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Using Essere and Stare in the Past Tense

Posted on 29. Aug, 2014 by in Grammar

Recently I received a comment from a reader asking about the correct use of the imperfect and present perfect of essere and stare. Here is my reply:

Firstly, if you want to revise the difference between essere and stare, you can read THIS BLOG. Now let’s have a look at their use in the imperfetto (imperfect tense) and the passato prossimo (present perfect). Allora, we’ll start with the verb stare:

1. To talk about somebody’s health we use stare followed by the adverbs bene (well), male (bad), meglio (better), peggio (worse), and so on.

Here’s a short conversation  which uses the imperfect tense (stava):
Maria: ”Ciao Laura, sai come sta Giorgio?” (Maria: “Hi Laura, do you know how Giorgio is?”)
Laura: “l’ultima volta che l’ho visto non stava tanto bene” (Laura: “the last time I saw him he wasn’t very well”. Imperfect)

Now here’s an example of the passato prossimo (è stato):
Maria: ”Ciao Laura, sai come sta Giorgio?” (Maria: “Hi Laura, do you know how Giorgio is?”)
Laura: “Sì, so che è stato male, ma mi hanno detto che ora sta meglio” (Laura: “Yes, I know he has been unwell, but I’ve heard that he’s feeling better now”. Present perfect)

2. To explain where we used to stay/stayed we use stare followed by the location:

da bambina l’estate stavo dai miei nonni (when I was a child I used to stay at my grandparents in the summer. Imperfect)
quando siamo andati a Ravenna siamo stati all’Ostello della Gioventù (when we went to Ravenna we stayed at the Youth Hostel. Present perfect)

Now let’s look at the use of the verb essere:

3. To describe people, places and situations we use the imperfect tense of essere:

mio padre era figlio unico (my father was an only child.)
la casa dove sono nata era molto grande e intorno c’erano molti alberi (the house where I was born was very big and around it there were many trees.)
era una notte buia e tempestosa … (it was a dark and stormy night …)

Listen to: era una notte buia e tempestosa … (it was a dark and stormy night …)

4. To talk about an event that is now over we use the present perfect of essere:

è stata una bella festa (it was a lovely party)
lo scorso inverno è stato molto mite (last winter was very mild)

P.S. As you may have noticed, a main source of confusion is the fact that the verbs stare and essere use the same passato prossimo (present perfect), for example, sono stato/a  can mean either ‘I was’ or ‘I stayed’, and siamo stati/e can mean either ‘we were’ or ‘we stayed’. In most cases the meaning is clear from the context:
Quando Giorgio era a Napoli è stato a casa di sua zia (When Giorgio was in Naples he stayed at his aunt’s house Present perfect of the verb stare)
è stato
un pomeriggio molto caldo (it was a very hot afternoon. Present perfect of the verb essere)
In other cases the two verbs are more or less interchangeable:
siamo stati a Ravenna tre giorni (we were/stayed in Ravenna for three days)
sono stata tutto il pomeriggio in casa (I was/stayed in all afternoon).

The Edible Dormouse

Posted on 27. Aug, 2014 by in Nature

Cats are fascinating creatures, they teach us so much about nature! In fact nearly every day we study biology with them. They do the dissecting, leaving the dismembered carcasses outside the kitchen door, and we play the identification game: “Sooo, what did they kill for us last night? That looks like a rat’s head to me, and that’s a paw next to it … yes, that shoelace like tail definitely belonged to a rat. This one over here looks like a shrew … is that a bat’s wing?” and so on.

A few days ago we found a beautiful black fluffy tail, about 10 cm long. “My God, I hope they haven’t turned cannibal and eaten that little black kitten!” said Geoff. How does one set about identifying a tail without any other body parts for reference? Yesterday evening, however, Bella the cat gave us a clue: “It looks like I have to spell it out for you Humans … here’s some more evidence” she said, as she leapt through the kitchen window with the still warm body of the owner of a fluffy black 10 cm long tail. “It looks like a squirrel, but it’s not a squirrel” said Geoff. “I think it’s a ghiro (dormouse)” I observed.

Ghiri, by Gustav Mützel (CC)

Il ghiro is a beautiful small rodent up to about 30 cm long, half of which is the fluffy tail which, unlike the squirrel’s that curls upwards, trails out horizontally behind it. The Italian dormouse is called Glis Glis, and is commonly found in woodlands throughout the peninsula, with the exception of the Pianura Padana, the big plain in the north of Italy. In Sardinia there’s a rare subspecies, gli glis melonii, which was thought to be extinct, but was sighted again in 2006.

