There is something almost Buddhist about beginning to speak a second language. With a limited grasp of verb tenses, you are neither caught in the past nor projected into the future...instead, your thoughts are almost all anchored in the first tense you master: the present.
Sooner or later, that zen unattachment must necessarily be put to the side while you learn how to speak of things to come and things that have come before, taking on the future and the past tenses. In Italian, the most common form of the past tense is the ‘passato prossimo’, formed by pairing a past participle with either the auxiliary verb to have - ‘avere’ - or to be - ‘essere’.
One of the most straightforward tenses, the passato prossimo is relatively simple to form. The only tricky part is knowing which auxiliary verb to use. Choose the wrong one, and the meaning may change significantly!
Here’s are some basic rules to keep in mind when choosing avere or essere in forming the passato prossimo:
Avere + Past Participle: The Rule
The vast majority of verbs use avere as their auxiliary verb to form the passato prossimo. Avere is conjugated to reflect the subject and the ending of the past participle remains the same, no matter who is the subject.
Io ho parlato - I spoke
Tu hai parlato - You spoke
Lei/lui ha parlato - S/he spoke
Noi abbiamo parlato - We spoke
Voi avete parlato - You all spoke
Loro hanno parlato - They spoke
Essere + Past Participle: The Exception
Some verbs in Italian use essere as their auxiliary verb to form the passato prossimo, usually including verbs that describe directional movement (moving toward or away from a place), passage through time (birth, growing up, death, and other life changes), and reflexive verbs, including “to like” - ‘piacere’. Essere is conjugated to reflect the subject, and the ending of the past participle also changes to match the subject.
Io sono andata/o - I went (f/m)
Tu sei andata/o - You went (f/m)
Lei/lui è andata/o - S/he went (f/m)
Noi siamo andate/i - We went (f/m)
Voi siete andate/i - You all went (f/m)
Loro sono andate/i - They went (f/m)
Verbs That Use Both Avere and Essere
One of the only tricky parts of forming the passato prossimo is knowing which auxiliary verb to use, and some verbs can be paired with either avere or essere...though which you choose can change the meaning!
Some common examples:
Aumentare – to increase
Cambiare – to change
Cominciare – to begin
Crescere – to grow
Volare – to fly
Terminare – to terminate
Peggiorare – to worsen
Diminuire – to diminish
Durare – to last
Finire – to finish
Guarire – to heal
Iniziare – to start
Migliorare – to improve
Passare – to pass
Sfumare – to fade
Affogare/annegare – to drown
Invecchiare – to grow old
Scendere – to descend
Salire – to climb
If the verb is intransitive (it is not followed by an object complement), then essere is the auxiliary verb.
If the verb is transitive use (it is followed by an object complement and the subject performs an action that has repercussions on something or someone else), then avere is the auxiliary verb.
Luca è aumentato di peso. - Luca has gained weight.
Luca ha aumentato lo stipendio dei suoi dipendenti. - Luca raised the salary of his employees.
Non ne posso più...sono finita! - I can’t take it anymore...I’m exhausted!
Dopo due ore, ho finito il libro. - Two hours later, I finished the book.
Con il successo di Facebook, il mondo è cambiato. - After Facebook’s success, the world changed.
Facebook ha cambiato il mondo. - Facebook changed the world.
We hope these rules will help the next time you are speaking about the past in Italian!