Italian auxiliary verbs: to be and to have

Italian grammar auxiliary verbs

The Italian verbs essere (to be) and avere (to have) are called auxiliary verbs (from the latin word auxilium, which means “help”). They help in making up some particular tenses called compound tenses (composed of the auxiliary verb + the past participle). In these tenses, the past participle conveys the lexical meaning of the verb, while the auxilary gives grammatical informations. Essere and avere are irregular verbs. Click below to show the complete conjugation of the two verbs for your reference; don’t worry, you will only need their simple present form (which you probably already know, and which we have highlighted in red) to understand the auxiliary verbs.

click to read the complete conjugation of the auxiliary verbs; otherwise, read on below

Using the verbs to be and to have in Italian

Before seeing how essere and avere can be used as auxiliary verbs (where, remember, they only perform a grammatical function), let’s have a look at their meanings as autonomous verbs.

Essere can be used:

  • To tell your name: “Io sono Paolo”
  • To indicate what a person’s job is: “Lui è insegnante”
  • To tell where someone comes from: “Noi siamo argentini”
  • Before an adjective, to describe someone or something: “Voi siete alti”
  • To express emotions: “Loro sono molto felici insieme”
  • To tell where someone is: “Sono a Kinshasa”

Avere can be used:

  • To tell someone’s age: “Ho 27 anni”
  • When describing someone, before a noun: “Ho i capelli biondi”
  • To express physical sensations: “Ho fame da due ore ed ora ho anche sete!”
  • To express that someone owns something: “Una mia amica ha una bellissima villa sulla spiaggia in Liguria”

Now let’s see how the verbs essere and avere can be used as auxiliary verbs, to help form more complex tenses.

Essere or avere as auxiliary verbs

One of the problems that students of the Italian language experience more often is the choice of the right auxiliary verbs in the formation of compound tenses. Is it “sono andato” o “ho andato”? Let’s try to understand together when to use essere and when to use avere…and why!

Cases in which to use the verb avere:

1) We always use avere before a transitive verb, that is to say before a verb which can be followed by a direct object. To help you understant whether a verb is transitive or not, you can check if the verb can be used to answer the question “whom/what?”. If it does, it is a transitive verb, and you can be sure that you must use the auxiliary verb avere in compound tenses.

A few examples:

Ho mangiato un piatto di pasta al pomodoro

mangiare (to eat) is a transitive verb because it can be followed by a direct complement: I have eaten…what? Some pasta

Hai chiuso la porta di casa a chiave?

chiudere (to close, to shut) is a transitive verb because it can be followed by a direct complement: Did you shut…what? The door

I bambini hanno salutato le maestre

salutare (to greet, to say hello) is a transitive verb because it can be followed by a direct complement: they have greeted…whom? The teachers

2) Always use avere as the auxiliary verb for itself

Ho avuto molto da fare questa settimana (I have had a lot to do this week)

3) Use avere before some intransitive verbs, that is verbs which can NOT be followed by a direct object, but which can be followed only by an indirect object (an object preceded by a preposition)

The main intransitive verbs which use avere as their auxiliary verb are: accennare a, approfittare di, badare a, bussare a, camminare, cenare, chiacchierare, contribuire a, funzionare, litigare con, mentire, nuotare, parlare, pattinare, pedalare, reagire a, ridere di, rinunciare a, russare, scherzare, sciare, telefonare, tossire, viaggiare…
A few examples:

Ho telefonato a Marco

Avete camminato tanto per raggiungerci?

When to use the verb essere:

Always use essere:

  • with reflexive verbs

Mi sono alzato alle 6 stamattina

  • with impersonal verbs

Questa cosa è successa tanti anni fa

  • as the auxiliary for itself

Sono stato sempre attento a lezione

  • Almost alwasy we use essere for:

Intransitive verbs (look for * above for the exceptions), which ofen are verbs expressing movement (andare, tornare…) or verbs about changing or maintaing a certain status (nascere, rimanere).

A few examples

Ieri non sono andato a scuola. Non mi andava!
Perché sei rimasto a casa da solo ieri sera?
Quando sei arrivato in Italia?

There are some cases in which essere and avere can both be used:

  • with verbs expressing the state of the weather (diluviare, piovere, nevicare, grandinare ecc.) though some more traditional grammatical experts advise to use only the auxiliary essere
    • Ieri è piovuto
    • Ieri ha piovuto

 

  • When using the verbs dovere, potere, volere (modal verbs) it is necessary to carefully consider the verb in the infinitive form, following the modal verb:
    • 1) If the infinitive verb is a transitive verb, or if it is essere or avere, use the auxiliary avere:
      • Ho dovuto lavare tutta la macchina dopo la gita, era sporchissima!
      • Ho voluto essere il più chiara possibile
      • Ho potuto avere tutto ciò che desideravo da questa vacanza!
    • 2) If the infinitive verb is an intransitive verb, use the auxiliary essere:
      • Non è potuta arrivare in tempo perché è dovuta tornare velocemente a lavoro per un’emergenza
  • In Italian there are many verbs which can be used both as transitive and as intransitive verbs. Use the auxiliary avere in the first case and the auxiliary essere in the second case:
    • Sono corso a casa subito dopo il lavoro / Ho corso il pericolo di rimanere fuori casa!
    • Ho diminuito le dosi di olio giornaliere / I prezzi delle case sono diminuiti moltissimo

We hope we have made your mind clearer about this topic…our advice is to put everything in pratice by visiting the other sections of our website dedicated to the auxiliary verbs:

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