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Using The Passato Prossimo In Italian – Part 1 Posted by on Jun 12, 2018 in Grammar

Il passato prossimo, known as the present perfect in English, is not a particularly complex construction. The key lies in knowing which auxiliary verb to use: essere or avere.

In today’s article, rather than talking about the often confusing topic of transitive and intransitive verbs and how they affect the choice of which auxiliary to use, I’m going to give you a set of practical tools that will help you to construct the passato prossimo with confidence.

Lo scorso maggio siamo andati a Monzone. Last May we went to Monzone. Photo by Geoff.

Auxiliary Verbs

We build the passato prossimo using the past participle preceded by the auxiliary verbs essere (to be) or avere (to have).  You’ll need to be familiar with their present tense conjugations, so here they are:

essere = to be

io sono = I am
tu sei = you are
lui/le è = he/she/it is
noi siamo = we are
voi siete = you (plural) are
loro sono = they are

Remember: when using the auxiliary essere to construct the passato prossimo, you must modify the past participle according to number and gender (see examples below).

avere = to have

io ho = I have
tu hai = you have
lui/lei ha = he/she/it has
noi abbiamo = we have
voi avete = you (plural) have
loro hanno = they have

Remember: when using the auxiliary avere to construct the passato prossimo, the past participle doesn’t change (see examples below).

Verb List

Now here’s a list of some of the most frequently used Italian verbs, their past participles (in italics) and their related auxiliary verbs (in brackets). As I’ve colour coded the auxiliaries, you can easily see that the majority of the verbs in this list use avere in the passato prossimo. The good news, therefore, is that you only have to memorise a handful of common verbs that use essere.
N.B. this list does not contain reflexive verbs, which will be dealt with separately. You’ll also see that a small number of verbs use either essere or avere.

A
abitareabitato (avere)
accendereacceso (avere)
andareandato (essere)
aprire aperto (avere)
arrivare arrivato (essere)
ascoltare ascoltato (avere)
aspettare aspettato (avere)
avere avuto (avere)

B
bere bevuto (avere)

C
camminare – camminato (avere)
capire – capito (avere)
cenare – cenato (avere)
cercare – cercato (avere)
chiamare – chiamato (avere)
chiedere – chiesto (avere)
chiudere – chiuso (avere)
cominciare – cominciato (avere)
correre – corso (avere/essere)

D
dare – dato (avere)
dimenticare – dimenticato (avere)
dire – detto (avere)
domandare – domandato (avere)
dormire – dormito (avere)

E
entrare – entrato (essere)
essere – stato (essere)

F
fare – fatto (avere)
finire – finito (avere)

G
giocare – giocato (avere)
guardare – guardato (avere)

I
imparare – imparato (avere)

L
lasciare – lasciato (avere)
lavare – lavato (avere)
lavorare – lavorato (avere)
leggere – letto (avere)

M
mangiare – mangiato (avere)
mettere – messo (avere)
morire – morto (essere)

N
nascere – nato (essere)

P
parlare – parlato (avere)
partire – partito (essere)
piacere – piaciuto (essere)
piovere – piovuto (avere/essere)
portare – portato (avere)
pranzare – pranzato (avere)
prendere – preso (avere)

R
ricordare – ricordato (avere)
ridere – riso (avere)
rimanere – rimasto (essere)
rispondere – risposto (avere)

S
salire – salito (essere)
sapere – saputo (avere)
scendere – sceso (essere)
scrivere – scritto (avere)
spegnere – spento (avere)
sperare – sperato (avere)
stare – stato (essere)
studiare – studiato (avere)
suonare – suonato (avere)

T
tornare – tornato (essere)
trovare – trovato (avere)

U
usare – usato (avere)
uscire – uscito (essere)

V
vedere – visto (avere)
venire – venuto (essere)
vivere – vissuto (avere/essere)

N.B. Not included in the above list are the three modal verbs:
dovere – dovuto
potere – potuto
volere – voluto
These are a special case, and have been dealt with here: Understanding Italian Modal Verbs

Reflexive Verbs

Reflexive verbs always use the auxiliary essere in the passato prossimo. Here are a few frequently used reflexives with their past participles:

abituarsi – abituato
addormentarsi – addormentato
alzarsi – alzato

annoiarsi – annoiato
cambiarsi – cambiato
divertirsi – divertito
farsi (qualcosa) – fatto
lamentarsi – lamentato
lavarsi – lavato
occuparsi (di qualcosa) – occupato
preoccuparsi – preoccupato
prepararsi –  preparato

svegliarsi – svegliato
vestirsi – vestito

Remember: when using the auxiliary essere you must modify the past participle according to number and gender (see examples below).

Now let’s construct some sentences in the passato prossimo.

Our first sentence is: ‘The dog has eaten all the biscuits!’
From the list above we find the verb mangiare (to eat). Now we find the past participle, mangiato, and in brackets, the relevant auxiliary verb, which for mangiare is avere.
Hence our Italian sentence is: ‘Il cane ha mangiato tutti i biscotti!’