The ghiro’s fur is grey to greyish-brown in colour on the upper parts of its body, while its tummy and the inner surface of its legs are white to pale buff. It’s a nocturnal animal, therefore it’s got big round eyes and large round ears. In the winter it hibernates for long periods, in fact it can sleep for up to seven months if the season is particularly cold (hmmm, sounds like a good idea!) From this habit comes the Italian saying “dormire come un ghiro” (to sleep like a dormouse).

No known copyright

The Edible Dormouse, not just for cats!

In England, where it was accidentally introduced in 1902 when it escaped from a private collection, il ghiro is known as the “edible dormouse” or “fat dormouse”. In fact the poor little beast has been considered a delicacy since the times of the Romans, when it was eaten roasted as a snack! Today, here in Italy, il ghiro is a protected animal, and its consumption is illegal, but do cats give a damn about the law? … NO! In England, on the other hand, il ghiro is considered a pest because, being mostly vegetarian, it eats fruit and tree bark. But as Geoff pointed out, what does the most damage to the environment, a little dormouse, or human beings? Therefore, if the dormouse is a pest … what does that make us?

Most of the photos of ghiros that we’ve found show it with a greyish tail, and we haven’t yet discovered why our ‘specimens’ had black tails. Could it be that they were young, and the tail turns grey when they become adults? If you know the answer please let us know.

You can read more about il ghiro (in Italian) HERE

Objects Made from Body Parts

Posted on 25. Aug, 2014 by in Vocabulary

A couple of weeks ago, when I was helping Geoff with our article Mixed Up Body Parts!, I was sitting on the sofa with my arm resting on the armrest, and the word il bracciolo (the armrest) came into my mind. I thought to myself: “Il bracciolo obviously has its roots in the word braccio (arm), I wonder how many other objects take their names from parts of the body” Well, here’s a blog listing the most common ones.

Objects which take their names from:

la bocca = the mouth
il boccaporto (masc. sing; plural i boccaporti) = the hatchway 
il bocchettone (masc. sing.; plural i bocchettoni) = the pipe union

il braccio = the arm
il braccialetto (masc. sing.; plural i braccialetti) = the bracelet
il bracciolo (masc. sing.; plural i braccioli) = the armrest

due braccialetti Romani – two Roman bracelets, part of the horde uncovered at Hoxne, England in 1992 Photo: (CC) by

il collo = the neck
la collana (fem. sing.; plural le collane) = the necklace
il colletto (masc. sing.; plural i colletti) = the collar (in shirts)
il collare (masc. sing.; plural i collari) = the collar (for animals)

il dito = the finger
il ditale (masc. sing.; plural i ditali) = the thimble

la gamba = the leg
il gambaletto (masc. sing.; plural i gambaletti) = knee socks

la guancia = the cheek
il guanciale (masc. sing.; plural i guanciali) = the pillow

la mano = the hand
le manette (fem. plural) = the handcuffs
il manico (masc. sing.; plural i manici) = the handle
il manoscritto (masc. sing.; plural i manoscritti) = the manuscript
la manovella (fem. sing.; plural le manovelle) = the crank

la manovella – the crank (author unknown)

l’occhio = the eye
gli occhiali (masc. plural) = the glasses/spectacles
l’occhiello (masc. sing.; plural gli occhielli) = the buttonhole (also called l’asola)

l’orecchio = the ear
l’orecchino (masc. sing.; plural gli orecchini) = the earing

il piede = the foot
il marciapiede (masc. sing.; plural i marciapiedi) = the pavement
il piedistallo (masc. sing.; plural i piedistalli) = the pedestal

il polso = the wrist
il polsino (masc. sing.; plural i polsini) = the cuff

la schiena = the back
lo schienale (masc. sing.; plural gli schienali) = the back (of a chair)

la spalla = the shoulder
la spalletta (fem. sing., plural le spallette) = the parapet
la spallina (fem. sing.; plural le spalline) = the epaulette; the shoulder strap

Che bel paio di spalline! what a lovely pair of epaulettes. Oscar II of Sweden (Public Domain) 

la testa = the head
la testiera (fem. sing.; plural le testiere) = the headboard

il viso = the face
la visiera (fem. sing.; plural le visiere) = the visor