Hack Italian Fluency with 15 All-purpose Basic Verbs
Some verbs have superpowers.
I’ll show you 15 basic but powerful verbs to turn even grammar zeros into Italian learning heroes.
- How Italian Verbs Can Supercharge Your Vocabulary
- How Verbs Work in Italian
- Conjugating Regular Verbs
- Conjugating Irregular Verbs
- Essere (To Be)
- Stare (To Stay)
- Fare (To Do/Make)
- Avere (To Have)
- Potere (Can/To Be Able To)
- Volere (To Want)
- Dovere (Must/To Have To)
- Parlare (To Speak)
- Vedere (To See)
- Sapere (To Know)
- Mangiare (To Eat)
- Mettere (To Put)
- Prendere (To Take)
- Sentire (To Hear/Feel)
- Ascoltare (To Listen)
- A Little Goes a Long Way
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How Italian Verbs Can Supercharge Your Vocabulary
Even if you’re just beginning to build up your Italian vocabulary, it’s never too early to start practicing your basic Italian verbs.
Whether your vocabulary is large or small, these verbs will allow you to say a lot with a little. For example, the verb stare (to stay) can be used to express all of the following:
Your state of being: Sto bene. (I’m fine.)
Asking how someone is: Come stai? (How are you?)
Saying where someone/something is: Sto in albergo. (I’m at a hotel.)
Saying if something fits: Non ci sta in macchina. (It doesn’t fit in the car.)
Saying where you’ve been: Siamo stati a Roma. (We’ve been to Rome.)
Saying what’s about to happen: Marco sta per arrivare. (Marco is about to arrive.)
Stare is indeed a super-verb, and it isn’t the only one. This list of essential Italian verbs will let you wield your Italian vocabulary in ways you never thought possible.
But first, we need to take a look at the mysterious nature of the Italian verb.
How Verbs Work in Italian
Italian verbs take different forms depending on tense and who’s performing the action. Here’s how that works.
Conjugating Regular Verbs
Verbs in Italian change depending on the person and the tense. In regular verbs, the change occurs at the end of the verb, while the beginning, or root, stays the same. As an example, let’s take a look at the regular verb mangiare (to eat) in the present tense:
1st person singular: io mangio (I eat)
2nd person singular: tu mangi (you eat)
3rd person singular: lui/lei mangia (he/she eats)
1st person plural: noi mangiamo (we eat)
2nd person plural: voi mangiate (you [all] eat)
3rd person plural: loro mangiano (they eat)
Notice how each verb ending changes for each person. Luckily, in regular Italian verbs, the same endings are almost always used to denote each person regardless of the verb (in other words, the ending -o denotes the first person singular, the ending -i denotes the second person singular and so on).
This, in turn, renders the pronoun (io, tu, lui/lei, noi, voi, loro — I, you, he/she, we, you, they) unnecessary. You can just use the verb itself to denote the person. For example:
Mangiano al ristorante. (They eat at a restaurant).
The subject pronoun loro (they) has been dropped because the -ano ending of the verb indicates the person.
Now let’s look at how the same verb changes when we switch to a different tense. Below are the different forms of mangiare in the imperfetto (a tense used for continuous/repeated actions in the past).
1st person singular: mangiavo (I ate)
2nd person singular: mangiavi (you ate)
3rd person singular: mangiava (he/she/it ate)
1st person plural: mangiavamo (we ate)
2nd person plural: mangiavate (you [all] ate)
3rd person plural: mangiavano (they ate)
Notice how there are new word endings for each person in this new tense.
Now you’ve got the gist of how regular Italian verbs change depending on person and tense. For a full guide to present-tense regular conjugations, check out this article.