Let’s try another one: ‘Geoff was born in England’
We find the verb nascere (to be born) and its past participle nato. The list tells us that the auxiliary verb for nascere is essere. Remember that when we use the auxiliary essere, we have to modify the past participle according to number and gender. The third person singular masculine form of the past participle for nascere is nato.
Hence our Italian sentence is: ‘Geoff è nato in Inghilterra’.
If we wanted to say ‘Serena was born in Libya’ we would need to use the third person singular feminine form of the past participle nata, hence: ‘Serena è nata in Libia’.

Here are another couple of examples:

‘We left the car at the station’. We find the verb lasciare (to leave), and its past participle lasciato, and see that the auxiliary is avere.
This gives us: Abbiamo lasciato la macchina alla stazione’.

‘Paolo and Laura entered the room’. Here we need entrare (to enter) and its past participle entrato. This time the auxiliary is essere, so we need to use the third person plural form of the past participle entrati.
This gives us ‘Paolo e Laura sono entrati nella stanza’.

Now for an example using a reflexive verb. We’re going to construct the sentence ‘I woke up early this morning’, so we need svegliarsi (to wake up), and its third person singular masculine past participle svegliato. This gives us: mi sono svegliato presto stamattina. If we wanted to say ‘Serena woke up early’ we’d use the third person singular feminine past participle svegliata, hence: Serena si è svegliata presto.

You can apply the same rule to any reflexive verb. e.g.: ‘Paolo really enjoyed himself’ – verb = divertirsi – third person singular masculine past participle = divertito, hence Paolo si è divertito molto. And so on …….

In my next post we’ll have a go at an exercise based on the passato prossimo so that we can identify any difficulties that you’re experiencing. A presto!

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Comments:

  1. Babsiom:

    Excellent thanks. I’m going to print it off keep it, so easy to understand.

    • Geoff:

      @Babsiom You’re welcome. I hope you find it useful. Stay tuned for the quiz. A presto, Geoff 🙂

  2. Robert E. Blesse:

    Many thanks, this is a great review.

  3. RayL:

    Grazie mille. Your posts often clarify some element of the language that can be a bit challenging. This one is no exception.

  4. Nini Rukmini:

    Good lesson, thanks a lot Geoff.

  5. Virginia Corrigan:

    A good review; there are always a few irregular participles I forget (like risposto). Thanks.

  6. Rosalind:

    A couple of years back, attending Italian classes in Lucca, I spent some pleasant afternoon hours walking round “le mura” reciting “a voce alta” Italian verbs, occasionally consulting a very useful tiny book of Italian grammar. It seems to have paid off as far as the past participles are concerned. And that walk certainly helps, it is so inspiring!

  7. Anthony Perry:

    Is the rule that essere is always used with intransitive and avere with transitive verbs?

    • Geoff:

      @Anthony Perry Not always Anthony.
      All transitive verbs use avere, but intransitives can use essere o avere.
      That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the article in the way that I did.
      Unfortunately, this is one of those points of grammar that has to be memorised. When you’re hearing and speaking Italian every day you naturally learn the correct auxiliary.

      This page from Treccani may interest you if you want to find out a bit more about auxiliaries: http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/avere-o-essere_(La-grammatica-italiana)/

      Saluti da Geoff 🙂

  8. Joseph T. Madawela:

    this ia great!

  9. Chippy:

    Brilliant! …. di nuovo! Grazie

  10. Peacemaker:

    Allora sto imparando e sono molto contento perche l’ho visto tante cose che mi molto interesanto e grazie

  11. David Lyon:

    Man, this is perfect timing. I’m in Venice attending language school and I’ve had trouble with this concept and knowing what to memorize. This seems to be a perfect subset of verbs with which to start. Thanks!!!

  12. Laurell Boyers:

    Excellent and straightforward content. Thank you.

  13. Ron:

    My question is when to use avere or essere for the verbs which you mention could use either.

    Also I have heard people use essere with fare: “è finito”. When does one use that?

    Thanks
    Ron

    • Serena:

      @Ron Salve Ron!
      Per i verbi ‘vivere’ e ‘piovere’ (come anche nevicare e grandinare), i due ausiliari ‘essere’ e ‘avere’ sono intercambiabili. ‘Vivere’ ha anche delle espressioni idiomatiche che cambiano di significato, e.g. ‘ha vissuto molto’ significa che ha avuto una vita piena di esperienze ed avventure.
      Per ‘correre’ c’è una differenza:
      ESSERE quando ci si riferisce ad un luogo, una direzione: sono corsa subito all’ospedale.
      AVERE quando ci riferisce ad una gara, oppure è usato da solo: Antonio ha corso la maratona; sono stanca perché ho corso molto.

