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Essere o Stare? Posted by on Jan 29, 2009 in Grammar, Italian Language

I recently received an e-mail from a reader asking if I could explain the difference between essere and stare and how they are used. I got out my faithful Vocabolario della Lingua Italiana Treccani and … oh povera me! (poor me!) Under the entry stare there are 5 columns of information and for essere? well ‘only’ 3! So having digested all that information I’ll attempt to illustrate the main uses of these two verbs, but please note that this is not by any means an exhaustive or definitive answer.

As a general rule it can be said that essere means “to be”, and stare means “to stay”, however they assume different meanings in particular constructions and in some idiomatic expressions:

Stare is always used, when followed by bene, male, meglio, or peggio,  to talk about somebody’s health and is, therefore, also used in greetings such as: Ciao, come stai? (Hello, how are you?) Sto bene, grazie (I’m fine, thank you). Come sta tuo fratello? (How is your brother?) Sta meglio, grazie (He’s better, thank you).

Stare bene with an indirect pronoun (dative) means “it suits you”: questo vestito ti sta bene (this dress suits you); il colore marrone non mi sta bene (the colour brown doesn’t suit me).

E’ bene/male means, on the other hand, “it’s a good/ bad thing”: è bene non mangiare troppo (it’s a good thing not to eat too much). E’ meglio/peggio mean “it’s better/worse”: secondo me è meglio andare in treno (according to me, it’s better to go by train).

Stare per followed by an infinitive means “to be on the point of/ just about to”: ti stavo per telefonare (I was just about to call you).

It’s also important to remember that stare and essere are not interchangeable in the following constructions:

stare followed by the gerundive expresses the present and past continuous: sto leggendo un libro (I’m reading a book); Giovanni è arrivato mentre stavo cenando (Giovanni arrived while I was having dinner).

pizza

La pizza è cotta nel forno. Photo CC

Essere is always used as a verbo ausiliare (auxiliary verb, or helper) in:

the passive form: la pizza è cotta nel forno (pizza is baked in the oven); l’albero è stato tagliato (the tree has been cut down);

combined past tenses of all the reflexive verbs: mi sono lavata le mani (I washed my hands);

combined past tenses of many intransitive verbs: Giovanni è andato al cinema (Giovanni went to the cinema).

There are some situations when essere and stare are interchangeable, in particular when talking about a location: la casa è in cima alla collina or la casa sta in cima alla collina (the house is on the top of the hill); l’appartamento è al quinto piano or l’appartamento sta al quinto piano (the apartment is on the fifth floor). Both verbs are also synonymous with the meaning of restare, rimanere (to stay, to remain): oggi sono in casa or oggi sto in casa (today I’ll be at home); dalle nove a mezzogiorno sono in ufficio or dalle nove a mezzogiorno sto in ufficio (from nine to midday I’ll be in the office). This interchangeability is however mostly a regional preference, i.e. some regions of Italy will use essere in preference to stare in the preceding examples, and vice versa.

I hope I’ve succeeded in shedding a bit of light on this confusing subject but, as I said, this is just a small summary of the hundreds of idiomatic expressions and constructions involving these two verbs.

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Comments:

  1. Lenin:

    This is an excellent overview. Thank You

  2. renny:

    grazie per spiegare in maniera chiaro.

  3. Jeannet Mulder:

    Grazie Serena, ... and oh poveri noi! In tutti casi sappiamo in quello vocabulario possiamo riguardare.

  4. Tommaso:

    Molto utile. Grazie mille.

  5. Isabella:

    chiaro e utile. Grazie!

  6. Lynne:

    Is there actually a difference between the uses of essere and stare so different from the same verbs in Spanish ( ser - estar ) Where the meanings seem much more clear cut: ser (essere) - state of being, permanence Soy (sono) alta. La casa es (e) grande estar (stare) - location temporary, opinion Miguel esta (sta) en casa. Estoy (Sto) triste. La blusa esta (sta) fea (ugly). How is it possible that two so related languages have such diversity between these two verbs?

    • Geoff:

      @Lynne Salve Lynne, I'm afraid that essere and stare don't function in Italian as clearly as they do in Spanish. I lived in Portugal for a while in the 80's and became reasonably fluent in Portuguese. When I first started learning Italian I expected it to be relatively easy because I already had the foundations from another Latin language ... how wrong I was! Coming from a language like Spanish or Portuguese, essere and stare in Italian seem totally random. I hope you find our old blog on the topic useful: http://blogs.transparent.com/italian/essere-o-stare/ however, as it's now over 5 years old, perhaps it's time for a new one ... rimani sintonizzata (stay tuned). A presto Geoff

  7. Greg E:

    Great overview, thanks. (I got here from the answers to the recent quiz, Aug 2015). It was very interesting to see some places where stare and essere were somewhat interchangeable. Although there is maybe a subtle difference in meaning that an Italian could exploit - Oggi sono/sto in casa- Today I will be/stay in the house, ie. Today I will be in the house if you want to come and meet me / Today I will stay in the house instead of going out. Maybe I'm imagining that distinction.

    • Serena:

      @Greg E Salve Greg, bravissimo! Non lo immagini, hai proprio indovinato! Complimenti! Serena

  8. Jasmine:

    first, I have to say I adore your blog! its great for learning new aspects of the language! also, I saw somewhere another nice explanation: you use essere when you are being smth and stare as stay/doing. like you would say Io sto bene = I'm doing well rather than Io sono bene =I'm being well. or sono annoiato = I'm (being) bored rather than sto annoiato

    • Serena:

      @Jasmine Salve Jasmine! Interesting explanation! Saluti da Serena

  9. Mango:

    Hi Can we simplify this and say that Essere is used for permannt conditions whereas Stare for temporary conditions? With some interchangeability for locations? Thanks, Percy

    • Geoff:

      @Mango Nice try! But unfortunately, unlike Portuguese and Spanish, the usage of essere and stare is not that simple. Have you seen this post? http://blogs.transparent.com/italian/to-be-or-to-be-2/ N.B. in particular the photo caption: Com’è il giardino in questo periodo? which demonstrates a typical example of essere used for a temporary condition, i.e. 'in questo periodo' = 'right now', or 'at the moment'. A presto, Geoff

  10. jolievoila:

    Grazie. Questo è come well contro good, in inglese.

  11. Ohioroo:

    Still, stare is mostly used by italians asking where something is... So this is when theory and real life collide: everybody will ask you "dove sta la libreria" At least in Lazio

    • Serena:

      @Ohioroo Salve! 1. In my introduction to Essere o Stare I wrote: 'please note that this is not by any means an exhaustive or definitive answer' 2. You wrote: 'stare is mostly used by italians asking where something is… So this is when theory and real life collide: everybody will ask you “dove sta la libreria” At least in Lazio' This use changes from region to region, moreover, in the penultimate paragraph of the post I wrote: 'There are some situations when essere and stare are interchangeable, in particular when talking about a location: la casa è in cima alla collina or la casa sta in cima alla collina'. I don't see how theory (i.e. what I wrote) can collide with real life (i.e. your example) Saluti da Serena


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