Conjugating Irregular Verbs
Irregular Italian verbs still feature changes at the end of the verb, but the root may change as well. Let’s take a look at the common irregular verb andare (to go) in the present tense:
1st person singular: vado (I go)
2nd person singular: vai (you go)
3rd person singular: va (he/she/it goes)
1st person plural: andiamo (we go)
2nd person plural: andate (you [all] go)
3rd person plural: vanno (they go)
Do the endings change? Yes, and they’re even somewhat recognizable, but that doesn’t change the fact that a bunch of other crazy stuff is going on. Like, where did all those v’s come from? Italian irregulars throw a wrench into the whole mix, making them worthy of a closer look.
So how can you get around it? Is there a secret loophole that lets us escape the clutches of the dreaded Italian verb?
Unfortunately, no there isn’t. You have to memorize your verbs, but if you’re going to take the plunge, you might as well learn the verbs that are going to take you the furthest.
That’s exactly what you’ll find in our list below.
15 Basic Italian Verbs for an Incredibly Versatile Vocabulary
These verbs have the strength to turn even the weakest vocabularies into conversational Italian. Under each verb, we’ll tell you if it’s regular or irregular and give you the conjugation in the present tense. The Italian subject pronouns have been left off, because you wouldn’t use them in spoken Italian.
Then, start learning these verbs!
Essere (To Be)
sono (I am)
sei (you are)
è (he/she/it is)
siamo (we are)
siete (you [all] are)
sono (they are)
If you’ve studied any Italian, you’re sure to have come into contact with this verb, but if not, now’s the perfect time to start.
Essere is the original super-verb and is one of the most versatile. Of course you can use it to introduce yourself, but it’s got a lot more potential.
Attach it to any question word and you can find out pretty much anything you want about a particular thing or person. Take a look at who, what, when, where and how:
Chi è? (Who is it?)
Cosa è? (What is it?)
Quando è? (When is it?)
Dov’è? (Where is it?)
Com’è? (How is it?)
Note that dove (where) and come (how) drop their final –e when placed next to è.
With essere, you can cover all the basics from meeting new friends to finding your hotel to knowing what time dinner is served. And it doesn’t stop there. Essere is used with all adjectives to describe people, places and things.
Whether you know a bunch of adjectives or just the basics like grande (big), buono (good) and difficile (difficult), all you need is essere to work them into a sentence.
Much like in English, you just start with your noun, then add the verb essere and finally the adjective. Take a look:
La Torta è buona! (The cake is good!)
I corsi sono difficili. (The courses are difficult.)
Stare (To Stay)
sto (I stay)
stai (you stay)
sta (he/she/it stays)
stiamo (we stay)
state (you [all] stay)
stanno (they stay)
We saw the many uses of stare above, so we won’t go into too much detail on this verb. Nevertheless, it has some interesting attributes that are worth mentioning.
Like essere, this verb can also be used to describe a state of being. By contrast, in English, the verb “to stay” is only used to describe your location.
For example, if someone asks, “how are you?” in Italian, they say “come stai?” and not “come sei?” The appropriate response would be “sto bene” (“I’m fine”), not “sono bene.”
Stare and essere are so intertwined that they actually share the same past participles. This means that when you’re speaking in the past, you can use one conjugation for two verbs. Take advantage of this buy-one-get-one deal to give your Italian more power with less studying.
Take a look at the passato prossimo (recent past) conjugations below, which you can use for either verb (note that the spelling of the past participle can change depending on gender or plurality):
sono stato/a (I was)
sei stato/a (you were)
è stato/a (he/she/it was)
siamo stati/e (we were)
siete stati/e (you [all] were)
sono stati/e (they were)
Fare (To Do/Make)
faccio (I do)
fai (you do)
fa (he/she/it does)
facciamo (we do)
fate (you [all] do)
fanno (they do)
It would be hard to find a verb more versatile than fare. This verb, which translates as both “make” and “do,” covers almost any physical or creative activity that you could imagine. Here are just a few ways you can use fare to enrich your speaking practice:
Saying what you do for work: Faccio professore d’inglese. (I’m an English teacher.)
