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Passato Prossimo: Past Tense in Italian

By Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch

Learn the first form of past tense in Italian, passato prossimo, which is used for events that happened once. Learn the formation of the Italian passato prossimo for both regular and irregular verbs. Also learn when essere or avere should be used.

Regular Verb Formation of the Past Participle

Passato prossimo follows a simple pattern: essere or avere conjugated in the present tense (we will go over later when to use each verb) and the past particle. When we use passato prossimo, we talk about something that has happened once, instead of an ongoing event in the past (we use imperfect then). For example:

Ieri ho mangiato un panino. (Yesterday I ate a sandwich)

Notice the verb formation in the sentence: the first verb is avere in the present indicative form, followed by the past participle for the verb mangiare, which means to eat. Let's go over the formation of the past participle with regular verbs — remember three verb endings exist in regular Italian verbs: -are, -ere and -ire. When we form the past participle, we remove the verb ending to get the stem, then add the past participle ending. For example:

-are verbs: the ending for the past participle is -ato

cantarecantato (to sing)

-ere verbs: the ending for the past participle is -uto

credere → creduto (to believe)

-ire verbs: the ending for the past participle is -ito

dormire → dormito (to sleep)

Irregular Verb Formation of the Past Participle

Verbs that are irregular in Italian do not follow the same pattern as the regular verbs for the past participle. There is no particular pattern, so we need to memorize the past participles. Let's go over some of the common verbs:

accendere → acceso (to turn on)

aprire → aperto (to open)

bere → bevuto (to drink)

chiedere → chiesto (to ask)

chiudere → chiuso (to close)

correggere → corretto (to correct)

correre → corso (to run)

cuocere → cotto (to cook)

decidere → deciso (to decide)

dire → detto (to say/tell)

dividere → diviso (to divide)

essere → stato (to be)

fare → fatto (to do/make)

leggere → letto (to read)

mettere → messo (to put)

morire → morto (to die)

muovere → mosso (to move)

nascere → nato (to be born)

nascondere → nascosto (to hide)

offrire → offerto (to offer)

perdere → perso or perduto (to lose)

piacere → piaciuto (to like)

piangere → pianto (to cry)

porre → posto (to place)

prendere → preso (to take)

ridere → riso (to laugh)

rimanere → rimasto (to stay)

risolvere → risolto (to solve)

rispondere → risposto (to answer)

rompere → rotto (to break)

scegliere → scelto (to choose)

scrivere → scritto (to write)

succedere → successo (to happen)

togliere → tolto (to remove)

tradurre → tradotto (to translate)

uccidere → ucciso (to kill)

vedere → visto or veduto (to see)

venire → venuto (to come)

vincere → vinto (to win)

vivere → vissuto (to live)

Essere or Avere?

In Italian passato prossimo, we have two auxiliary verbs: essere and avere. Let's go over the different rules for which auxiliary verb to use:

Essere is used when we have:

→ Intransitive verbs (verbs with no direct object)

→ Movement verbs (examples are andare (to go), arrivare (to arrive) and tornare (to return))

→ State verbs (examples are stare (to be) and rimanere (to stay))

→ Changing state verbs (examples are diventare (to become), nascere (to be born) and morire (to die)

→ Reflexive verbs (verbs preceded by a pronoun, such as mi)

→ Other verbs: accadere/succedere (to happen), bastare (to be enough/need), costare (to cost), dipendere (to depend), dispiacere (to displease/mind), mancare (to miss), occorrere (to be necessary), parere (to seem/think), piacere (to like), sembrare (to seem) and toccare (touch).

When we use essere as the auxiliary verb, the past participle matches in gender and quantity.

Avere is used when we have:

→ Transitive verbs (verbs followed by a direct object)

Certain verbs can use either essere or avere — it depends on whether we use the verb intransitively or transitively. Let's go over those verbs:

aumentare (to increase)

bruciare (to burn)

cambiare (to change)

continuare (to continue)

diminuire (to reduce/decrease)

passare (to go past)

salire (to go up/get on)

saltare (to jump)

scendere (to go down/get off)