When you start learning the past tense, that is il passato prossimo, you run into the unique situation (at least for native English speakers) of having to not only figure out what the equivalent is of the verb you want to use, but also a second verb that you combine it with.
Let me paint a clearer picture for you.
I want to say two sentences:
— Yesterday I talked to Marco.
— Then, we went to the club.
In Italian, here’s what would happen in my head:
Okay, so the word for yesterday is “ieri.” Great. Now, if I want to say “I talked,” I know that the past participle of “parlare” is “parlato.” Then I have to use the verb “avere” as the auxiliary verb, and since it’s me doing the action, it’s “ho,” so “ho parlato.” Then of course, the preposition is “con.”
Ieri ho parlato con Marco.
Avere = Auxiliary verb
Parlato = Past participle of “parlare”
However, in the next sentence, things change slightly.
So, the word I want to use for “then” is “poi.” Then I know that the past participle for “andare” is “andato” and that the auxiliary verb here to use is “essere,” Then the preposition is “in” and “club” is “discoteca”. However, since there are two of us, “essere” is conjugated as “siamo” and the ending of “andato” is replaced with an -i, making it “andati.”
Poi siamo andati in discoteca.
Essere = Auxiliary verb
Andato = Past participle
I break this down to the tiniest detail so you can all of the moving parts in front of your eyes that go into using auxiliary verbs, and knowing how to choose between “avere” and “essere” is incredibly important because you’re going to be using auxiliary verbs in more tenses than just the past.
So you have two choices here – avere and essere.
Which one do you choose?
How to Choose Between Avere and Essere
While there are a handful of exceptions, you choose “essere” with verbs that describe movement, a state of being, or a condition, like “andare – to go,” “uscire – to go out,” or “succedere – to happen.” Reflexive verbs, like “alzarsi – to get up” are always conjugated with “essere.”
“Avere” is typically used with all other verbs, like “parlare – to speak,” “mangiare – to eat,” or “imparare – to learn.”
What are some of the exceptions?
— Camminare – to walk: Even though this verb deals with motion, it takes “avere” as its auxiliary verb.
— Diventare – to become: This is one that you might not be sure about, but it does take the verb “essere” as an auxiliary.
— Rimanere – to stay: Even though nothing is technically changing when you’re staying in one place, this verb takes “essere” as an auxiliary verb as well.
Transitive or intransitive?
Another way that you could decide which verb to use is to recognize whether the meaning of the verb is transitive or intransitive. What does that mean?
Transitive verbs are ones that require a direct object, like “I finished my homework.” What did I finish? The homework — that’s the direct object. These types of verbs take “avere.” Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, don’t require an object and often represent a change of state or condition, like “The movie is over.” It was playing, but now it’s over. It’s changed its state. These types of verbs take “essere.”
Here’s a longer list of common verbs that take “avere”:
— Fare – to do/to make
— Portare – to bring
— Vedere – to see
— Sentire – to smell, hear, taste
— Aspettare – to wait
— Bere – to drink
— Capire – to understand
— Chiedere – to ask
— Credere – to believe, to think
— Cominciare – to begin
— Comprare – to buy
— Dare – to give
— Dire – to say
— Finire – to finish
— Imparare – to learn
— Pensare – to think
— Perdere – to lose, to miss
— Potere – to be able to, can
— Scrivere – to write
— Spiegare – to explain
— Vivere – to live
— Volere – to want
Here’s a longer list of common verbs that take “essere”:
— Abituarsi – to get used to
— Arrivare – to arrive
— Entrare – to enter
— Mettersi – to get dressed
— Morire – to die
— Nascere – to be born
— Partire – to leave
— Perdersi – to get lost
— Rimanere – to stay
— Riuscire – to be able to, to succeed (at)
— Salire – to go up
— Scendere – to descend, get off
— Stare – to be
— Tornare – to return
— Venire – to come
And then some verbs swing both ways (if you know what I mean).
There are a whole lot of verbs that can swing both ways, so I’ll just highlight five popular ones that you may hear or use in daily conversation.
— Cambiare – to change: When you’re talking about changing an object, like getting a new job (ho cambiato lavoro), you use “avere” as the auxiliary. But when you’re talking about someone changing (in quel periodo sono cambiato molto), you use “essere” as the auxiliary.
— Correre – to run, to be in a hurry: When you’re talking about running, you would use “avere” as the auxiliary, but when you’re talking about being in a hurry, you would use “essere”.
— Crescere – to grow, to raise: When you’re talking about how someone grew up, you use “essere” as the auxiliary (sono cresciuto/a in Michigan), but when you’re talking about someone raising children, you use “avere” (mia madre mi ha cresciuto/a da sola).
— Finire – to finish: When you’re talking about a person finishing something, like homework, you use “avere” (ho finito i compiti), but when you’re talking about something being finished, like a movie, you use “essere” (il film è finito).
— Piovere – to rain: Typically you can use both “essere” and “avere” as the auxiliary verb here, but when you’re using “piovere” to talk about something more metaphorical, like people pouring in from a different country (500.000 di persone sono piovuti sull’Italia), then you would use “essere.
— Scendere – to go down: When you’re talking about getting off of something, like a bus, you use “essere” (sono sceso/a dall’autobus). When you’re talking about going down something, like a set of stairs, you use “avere” (ho sceso le scale).