Describing mealtimes: Facciamo pranzo alle 13:30. (We’re having lunch at 1:30 p.m.)
Saying what something makes you feel/do (add the pronoun mi [me] before the verb): Quel film mi fa ridere! (That movie makes me laugh!)
Talking about the weather: Fa caldo oggi! Fa bel tempo. (It’s hot today! The weather is great.)
Once you’ve got these down, explore more uses of fare to beef up your vocabulary without having to amass new verbs.
Avere (To Have)
ho (I have)
hai (you have)
ha (he/she/it has)
abbiamo (we have)
avete (you [all] have)
hanno (they have)
Avere is a necessary verb for any vocabulary, because you won’t make it far if you can’t describe possession. But avere is on this list for another reason: it’s an auxiliary verb. Knowing the conjugation of avere will open the doors to forming the past tense in Italian for most verbs.
Let’s look at the past conjugation of the verb fare as an example. To form the past, you simply use the present of avere with the past participle of the main verb (in this case, fare).
Ho fatto i compiti. (I did my homework.)
Hanno fatto i loro letti stamattina. (They made their beds this morning.)
Notice how the form of avere changes, but the form of fare doesn’t? This is because the auxiliary changes and the main verb stays the same. Essentially, this means that once you learn to conjugate avere, you’ll know the past tense of almost all the verbs in Italian! Talk about a shortcut!
Potere (Can/To Be Able To)
posso (I can)
puoi (you can)
può (he/she/it can)
possiamo (we can)
potete (you [all] can)
possono (they can)
Potere shares the same root as the word “potent,” meaning powerful, and this verb truly adds a lot of power to your speaking skills.
Potere is an auxiliary verb similar to its English counterpart, “can.” This means that you can use its conjugated form before any other verb in the infinitive (non-conjugated) form to say what you can or can’t do. This can really help stretch a limited vocabulary.
For example, if you want to say, “I’ll wash the dishes,” but you don’t know how to conjugate lavare (to wash), you can say, “Posso lavare i piatti” (“I can wash the dishes”). If you know the conjugation of potere, you can easily get around not knowing how to conjugate other verbs. Even if adding “can” to a phrase makes it sound a bit strange, you’ll still be able to get your point across and communicate effectively.
Volere (To Want)
voglio (I want)
vuoi (you want)
vuole (he/she/it wants)
vogliamo (we want)
volete (you [all] want)
vogliono (they want)
Volere is another auxiliary verb and it functions much like potere. You can use the conjugated form of volere before the infinitive form of any other verb to say what you want or don’t want to do. You can use the same dishwashing example above, replacing posso with voglio to demonstrate how knowing this one verb allows for the easy use of many others.
Here are some other useful tricks volere has up its sleeve:
Saying what something needs: L’albero di Natale vuole una stella! (The Christmas tree needs a star!)
Saying how long something takes (add the pronoun ci [it] before the verb): Ci vuole due minuti in microonde. Ci vuole tre ore per andare a Roma. (It takes two minutes in the microwave. It takes three hours to go to Rome.)
Dovere (Must/To Have To)
devo (I must)
devi (you must)
deve (he/she/it must)
dobbiamo (we must)
dovete (you [all] must)
devono (they must)
Dovere is yet another auxiliary verb and its benefit is similar to those of potere and volere.
An added benefit of learning dovere is that it can also be used to express “should,” albeit in its conditional form. Let’s take a look at the conditional form of dovere.
dovrei (I should)
dovresti (you should)
dovrebbe (he/she/it should)
dovremmo (we should)
dovreste (you [all] should)
dovrebbero (they should)
To express what you should or shouldn’t do in Italian, simply use the above form followed by the infinitive of any other verb. Here’s an example with fare as the main verb:
Dovrei fare i compiti di scuola, ma non ho voglia! (I should do my homework, but I don’t want to!)
Learning the conditional form of dovere won’t just expand your speaking abilities, but it’ll also introduce you to conditional tenses, which will make your life easier when you start studying more complex grammar.
