Italian Lesson - past tense in Italian

06/08/2009 - 11:12

Following to a request from Lisiamc..."Past tense. When to pair the verb with avere, when with essere? The transitive/intransitive rule makes my brain hurt.  Is there any easier way?"...I decided to dedicate a short lesson to the choice of the auxiliary at the past tense.In English you make the past of a verb with the auxiliary "to have" - unless you use the passive form of the verb. Also in Italian you can use the the verb "essere" at the passive form, but there are other situations where you must choose between the "avere" and "essere".Ho acquistato una borsa - I've bought a bag  (active form)La borsa è acquistata (da me) - The bag was bought (by me). (passive form)1. The general rule is that if a verb is TRANSITIVE, it needs the "AVERE AUXILIARY". While if a verb is INTRANSITIVE it takes the "ESSERE AUXILIARY" as in the example:Transitive Verb: es. Ho mangiato una mela. (the main verb "mangiare" is followed by a direct object so it is transitive; if a verb answers to the question "what", then it is transitive. es. to eat, what? an apple - mangiare, cosa? una mela -> avere mangiato is right).Intransitive Verb: es. Sono andato a Venezia.(the main verb "andare" is followed by a preposition - indirect object - so it is NOT transitive; to go, where? andare, dove? -> essere andato is right).2. The general rule also say that the verb "ESSERE" is the auxiliary of the verbs RIFLESSIVI and IMPERSONALI2a. a verb is reflexive if the subject and the object are the same. es. Mi sono pettinata - while in English would be "I've brushed my hair" (am I right?)2b. a verb is impersonal when it hasn't a specific subject. It must be conjugated at the third singular E' proibito fumare. (while in English you can use the second person: You mustn't smoke.)ps: the impersonal expressions concerning weather can be conjugated both with the "avere" and "essere" auxiliaries So:Ieri è piovuto / Ieri ha piovutoare both right.N. B. Exceptions to the rule: There are some intransitive verbs which take the auxiliary "avere". Note that Italians use the auxiliary "avere" when the verb is not followed neither by a direct object nor by an indirect object: es. (Il cane ha abbaiato"). Check which intransitive verbs take the auxiliary "avere" And now, hurry up! You got a task!Fill the gaps with the right auxiliar: essere o avere.Find the exercise hereº/Essereoavere.htmGood luck, let me know!


I was always told that generally an easy way to remember is:-a. If the verb involves coming or going action then use essere.b. If the verb requires an object then use avere. e.g. I ate (something), I bought (something) etc.c. If the verb doesn't require an object then use essere e.g. I went, I arrived, I left etc.

Yes, Postmac, I was going to say the same thing. Many of us haven't ever even really been taught English grammar so don't always know what transative/intransative verbs are - I didn't really go into some of the finer details until A-level or even degree level Italian grammar. As a general rule, I was taught that verbs of movement take 'essere'. There are relatively few verbs that take essere, so I found it easier to remember those. They're pretty much the same verbs that take etre in French (arrivare, partire, essere, andare, cadere, uscire, venire, scendere, entrare, diventare, crescere, morire, nascere...). Obviously this is not a comprehensive list but it's a start! And obviously, it's not as simple as that, as Valentina has indicated, as there are reflexive verbs, and some verbs can be transitive and intransitive... But that's something that comes with time and practice and by listening to natives (thanks Valentina) doing it properly!

In reply to by Fox

I agree that most of us haven't been taught English grammar.  I am in my fifties, went to grammar school but only picked up the basics of English grammar through learning Latin. My Italian teacher said that before she could teach Italian she had to first teach us all the grammar of our own language!

In reply to by Fox

another suggestion to choose the right auxiliary..the use of auxiliary depends on the kind of subject. (1) If the subject is animate (like people, animals or animated things) then we use the "avere" auxiliary (but there are exceptions too)(2) If the subject is inanimate it is more likely to be used intransitively, then with the "essere" (1) Maria gave a present to her sister /  Maria ha dato un regalo a sua (2) The paper flied away / La carta è volata via.Note that in the Italian translation I use present perfect (passato prossimo) instead of the past simple (passato remoto) es. La carta volò via. Passato remoto is used more in literature than in the spoken language.

Thanks for this, Valentina!  Your explanation makes it much clearer.  And thank you for the exercises - it really helps me when I can practice what I'm learning. (And I feel slightly better to know that others have struggled with this too!) L

Hi Valentina, I hope you don't mind my correcting you but I seem to remember that you were happy to make this a two-way thing, so we can learn the intricacies of Italian while you finetune your English... I expect it was just a slip of the finger but the past tense of 'to fly' is 'flew', not 'flied'! (although of course, we all knew exactly what you meant so there would be no red pen).   

On the contrary, the first thing Italians are taught is grammar. Maybe because School tries to help speaking-dialect kids learning the correct way to speak Italian.Anyway I know a lot of Italian people who still cannot recognize transitive verbs and a lot of other things..I still remember of the mistakes I made at elementary schools. A red pen was used to correct big mistakes while the blue one was used to sign little mistakes.Though this could sound a little odd to UK citizens. Maybe blue/red pen is an old (bad) you agree with it? ps: scusate, didn't find the English version, but the content may sound familiar to you.

 That says it all, really! British teachers aren't allowed to correct things any more anyway - as long as the student has managed to get his/her point across, it doesn't matter how littered with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes it is... don't start me on this!I heard my 4-year-old daughter's nursery teacher telling her she's not allowed to say 'win' today. I rest my case.  

Thanks to be so kind! you must be laughing in your mind, since "flied" has reference to baseball, as it is well explained the alternative to the above phrase would be:The ball flied / La palla è volata via :)You must admit that in a way it isn't a big error so the red pen may be too "aggressive"...In Italian we say "Mi sono salvata in calcio d'angolo" - when you try and succeed to show that you were (less or more) right.. ...In reality, it was a lapsus! I perfectly know the right paradigma is "to fly - flew - flown", but I often write flied..:p maybe because it's similar to "flies" and my mind associates the two words.