English, we would use the simple past instead. So the sentence Ho visto quel film sabato scorso. (I saw that film last Saturday) uses the present perfect tense in Italian but the simple past tense in English.

That in mind, the bad news is that it's not enough to translate individual words. Instead, you have to think about the ideas you want to translate, then think about what grammar Italian would use to convey those ideas.

The good news is that if you know the present tense conjugations of avere, it's very easy to make the present perfect tense. All you need to do is take a present tense conjugation of avere and then tack a past participle onto the end of it.

Making the Past Participle

The etymology of the word perfect comes from the Latin word perfectus, which meant that something had been completed – not that it was perfect. The past participle is a verb form that expresses that an action has been completed, and it is used to make the present perfect ("completed") tense.

Thankfully, past participles are easy to make.

  • If the infinitive form of a verb ends in -are, replace -are with -ato. So, the verb comprare (to buy) from our above example becomes comprato (bought).
  • If the infinitive form of a verb ends in -ere, replace -ere with -uto. The verb avere (to have) becomes avuto (had).
  • If the infinitive form of a verb ends in -ire, replace -ire with -ito. The verb finire (to finish) becomes finito (finished).

To make the present perfect tense, you can follow a simple formula:

  • (Subject) + PRESENT TENSE CONJUGATION OF AVERE/ESSERE + PAST PARTICIPLE ...
  • (Io) + HO / SONO + AVUTO/STATO/COMPRATO/etc ...

Just like English, Italian also has its fair share of irregular verbs. For example, the past participle of decidire (to decide) is deciso, not decito. You'll have to learn these irregular verbs as you encounter them.

ESSERE – To be

Essere can be translated as the verb to be, i.e. Luisa è italiana (Luisa is Italian), but like avere, it can also be used as an auxiliary verb to form the present perfect.

English
Presente (Present)
Passato prossimo (Present perfect)
I am Io sono Io sono stato/a
You are Tu sei Tu sei stato/a
He/She is Lui/Lei è Lui/Lei è stato/a
We are Noi siamo Noi siamo stati/e
You are Voi siete Voi siete stati/e
They are Loro sono Loro sono stati/e
  • Again, the present is used for actions that are happening at a given moment. if you say Io sono a casa (I’m at home), it means that you are currently at home.
  • The Italian present perfect is used for actions that happened in the recent past. For example: Ieri sono stato a casa (Yesterday I stayed at home). Note that, in English (as per the translation), we would use the simple past tense for this situation.

(SUBJECT) PRESENT TENSE CONJUGATION OF THE VERB ESSERE + PAST PARTICIPLE = PRESENT PERFECT
(Io) SONO + STATO = PRESENT PERFECT

The past particle of to be is stato, but stato is unique in that it conjugates for gender and plurality.

  • The singular masculine form is STATO, for example:
    Marco non è mai stato a Londra (Marco has never been to London)
  • The singular feminine form is STATA, for example:
    Laura non è mai stata a Londra (Laura has never been to London)
  • The plural masculine form is STATI, for example:
    Marco e Luigi non sono mai stati a Londra (Marco and Luigi have never been to London)
  • The plural feminine form is STATE, for example:
    Laura e Maria non sono mai state a Londra (Laura and Maria have never been to London)

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ESSERE or AVERE?

While both essere and avere are used to make the present perfect tense, they are not interchangeable. Each verb is used in different circumstances.

The auxiliary AVERE is used with the transitive verbs. Transitive verbs are verbs that have a direct object – a subject performs an action, and the object receives that action.

For example: Mia mamma ha cucinato la pasta – My mom cooked pasta.

  • Subject: mia mamma: subject
  • (Transitive) verb: Ha cucinato
  • (Direct) object: La pasta

The verb avere is also used with some intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs are verbs that do not take direct objects – the action cannot pass directly from the subject to the object. Intransitive verbs end with the subject itself and require prepositions or other additional words to connect to an indirect object.

For example: Hai parlato con tuo padre? (Did you talk with your father?)

  • Subject: you (as shown by hai)
  • (Intransitive) verb: hai parlato
  • (Indirect) object: tuo padre

Notice that the example sentences for transitive verbs didn't include prepositions: the direct object follows a transitive verb... well, directly. This isn't the case with intransitive verbs and indirect objects. We can't say did you talk your father because talk is an intransitive verb – thus, the preposition with connects talk and father.

On the other end, we use the auxiliary ESSERE with the following verbs:

  • Some intransitive verbs
  • Many, but not all, verbs of movement and verbs of change.
  • Reflexive verbs
  • Impersonal verbs

Verbs of movement and verbs of change:

Verbs of movement like andare (to go), venire (to come), entrare (to enter) or uscire (to go out) depict movement, while verbs of change like nascere (to be born) and morire (to die) indicate that some sort of change has taken place. For example:

  • La settimana scorsa sono andato al cinema (Last week I went to the cinema)
  • Rosa è nata nel 1981 (Rosa was born in 1981)

These sort of verbs tend to take essere, not avere.

Reflexive verbs

Reflexive verbs are verbs in which the action performed by a given subject has consequences on that subject itself. In Italian, reflexive verbs are made by tacking a personal pronoun onto the verb.

Furthermore, Italian has three types of reflexive verbs:

  • Direct reflexive verbs: The subject and the object of the sentence are the same. For example, in the sentence Maria si è vestita (Maria got dressed), Maria is both the person doing the dressing and the one getting dressed.
  • Indirect reflexive verbs: The subject and the object are not the same. For example: Maria si è lavata i capelli (Maria washed her hair).
  • Reciprocated reflexive verbs: Two or more subjects perform and receive the action of the subject at the same time. For example: Le mie amiche si sono fatte le unghie (My friends did their nails)

Impersonal verbs

While one of the most important rules of English is that sentences always need a subject, this is not the case in Italian. In particular, impersonal verbs do not require that a subject be mentioned. They usually are used in the third person singular, and they take the auxiliary verb essere. Two common impersonal verbs are succedere (to happen) and sembrare (to seem).

  • Perché piangi? Che cosa è successo? (Why are you crying? What happened?)

A few things to watch out for

Be careful with è and e.

The letter "e" is a conjunction used to connect two parts of the speech, while "è" is the third-person singular form of the verb essere. As you can see below, while they may look similar, they mean very different things.

  • Luca e Sofia vanno al mare (Luca and Sofia go to the beach)
  • Luca è bello (Luca is handsome)

Be careful with ho and o

The letter "o" is a conjunction used to connect two parts of the speech, while "ho" is the third-person singular form of the verb avere. For example:

  • Preferisci il mare o la montagna? (Do you prefer going to the beach or to the montain?)
  • Io ho due sorelle (I have two sisters)

Conclusion

Italian verbs aren't easy, and they don't always line up perfectly with their English translations. As such, as you continue improving, it's important to worry less about how Italian translates into English and more about how things do and don't work in Italian.

In the grand scheme of things, though, making a mistake or two is not a big deal. Italians will probably still understand you if you use essere when you should have used avere – you'll just sound foreign. Reaching the bilingual stage will take a lot of practice and revision, and that starts here!

Valeria, Biancalani | Founder of Parlando Italiano

Read more:

  1. Some Italians Don’t Even Use Italian? A Spotlight on Italian Dialects
  2. How to Order the Best Italian Food in Italian
  3. Italian Prepositions: Everything You Need to Know
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