Welcome to Adventures in Language

The best place online to elevate your knowledge of linguistics and proficiency at language learning and teaching.

AIL-Badge-General

Read, Watch, Listen...

Language content in the format you prefer

Subscribe to receive emails

How can you choose between auxiliary verbs ‘avere’ and ‘essere’ in the ‘passato prossimo’?

ITAL-3-Blog-Header-Gated

You generally use avere [to have] when the main verb is followed by a direct object — an answer to the question “what/who(m)?” — and essere [to be] if it is not. What if specific verbs take both? Read on to learn the rules and the exceptions!

'Avere' vs 'essere' auxiliary verbs

Here are two examples:

Screen Shot 2021-12-08 at 5.27.43 PM

Both sentences above are in passato prossimo, but in the first one, the verb studiato is introduced by ho (a form of avere [to have]); while in the second one, the verb partito is introduced by sono (a form of essere [to be]). Even though the English present perfect tense is structurally similar to the Italian one, it differs from it in the auxiliary verbs used: in English this tense is formed mainly with “to have” as shown in the example above. In Italian though, the two auxiliary verbs avere and essere are used alternatively. How can you choose between avere and essere?

Rules to help you choose between 'avere' and 'essere'

Knowing how to choose between avere and essere is fundamental for learners of Italian every time they have to deal with passato prossimo. This will also help when using the other compound tenses formed by the combination of avere/essere conjugated in different tenses + the past participle. Given that the use of avere or essere depends on the main verb, you can easily choose between the two auxiliaries by asking yourself a simple question: “what/who(m)?” right after the main verb. Let’s see how it works:

'Avere' with TRANSITIVE verbs (= answering the question what/who(m))

Let’s say we have to turn the following infinitive into passato prossimo:

Screen Shot 2021-12-08 at 5.37.26 PM

The verb comprare [to buy] is the main verb we want to change into passato prossimo; so, let’s ask ourselves: ‘To buy what?’ The answer to the question “what?” is un regalo [a present], which we call “direct object,” a word not introduced by a preposition. Verbs that take direct objects are called “transitive” and are introduced by the auxiliary verb avere

Screen Shot 2021-12-08 at 5.38.20 PM

The same with the question, “who(m)?

Screen Shot 2021-08-06 at 1.52.33 PM

We ask ourselves, “incontrare [to meet] who(m)?” “Lucia” is the answer to “who(m)?” and is not introduced by any preposition. Therefore, the verb incontrare is transitive and takes avere.

Screen Shot 2021-08-06 at 1.54.15 PM

So far, so good. But what if the main verb cannot be followed by a direct object, or an answer to “what/who(m)”?

'Essere' with INTRANSITIVE verbs (= not answering the question what/who(m))

When the main verb cannot be followed by a direct object, generally, you can use the auxiliary verb essere with the following four categories:

Intransitive verbs that indicate an action experienced by the subject
  • Sono nato.          I was born.

  • Sono cresciuto.  I have grown up.

BUT you use the auxiliary verb avere with: 

Intransitive verbs that indicate an action actually performed by the subject

    • Ho parlato di te.    I have talked about you.

    • Ho creduto a te.    I have believed you.

 
Reflexive verbs (the action is performed and reflects back to the subject)
  • Mi sono preparato per uscire.  
    I got ready to go out.  (lit. I prepared myself to go out).

Impersonal verbs (the subject is not a person)
  • Questa cosa è appena successa.   This thing has just happened.

  Exception!

You’ve got the rule…Here is the exception! 
Verbs that indicate the weather or atmospheric phenomena can also use the auxiliary verb avere. You can say:

ha piovuto AND è piovuto       It has rained.
ha nevicato AND è nevicato   It has snowed.
etc.

 
Intransitive verbs of movement and status answering “where?”

Io sono andato a scuola ieri.               I went to school yesterday.
(I went where? - to school)

Tu sei rimasto a casa tutto il giorno.   You stayed at home all day long.
(You stayed where? - at home)

  Exception!

But remember! Movement verbs such as

  • viaggiare to travel
  • attraversare to cross
  • nuotare to swim
  • camminare to walk
  • sciare to ski
  • girare to turn

are exceptions and take avere:

Ho viaggiato in lungo e in largo. I have traveled far and wide.

 
‘Avere’ and ‘essere with the same verb

Ready for a big surprise? Look at the following examples with the verb passare:

Oggi Anna ha passato tutta la mattina a casa. 
Today Anna has spent all morning at home.

Oggi Anna è passata all’ufficio postale. 
Today Anna passed by the post office.

Both sentences are correct, so, what to do when a verb can be introduced by both avere and essere, then? 
With verbs that take both avere and essere, depending on their use, the key question “what/who(m)?” is again of great help. The verb passare, when used to talk about spending time (transitive use), takes avere; when used to talk about passing by (going) somewhere (intransitive use), it takes essere.

Oggi Anna ha passato tutta la mattina a casa.
Today Anna has spent (what?) all morning at home.

Oggi Anna è passata all’ufficio postale. 
Today Anna passed (where?) by the post office.

If you look closely, you’ll notice another key difference in the two examples: the past participle endings change (ha passato vs è passata). Why? With avere, the past participle does not agree in number and gender with the verb's subject, Anna, but with essere, it does. That’s due to the agreement rules that regulate the structure of sentences in Italian. Keep in mind that the same rules and exceptions apply to all the compound tenses in Italian: passato prossimo, trapassato prossimo [past perfect], futuro anteriore [future perfect], and trapassato remoto [past anterior]. In the meantime, let’s see how it works for the passato prossimo.

Summary

In conclusion,

  • The use of avere and essere depends on the verbs they ‘help,’ that is, the verbs they precede.

  • The key question “what/who(m)?” is of great help for learners of Italian who do not have a dictionary handy to check whether a verb is transitive or intransitive.

And now, buona fortuna [good luck] with our exercises.

External Links

  1. https://web.uvic.ca/~hisitaex/exercises/italian/italian100/verbi/passprat1.htm

  2. https://web.uvic.ca/~hisitaex/exercises/italian/italian100/verbi/passprat3.htm

  3. https://web.uvic.ca/~hisitaex/exercises/italian/italian100/verbi/prossess2.htm

  4. https://web.uvic.ca/~hisitaex/exercises/italian/italian100/verbi/prossimo2.htm

  5. http://coursework.mansfield.edu/bholtman/1101-ital/esercizi/04/pass-pross-2.htm

  6. http://coursework.mansfield.edu/bholtman/1101-ital/esercizi/04/pass-pross-3.htm

  7. http://coursework.mansfield.edu/bholtman/1101-ital/esercizi/04/pass-pross-1.htm

  8. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmcLf9CujYs

adventuresinlanguange_italian

Adventures in Language, from Mango Languages, is the best place online if you want to elevate your knowledge of linguistics and your proficiency at language learning and teaching. This wealth of knowledge is just a couple clicks away.

Want to practice? Try these activities.

Debora Chellini

5 Easy & Fun Ways to Use Spaced Repetition (language teacher tips!)
5 Easy Ways to Build your Language Learning “Muscle!”
Mango Languages
Written by Mango Languages

Language is an Adventure

Related Posts
Am I too old to learn a new language?
Am I too old to learn a new language?
What are negative words in Russian?
What are negative words in Russian?
How to use the definite articles in German
How to use the definite articles in German
Possessive adjectives in German: what are they and how are they used?
Possessive adjectives in German: what are they and how are they used?
Am I Fluent yet?
Am I Fluent yet?
How Sentences Work
How Sentences Work

Comments

Subscribe

Subscribe to Email Updates