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When to use essere or avere with passato prossimo

Here is a quick answer:

  • The majority of verbs describing movement, state and change of state take essere.
  • All reflexive verbs, such as svegliarsi, alzarsi, vestirsi, etc take essere.
  • All the rest takes avere. In fact, the majority of Italian verbs take avere.
  • Avere takes avere and essere takes essere

However, as you can see, saying the majority as in the example above, does not mean all verbs. Therefore, we want to offer a different solution in the form of a mnemonic tool.

If you also wish to delve deeper into grammar, we’ll discuss transitive and intransitive verbs in the second part of this lesson.

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Therefore, in this lesson we’ll cover:

  1. What is passato prossimo
  2. Why it is difficult to identify which auxiliary to use
  3. Our solution: a mnemonic that works
  4. The house of the passato prossimo with essere
  5. What are transitive and intransitive verbs

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1. What is passato prossimo

The passato prossimo is often the first past tense students learn, and it’s among the most useful. It describes actions and events completed in the past. The passato prossimo is a compound tense; in other words, it’s formed with two words.

Here are two examples:

a. Io ho mangiato una mela (I ate an apple)

In the first case, ‘ho mangiato’ is composed of ‘avere’ (ho) + the past participle of ‘mangiare’ (mangiato).

b. Io sono andato al supermercato (I went to the supermarket)                                    

In the second case, ‘sono andato’ is composed of ‘essere’ (sono) + the past participle of ‘andare’ (andato).

As seen in these examples, one uses ‘avere’ and the other uses ‘essere’ (these two verbs are called auxiliaries). So, how do you decide which one to use?

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2. Why it is difficult to identify which auxiliary to use

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single rule that applies universally. Additionally, ‘essere’ and ‘avere’ are not interchangeable when forming the passato prossimo, so we must choose one or the other. But how do we decide which to use?

We mentioned a few categories of verbs that usually take essere, for example verbs of movement. However, this isn’t an absolute rule, as some verbs like camminare, viaggiare and ballare do not. Therefore, my next tip might seem old-fashioned but is highly effective, especially for students who are gradually learning new vocabulary.

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3. Our solution: a mnemonic that works

I recommend focusing on learning the most common verbs with essere by heart. Given that most verbs take avere, those requiring essere are clearly in the minority, making it quite doable.

To aid this, I use a mnemonic tool called “the house of passato prossimo with essere” (la casa del passato prossimo con essere), which has proven successful with my students over many years.

What’s beneficial about this mnemonic is its categorization of verbs into three groups: verbs of movement, state, and change. Our mnemonic includes the most common ones, however, as mentioned not every verb in these categories uses essere, which is why it’s essential to focus on memorizing those included in “the house”.

Furthermore, the mnemonic does not cover yet all verbs with essere, but the most common ones to start with. As you encounter verbs requiring essere that aren’t in your mnemonic, add them and review to memorise them.

On the other hand, all reflexive verbs always take essere with the passato prossimo.

For example:

  • Io mi sono svegliato
  • Tu ti sei vestito
  • Lei si è pettinata

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If you’d rather watch a video, here it is:

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4. The house of the passato prossimo with essere

Have a look at the picture below. To learn these verbs start at the bottom of the picture – the basement of the house – and make your way up.

For convenience, I have also included below a table with each verb, its translation in English and the past participle (the verb required to form the passato prossimo ) as well as an example.

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5. Transitive and intransitive verbs

Another approach to determining whether a verb requires essere or avere is by considering whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. The majority of transitive verbs takes avere and the intransitive essere. However, even this method does not help 100% of the times as some intransitive verbs also take avere. Despite this, these concepts are useful for other reasons, so let’s have a look.

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Transitive verbs

A transitive verb is a verb that can take one or more direct objects.

A direct object is a noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb and answers the questions “whom?” or “what?”

For example: Alessia mangia la mela.

Alessia is the subject, mangia is the transitive verb (mangiare) and la mela is the object.

A quick way to identify the object is to ask the questions: Chi? Or Che cosa?

Alessia mangia (che cosa?) la mela

Another quick tip is: there isn’t a preposition between the verb and the direct object.

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Intransitive verbs

An intransitive verb do not take a direct object. An example of an intransitive verb is andare. For instance:

For example: Giorgio va in biblioteca.

Giorgio is the subject, va is the intransitive verb (andare) , in biblioteca is the indirect object (in is the preposition).

A quick way to identify the indirect object is to ask one of the questions:

  • Dove?
  • Quanto?
  • Come?
  • Con chi?
  • Perché?

Giorgio è andato (dove?) in biblioteca.

Often the indirect object is introduced by a preposition. As in the example below by a, alle, in, con.

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