Essere vs Avere in Italian: When and How to Use Them

Key Takeaways

Readers will learn the differences between the Italian auxiliary verbs essere and avere, including their usage in various contexts and compound tenses.

  • Essere is used for identity, location, conditions, passive voice, and impersonal constructions.
  • Avere indicates possession, age, physical sensations, and is used with transitive verbs in compound tenses.
  • Passato prossimo uses essere for intransitive verbs and avere for transitive verbs.
  • Conjugating essere and avere correctly is essential for proper communication in Italian.
  • Fare and avere can overlap in describing conditions, but avere focuses on personal sensations while fare describes general conditions.

Quick facts

What are the main auxiliary verbs in Italian?

The main auxiliary verbs in Italian are "essere" (to be) and "avere" (to have), used to create all Italian compound verbs.

When is "essere" typically used in Italian?

"Essere" is used for expressing identity, location, conditions, states, and as an auxiliary in compound tenses, among other uses.

How is "avere" typically used in Italian?

"Avere" is often used to indicate possession, express age, describe physical sensations, and as an auxiliary in compound tenses.

What is the main use of "essere" in compound tenses?

"Essere" is used as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses, especially with intransitive verbs that indicate motion or a change of state.

How is the verb "avere" used in compound tenses?

"Avere" is used as an auxiliary verb with transitive verbs in compound tenses, that is, verbs that select a direct object which requires no preposition to be introduced.

How is the choice of auxiliary verb made in the Italian passato prossimo?

In the Italian passato prossimo, "essere" is used with intransitive verbs, while "avere" is used with transitive verbs and some intransitive verbs that do not imply movement or change of state.

How does the use of "essere" and "avere" affect the agreement of the past participle?

When "essere" is the auxiliary in compound verbs, the past participle must agree in gender and number with the subject.

How do the verbs "fare" and "avere" overlap in use?

Both "fare" and "avere" are used in expressions describing conditions or states, such as fare caldo/freddo and avere caldo/freddo.

How do "fare" and "avere" differ in these overlapping instances?

"Avere caldo/freddo" describes personal sensations of heat or cold, while "fare caldo/freddo" describes the general weather condition or the environment.

Why is understanding "essere" and "avere" beneficial to Italian learners?

They are fundamental to Italian syntax and understanding their usage enhances the knowledge of Italian culture, thought, and expression.

Audio images

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Il gatto beve.
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Lui ha comprato un libro.
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Ho deciso di studiare italiano ogni giorno.

Vocab

essere
avere
ausiliare
passato
prossimo
trapassato
futuro
semplice
compiuto
intransitivo
transitivo
concordanza
soggetto
participio
aggettivo
stato
azione
moto
complemento
oggetto

Sentences

1. Sono andato al cinema.

I went to the cinema.

2. Abbiamo mangiato la pizza.

We ate pizza.

3. Sei stato a Roma?

Have you been to Rome?

4. Hanno comprato una macchina nuova.

They bought a new car.

5. Sono felice di vederti.

I am happy to see you.

My Thoughts

Italian Auxiliary Verbs

In linguistics, an auxiliary verb is a verb that adds functional or grammatical meaning to the clause in which it appears. They are also commonly called “helping verbs” because they accompany the main verb to help form various tenses and moods of the main verb.

The most common English auxiliary verbs are “to be”, “to have”, and “to do”, used to create forms like progressive tenses (is running), perfect tenses (has eaten), and negative or interrogative forms (do not go).

Italian auxiliary verbs are essere(to be) and avere(to have), used to create all Italian compound verbs. They are not classified among the standard three conjugations, but they are said to belong to coniugazione propria, literally translatable with “their own’s conjugation”, showcasing their unique behavior.

In both English and Italian – as well as many other languages – modal verbs behave as auxiliaries, indicating a modality such as possibility, necessity, obligation, likelihood… Italian modal verbs are dovere, potere, sapere, and volerebut I will not discuss them in this article.