      Per quanto riguarda il verbo ‘finire’, si usa ‘avere’ quando ci si riferisce ad un’azione: ho finito il libro (= ho finito di leggere il libro).
      Mentre ‘è finito’ o ‘sono finiti’ è più da considerare un aggettivo, perché indica che qualcosa non c’è più: è finito il pane; sono finiti i biscotti (in inglese si può tradurre con there’s no more, there are no more). Con lo stesso significato si dice ‘il film è finito’ (non c’è altro da vedere).
      Spero di essere stata chiara.
      Saluti da Serena

  14. Csongi:

    Excellent

  15. Viola:

    You use the auxiliary “essere” with verbs called “intransitivi”, that is those verbs which can’t have a direct object

    • Geoff:

      @Viola Ciao Viola, I’m afraid that’s not correct. Let me quote you from la Accademia della Crusca’s document La scelta degli ausiliari:

      I verbi intransitivi non consentono di fissare una norma per la scelta di un ausiliare e in
      questi casi soccorre la consultazione di un vocabolario.

      That’s why I wrote the article as I did. If there was a fixed rule, then learning which auxiliary to use would be simpler. As it is, you need to learn by practice, practice, practice 🙂

      Saluti da Geoff.

  16. Liz:

    Great lesson.

  17. Ali:

    Thanks geoff and I am sure today if got an exam I will be come a winner 100%

    Grazie geoff e sono sicuro che oggi se avrò un esame verrò un vincitore al 100%

  18. Boubacar Siddike Sow:

    È molto utile questo. Si capisce facilmente. Grazie di cuore ❤!

  19. Joan Engelhaupt:

    A recent Word of the Day gave the following sentence:

    “Hanno vissuto insieme per quasi tre anni in un apparatmento a Padova”, which I translated as “They have lived together for 3 years…etc.” but Transparent Language translated as,”they lived together for 3 years”. How do we distinguish between an action completed in the past from a past action continuing into the present if avere + past participle can be used for both in Italian?

    • Geoff:

      @Joan Engelhaupt Ciao Joan,

      I think that this is one of the most confusing aspects of the past tense in Italian because it’s so different from the English construction.

      Firstly, the Transparent translation of “Hanno vissuto insieme per quasi tre anni in un apparatmento a Padova” is correct: “they lived together for almost 3 years ….”. Hanno vissuto insieme per …. is an action which is completed, a past action.

      I understand that from the point of view of an English speaker, your interpretation, “They have lived together for 3 years ….”, which is pretty much a literal translation, seems correct. However, as it’s not a completed action because they still live together, you need to use the present tense (strange but true!).

      Here’s how you translate your sentence. Use the present tense + da (since) in the following way: Vivono insieme da quasi tre anni ….. Of course, this makes for a horrible literal translation: “They live together since almost three years …. (cringe!)”. But it actually means “They have lived together for 3 years ….(and are still living together)”.

      Here’s another example: “guido da 40 anni” = I’ve been driving for 40 years (and I’m still driving).

      So, ask yourself the question ‘is it an action that is completed’, if yes, use the past tense. If no, and the action is still continuing, then use the present + da.

      Hope that’s clear Joan. Let me know, va bene? 🙂

  20. Erica:

    Thanks Geoff another wonderfully helpful bloglet!

    • Geoff:

      @Erica Non c’è di che Erica!
      You should also thank your hubby, because it was whilst I was trying to explain the workings of the passato prossimo to him that I hit on the idea of this article.

      A presto, Geoff 🙂

  21. Rosalind:

    @Geoff : Your explanation to Joan is excellent. I’d never thought about it because French does the same as Italian. But this makes me realise why I search for the French turn of phrase (and not English) when I’m trying to say something in Italian.
    Each language is a building block.

    • Geoff:

      @Rosalind I wish I had studied French when I was younger Rosalind, but I was lazy, and never got beyond the basics. Serena and I watch a few French TV series (Engrenages, for example, a great series, if you don’t know it), and I’m often surprised how much I can understand. But if I had studied it when I was younger I’m sure it would have helped me when I began to learn Italian.
      As it is, the only other language that I learned was Portuguese, because I lived in Portugal back in the 80’s. That helped a bit at the beginning, then it started to get in the way so I virtually unlearned it and replaced it with Italian.
      It a bit sad that nowadays I can’t even construct an intelligible sentence in Portuguese!

      P.S. don’t worry if your comments don’t appear straight away. Transparent have changed their comment approval policy and I’m working to resolve that issue. Saluti 🙂

  22. Joan Engelhaupt:

    Thank you so much, Geoff, for your chiarissima explanation for how to express an action in the past that continues into the present (so differently than in English!) Believe it or not, I’ve been studying Italian for 12 years, and this is the first time I think I “got” the distinction between the passato prossimo and the passato remoto!

    • Geoff:

      @Joan Engelhaupt I’m really glad to hear that it helped Joan.
      There are so many confusing explanations out there for things that are often relatively straightforward.
      Perhaps the fact that I was (and still am to some extent) a grammar ignoramus helps me to strip away the technical language and simplify things … at least that’s my hope.

      Alla prossima, Geoff


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