Learning the many verb tenses in the Italian language can prove most difficult. This is particularly true when working with tenses requiring the auxiliary verbs avere or essere.

In order to comprehend the proper use of auxiliary verbs (which one to use, if the gender needs to change, if we have to consider singular or plural, etc.), we need to first understand the differences between Transitive, Intransitive, and Reflexive verbs.

Transitive Verbs are simply verbs that take a direct object.

  • Io mangio la mela. (I eat the apple.)

They describe actions that move from the subject directly to the object, without making use of a preposition (a, di, da, in, per, etc.).

  • Il ragazzo lancia la palla. (The boy throws the ball.)

In the above sentence, ragazzo is the subject of the verb, lancia is the transitive verb, and palla is the direct object.

Intransitive Verbs are verbs that do not take a direct object.

  • Giovanni sta dormendo. (Johnny is sleeping.)

In cases where an object is present, it does not move directly from the subject to the object, but instead makes use of a preposition (a, di, da, in, per, etc.).

  • Il treno arriva in stazione. (The train arrives at the station.)

Here, treno is the subject, arriva is the intransitive verb, stazione is the indirect object introduced by the preposition in.

Reflexive Verbs have an infinitive form which has the reflexive pronoun si attached to it. An Italian dictionary contains both lavare (to wash) and lavarsi (to wash oneself).

  • Julia lava la macchina. (Julie washes the car.)
  • Julia si lava. (Julie washes herself.)

Click here for a more detailed explanation on reflexive verbs and their respective pronouns: Clitics 1.


Knowing the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs will help you to understand which auxiliary verb to use in the past tense: AVERE or ESSERE.

Rule 1: All Transitive Verbs in the past tense are built with the auxiliary avere.

  • Lui ha mangiato la mela ieri. (He ate the apple yesterday.)

The above example contains the direct object mela (apple) and it happened in the past. Therefore, we use the auxiliary verb avere.

  • Giuseppe guida la sua macchina a lavoro. (Joseph drives his car to work.)

In this sentence, guida is a transitive verb because it is followed by the direct object, la macchina.

If this same thought were presented in the past tense, we would therefore utilize the auxiliary verb avere as follows:

  • Giuseppe ha guidato la sua macchina a lavoro. (Giovanni drove his car to work.)
  • Giuseppe avrebbe guidato la sua macchina a lavoro. (Giovanni had driven his car to work.)

Rule 2: All Reflexive Verbs are built with the auxiliary essere:

  • Ti sei lavato le mani? (Have you washed your hands?)
  • Oggi gli studenti si sono addormentati in classe. (Today the students fell asleep in class.)

Rule 3: Intransitive Verbs can use avere or essere as an auxiliary.

  • Il treno è arrivato in stazione. (The train arrived at the station.)
  • Siamo partiti per Milano in treno. (We left for Milan by train.)

In these examples, arrivato and partiti are both the past participle and the intransitive verb (as it connects to the direct object via a preposition). Therefore, we use the auxiliary verb essere.

Helpful Hints with “Essere”

While most intransitive verbs use avere as an auxiliary, it may be simpler to memorize the relatively short list of verbs which take the somewhat confusing “essere“. Here are some of the more common ones:

 andare to go partire to depart
 arrivare to arrive piacere to like
to fall rimanere to remain, stay
 crescere to grow salire to climb
 diventare to become scendere to descend
 entrare to enter stare to feel, stay
to be tornare to return
 morire to die uscire to exit
 nascere to be born venire to come

TIP: Notice they all involve a state of being –OR– the movement of the subject from one point to another? Also, don’t forget that they are almost always followed by a preposition.

Agreement of the Past Participle

When the auxiliary verb is essere, the past participle agrees in gender and number with the subject of the verb .

  • Julia è arrivata da Venezia. (Julie has arrived from Venice.)
  • Kathy e sua sorella sono arrivate da Firenze. (Kathy and her sister have arrived from Florence.)

When the auxiliary verb is avere, the past participle agrees in gender and number with the direct object pronoun, when it PRECEDES the verb in the sentence.

  • Quando hai visto Vincenzo? (When did you see Vincent?)
  • L‘ho visto ieri. (I saw him yesterday.)
  • Quando hai visto Isobella? (When did you see Isobel?)
  • L‘ho vista lunedì. (I saw her on Monday.)
  • Quando hai visto Vincenzo e suo fratello? (When did you see Vincent and his brother?)
  • Li ho visti la settimana scorsa. (I saw them last week.)

TIP: Intransitive verbs have a great many exceptions to the general rule. Strange as it may seem, some of these verbs have to do with movement. Camminare (to walk), correre (to run) and nuotare (to swim) are just a few examples of intransitive action verbs that take avere when referring to the activity itself.

  • Ho camminato tutto il giorno. (I walked all day.)
  • Loro hannocorso tre chilometri. (They ran three kilometers.)

However, when correre is used to mean “to hurry” or “to rush,” then it takes essere!

  • Io sono corsa casa. (I rushed home.)