Parlare (To Speak)
parlo (I speak)
parli (you speak)
parla (he/she/it speaks)
parliamo (we speak)
parlate (you [all] speak)
parlano (they speak)
Finally, a regular verb! Parlare is one of the first verbs you’ll learn, and it’s one of the most useful. You’ll probably need this verb a lot in the beginning of your Italian journey to help people understand your level of Italian, what language(s) you speak and to ask others to speak slower or more clearly to help you understand.
Parlare is a great verb to learn because you can express some important, speech-related phrases without having to use the more complicated and irregular verb, dire (to say/to tell). Here are some useful phrases to memorize:
Parli inglese? (Do you speak English?)
Non parlo bene in italiano. (I don’t speak Italian well.)
Parli lentamente, per favore. (Speak slowly, please.)
Parliamo in italiano. (Let’s speak Italian.)
Don’t be afraid to use parlare to tell others to change the way they speak. They want you to understand them! And if they keep switching to English, let them know that you want to speak some Italian too.
Vedere (To See)
vedo (I see)
vedi (you see)
vede (he/she/it sees)
vediamo (we see)
vedete (you [all] see)
vedono (they see)
Once you’re able to express who you are, your abilities, wants and needs, it’s time to start branching out to the world around you. The sensory verb vedere allows you to describe what you see and acts as a stepping stone to more complex sensory verbs.
When describing the world around you, instead of just pointing and saying nouns, use vedo (I see) or vedi (you see) plus a noun to create a complete sentence.
Vedo il castello! Che bello! (I see the castle! How beautiful!)
Vedi il gatto? Mi fa ridere! (Do you see that cat? It’s funny!)
This is a simple way to turn your vocabulary into real Italian in seconds flat.
Sapere (To Know)
so (I know)
sai (you know)
sa (he/she/it knows)
sappiamo (we know)
sapete (you [all] know)
sanno (they know)
As you continue speaking and studying, you’ll need to know how to express what you know and what you don’t. Sapere helps you do that and much more.
The most common phrases, lo so (I know) and non lo so (I don’t know), will get you through many an Italian lesson, but there are more uses of sapere that can help you speak like a native in no time. Try these on for size:
Saying “I think” (with pronoun mi before verb): È andato via Claudio? Mi sa di sì./Mi sa di no. (Did Claudio leave? I think so./I don’t think so.)
Describing what something tastes like: La torta sa di miele. (The cake tastes like honey.)
Saying what you know how to do: So nuotare bene, ma non so parlare francese. (I know how to swim well, but I don’t know how to speak French.)
Sapere is often confused with the verb conoscere (to know). They seem the same, but before you try to use them both, it’s important to get the differences down.
Mangiare (To Eat)
mangio (I eat)
mangi (you eat)
mangia (he/she/it eats)
mangiamo (we eat)
mangiate (you [all] eat)
mangiano (they eat)
If you want to have a conversation in Italian but you’re afraid you don’t have the words to do it, just start talking about food. Italians love to talk about food, and they barely go a day without some conversation about gamberi (shrimp), bistecche (steaks) or pasta al forno (lasagna).
These helpful phrases will surely get you an invitation to an Italian dinner table:
Si Mangia bene in quel ristorante? (Do you eat well in that restaurant?)
Quale piatti tipici si mangia qua? (What local dishes do you eat here?)
Mangi fuori al fine settimana? (Do you eat out at the weekend?)
Mangiamo insieme presto! (Let’s eat together soon!)
If the conversation ever runs flat in Italian, this is a surefire phrase to bring the mood back up: Dai, mangiamo qualcosa! (Come on, let’s get something to eat!).
Mettere (To Put)
metto (I put)
metti (you put)
mette (he/she/it puts)
mettiamo (we put)
mettete (you [all] put)
mettono (they put)
Knowing how to express “put” is essential to the management of the space around you. Mettere functions much like “put” in English. Metti l’uovo nella pentola translates pretty directly to “put the egg in the pot,” making this an easy verb to use.