Here, I will focus on Italian auxiliaries essere and avere, a fundamental part of the Italian syntax, required for proper sentence structure and for expressing detailed meanings and nuances in communication.

🔊
Il gatto beve.

When to use “Essere” vs “Avere”

Essere

In Italian, the verb “essere” (to be) is used in several contexts and functions. Here I will list the primary cases when “essere” is employed:

  • Identity and existence: used to express identity, characteristics, or the existence of someone or something.

Io sono Martina.

I am Martina.

Lei è un’insegnante.

She is a teacher.

  • Location: to indicate the location of someone or something.

Siamo al parco.

We are at the park.

La scuola è qui.

The school is here.

  • Conditions and states: to describe temporary or permanent states or conditions.

Sono stanco.

I am tired.

È felice.

He/She is happy.

  • Auxiliary in compound tenses: used as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses, especially with intransitive verbs that take a indirect object and, therefore, require a preposition to link verb and object. These intransitive verbs usually indicate motion or a change of state.

Sono andato in Italia.

I went to Italy.

È cresciuta molto.

She has grown a lot.

  • Passive voice: used to form the passive voice, indicating that the subject of the sentence is the recipient of an action.

Il libro è stato scritto da Giorgio.

The book was written by Giorgio.

La pizza è stata mangiata.

The pizza has been eaten.

  • Impersonal constructions: used in impersonal constructions to express general ideas or weather conditions.

È importante studiare.

It is important to study.

È nevicato tutto il giorno.

It snowed all day.

Avere

Let me now show you the key situations in which “avere” is used:

  • Possession: commonly used to indicate possession or ownership.

Ho una macchina nuova.

I have a new car.

Abbiamo due gatti.

We have two cats.

  • Age: unlike English, it is used to express age.

Ho trent’anni.

I am thirty years old.

Quanti anni hai?

How old are you?

  • Physical sensations: to describe physical feelings or needs.

Ho fame.

I am hungry.

Ho freddo.

I am cold.

  • Auxiliary in compound tenses: is used as an auxiliary verb with transitive verbs in compound tenses, that is, verbs that select a direct object which requires no preposition to be introduced.

Ho visto Maria ieri.

I saw Maria yesterday.

Abbiamo mangiato la pizza.

We ate the pizza.

  • Descriptive conditions: when describing certain conditions or states that are considered properties rather than inherent states.

Ha gli occhi blu.

He has blue eyes.

Ha un grande carisma.

He has a big charm.

  • Obligations (in some contexts): although less common than the modal verb “dovere“, “avere” can be used to express need or obligation.

Ho da fare.

I have things to do.

“Essere” vs “Avere”: Passato Prossimo

One of the hardest parts of the Italian passato prossimo regards the choice of the auxiliary verbs essere andavere. Passato prossimo is a compound tense that is equivalent to the English present perfect tense, used to describe actions that happened in the recent past.

As I already mentioned before, we use one or the other depending on whether the main verb is transitive or intransitive:

Avere is used with transitive verbs, that is, verbs that are linked to the direct object without the use of any preposition. The few intransitive verbs it is used with, do not imply movement or change of state.

  • Transitive verbs: such as mangiare (to eat), vedere (to see), sapere (to know).

Ho mangiato una pizza.

I ate a pizza.

  • Intransitive verbs: they do not suggest movement or change, such as dormire (to sleep) or lavorare (to work).

Ho dormito otto ore.

I slept eight hours.

Essere is used with intransitive verbs, that is, verbs that need a preposition to be linked to the indirect object. Intransitive verbs generally describe movement or change of state, or they are reflexive verbs. Have a look at the sentences below:

  • Verbs of movement: Such as andare (to go), venire (to come), arrivare (to arrive), partire (to leave).

Sono andato in Italia l’anno scorso.

I went to Italy last year.

  • Change of state: like crescere (to grow), nascere (to be born), morire (to die).