Mettere has some other uses that you might find helpful on your Italian journey:
Putting on clothes (with pronoun mi before the verb): Fa freddo fuori! Mi metto la giacca. (It’s cold out! I’ll put on a jacket.)
Bringing something about: È una medicina che mette stanchezza. (That medicine causes fatigue.)
Prendere (To Take)
prendo (I take)
prendi (you take)
prende (he/she/it takes)
prendiamo (we take)
prendete (you [all] take)
prendono (they take)
Prendere translates to a lot of verbs in English, which means you can use it to say a lot of things in Italian. You can use it to mean “take,” but that wouldn’t be taking full advantage of its capabilities. Here are some other fun ways to use prendere:
To pick up: Prendi quella penna! Mi prendi da scuola alle 15:00? (Pick up that pen! Can you pick me up from school at 3 p.m.?)
To take the place of something: Marco prende il posto di Mario nello spettacolo. (Marco is taking Mario’s place in the show.)
To make an appointment: Prendiamo un appuntamento per andare dal medico. (Let’s make an appointment to see the doctor.)
To make decisions: È difficile prendere delle decisioni! (It’s difficult to make decisions!)
And most importantly, you need prendere to enjoy one of Italy’s greatest traditions: coffee! In Italian, you don’t “have” a coffee, you “take” a coffee.
Prendiamo un caffè? (Shall we get a coffee?)
Sentire (To Hear/Feel)
sento (I hear)
senti (you hear)
sente (he/she/it hears)
sentiamo (we hear)
sentite (you [all] hear)
sentono (they hear)
Sentire is the king of the sensory verbs and literally means “to sense” (although it’s usually used as “to hear”). You’ll first use this verb to talk about what you can hear with your ears, but once you’re comfortable with that, you can start exploring some other ways to express your senses with this versatile verb.
Saying how you feel physically (with pronoun mi before the verb): Non mi sento bene. (I don’t feel well.)
Saying how you feel emotionally (with mi again): Mi sento felice. (I feel happy.)
To taste: Senti la minestra. È buona! (Taste the soup. It’s good!)
To smell something: Sento l’odore di aglio. (I smell garlic.)
Next time you say goodbye in Italian, instead of saying arrivederci (goodbye), try saying ci sentiamo! (talk to you soon!).
Ascoltare (To Listen)
ascolto (I listen)
ascolti (you listen)
ascolta (he/she/it listens)
ascoltiamo (we listen)
ascoltate (you [all] listen)
ascoltano (they listen)
Ascoltare is the close friend of sentire, but it’s easier to start with because it’s regular and much more straightforward. Sentire is a great verb for expressing lots of things with little effort, but it can also be tough keeping all its meanings straight. Ascoltare is only used for what you listen to, and as such, it’s an easy sensory verb to nail down.
Try some of these phrases to start some quick conversations or to get someone’s attention.
Che musica ascolti? (What music do you listen to?)
Ascoltami! (Listen to me!)
Ascoltiamo! La professoressa sta parlando! (Listen up! The teacher is talking!)
A Little Goes a Long Way
These basic Italian verbs give you the ability to do a lot with a little. Some of them do the jobs of many other verbs and are packed with tricks and secrets. Others are beautiful in their simplicity and are easy to pick up and use right away.
If you want to practice these verbs more, a program like FluentU can help you get started. Here, you can watch how native speakers use these verbs in various situations. After watching these videos, you can review what you’ve learned with personalized quizzes.
But what else can we learn from these verbs? We learn that if you do something right and put the time in, you can succeed faster than you ever thought possible. The only catch is that you have to put the time in, and you have to do it right!
Use the time these verbs save you to make a study schedule and learn a new verb everyday. Before you know it, you won’t need to follow shortcuts anymore. You’ll be the one making them.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)