Sei cresciuto molto dall’anno scorso!

You grew up a lot from last year!

  • Reflexive verbs: always use essere.

Mi sono lavato.

I washed myself.

An important aspect of the auxiliary essere in compound verbs is that the past participle must agree in gender and number with the subject as in the sentences:

Lei è tornata ieri.

She returned yesterday.

I ragazzi sono usciti.

The boys went out.

“Essere” vs “Avere”: Conjugations

Conjugating essere and avere correctly is essential for proper communication in Italian, as these verbs are not only used frequently on their own but also serve as auxiliary verbs in various compound tenses.

Here I will show you how each verb is conjugated in the presente, imperfetto, and futuro sempliceso that you can conjugate the main compound tenses:

Essere (to be) Avere (to have)
Present Tense Present Tense
Io sono Io ho
Tu sei Tu hai
Lui/Lei è Lui/Lei ha
Noi siamo Noi abbiamo
Voi siete Voi avete
Loro sono Loro hanno
Imperfetto Imperfetto
Io ero Io avevo
Tu eri Tu avevi
Lui/Lei era Lui/Lei aveva
Noi eravamo Noi avevamo
Voi eravate Voi avevate
Loro erano Loro avevano
Futuro Semplice Futuro Semplice
Io sarò Io avrò
Tu sarai Tu avrai
Lui/Lei sarà Lui/Lei avrà
Noi saremo Noi avremo
Voi sarete Voi avrete
Loro saranno Loro avranno
🔊
Lui ha comprato un libro.

What is the Difference Between “Fare” and “Avere”

Fare

Fare is one of the most frequently used verbs in Italian, which can be translated with the English “to do” or “to make”. It appears in countless everyday phrases, idioms, and expressions, making it indispensable for any Italian learner.

  • Doing an action:

Fare i compiti.

To do homework.

Fare la spesa.

To do the grocery shopping.

Fare la fila.

To stand in the line.

  • Making something:

Fare una torta.

To make a cake.

Fare il pranzo/la cena.

To cook lunch/dinner.

  • Idiomatic expressions:

Fare attenzione.

To pay attention.

Fare una passeggiata.

To take a walk.

Avere

Avere translates to “to have” in English, and is another core verb in the Italian language. As we saw already, it is critical for expressing possession, age, various states of being as well as feelings or needs, such as in:

Ho fame.

I am hungry.

Ho freddo.

I am cold.

The main linguistic situation where the use of these two verbs might overlap is in expressions describing conditions or states, such as fare caldo/freddo and avere caldo/freddo.

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On the one hand, “avere caldo/freddo” describes personal sensations of heat or cold, on the other hand “fare caldo/freddo” is used to describe the general weather condition or the environment.

This distinction is important to understand the nuanced use of these verbs in Italian, where “avere” focuses on personal sensation and “fare” on creating or describing conditions or actions, even in seemingly overlapping contexts.

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Ho deciso di studiare italiano ogni giorno.
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Embrace the Complexity

In my experience of language teacher, I’ve seen learners struggle with essere and avere. My advice? Embrace these complexities.

Understanding them enriches not only your grasp of the Italian language, but also your knowledge of the Italian culture. “Essere” and “avere” are more than grammar; they’re a journey through language and thought, which teaches you more about how Italians think and express themselves.

Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s also a doorway to truly mastering Italian. So, get ready, and improve your Italian language skills.

Test your knowledge in 10 quick questions

FAQs

What is an auxiliary verb?

In linguistics, an auxiliary verb is a verb that adds functional or grammatical meaning to the clause in which it appears.

When can I use essere and avere?

Avere is used with transitive verbs, that is, verbs that are linked to the direct object without the use of any preposition. Essere is used with intransitive verbs, that is, verbs that need a preposition to be linked to the indirect object.

Italian word of the day
aziende
Example
Dalla crisi, molte aziende hanno chiuso.
Because of the financial crisis, many companies shut down.
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