When you first hear the term “auxiliary verb” you might think “whoa, that sounds complicated!”
But fear not, because they’re actually super simple to use.
And, odds are, you already know what the Italian auxiliary verbs are. You just don’t know about them in their context as auxiliaries… yet!
To contextualize the use of auxiliary verbs, we’ll look at some example sentences about a student, Laura, who’s studying abroad in Florence, Italy. In these examples, Laura goes to the Uffizi Gallery with her friend, Giorgio, and they look at some famous paintings.
Let’s follow Laura and her friend to gain an understanding of what Italian auxiliary verbs are and how to use them correctly.
Master Italian Auxiliary Verbs to Give Your Language Skills an Assist
What Is an Auxiliary Verb?
Auxiliary verbs in English
An auxiliary verb is also known as a “helping verb” in the sense that it helps you know what tense a sentence is in. Auxiliary verbs are paired with other verbs to indicate when something happened or was happening.
We have these in English, as well. See if you can spot the difference between this example:
“I am playing the violin.”
And this one:
“I have been playing the violin for 12 years.”
And even this one:
“I had been playing the violin for 12 years when I broke my wrist and had to stop.”
Through the use of a single helping verb, the sentence changes its meaning completely, placing it first in the present, then in the present perfect continuous and finally, taking us back in time to the past perfect continuous.
Meet the Italian auxiliary verbs: essere, avere and stare
Helping verbs work the same way in Italian: By pairing an auxiliary verb with an action verb, you can change the tense of the sentence.
There are only three auxiliary verbs in Italian. The first two are our good friends essere (to be) and avere (to have). Essere and avere are used as auxiliary verbs when forming the past perfect tense.
The third is a verb you’re probably also familiar with, stare (to be, to stand). Stare is a bit different from the other auxiliaries: It’s used in the present progressive and past progressive tenses.
When do we use auxiliary verbs in Italian?
Auxiliary verbs are mainly used when you want to talk about something that happened in the past or to discuss an action that is (or was) going on over a period of time.
In Italian, this is done through what we call compound tenses, which need two verbs (a compound) to get your meaning across.
For beginners, it’s important to know how to use the auxiliary verbs in the past perfect and present progressive tenses. For intermediate learners, the past progressive tense is important to know, as well.
There are other, more advanced, tenses (such as the past subjunctive tense) that also take auxiliary verbs. In your Italian learning journey, you’ll encounter auxiliary verbs at all levels. For the purpose of this post, though, we’ll be introducing the past perfect, present continuous and past continuous tenses.
You can see all this in action on FluentU. Through real-world videos like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks, you get to hear authentic native Italian speakers using the language as they actually do in everyday life.
Look out for these little helpers and see if you can spot each of them and figure out what tense they’re indicating. It’s a fun and engaging way to learn grammar concepts.
When helping verbs don’t act as helpers
The verbs we introduced don’t always act as auxiliary verbs. Keep in mind that when essere and avere are used in the present tense, they’re not acting as auxiliary verbs. For example:
Laura è una studentessa. — Laura is a student.
Laura ha un amico, Giorgio. — Laura has a friend, Giorgio.
In these two sentences, essere and avere are acting as present tense irregular verbs. They aren’t acting as auxiliaries here. So remember that just because you see one of the helping verbs, doesn’t mean the past perfect tense is close behind!
Using Avere in the Past Perfect Tense
In order to form the past perfect tense (passato prossimo), you need to be familiar with the simple present tense conjugations of essere and avere. You can find the conjugations for both essere and avere on verbi-italiani.
Take look at these sentences:
Laura ha comprato un biglietto online. — Laura bought a ticket online.
Anche Giorgio ha comprato un biglietto online. — Also, Giorgio bought a ticket online.
Loro non hanno dovuto aspettare in fila. — They didn’t have to wait in line.
You’ll notice that each sentence has a present tense conjugation of the verb avere and the past participle of the second verb to form the past perfect tense. If you aren’t familiar with past participles, you can get a quick refresher over at One World Italiano.
In these sentences, avere is acting as an auxiliary verb. It’s “helping” you know that the sentence is in the past perfect tense.
You might also notice that the compounds don’t translate into English in the way you might expect (like “bought” as opposed to “had/has bought”). That’s because in Italian, you use the passato prossimo to talk about actions that were completed in the past and which are still relevant in the present.
To learn more about this compound tense and when to use it, check out the thorough explanation on Mango Languages.
Cultural tip: You really can reserve your ticket online so that you don’t have to wait in the very long line to get into the Uffizi. Seriously, you’ll waste so much time that could be spent seeing the beauty of Florence if you attempt to wait in that line.
To form the past perfect, you combine:
subject + auxiliary verb avere in present tense + past participle + rest of sentence
Using Essere in the Past Perfect Tense
For some verbs related to motion, you use essere to put them in the past tense. There are 13 of these verbs. Can you remember what they are? Here’s a refresher.
Let’s say that all the students in Laura and Giorgio’s class are going to the museum. But Laura and Giorgio were the only ones who bought tickets online. Instead, the other students woke up early and had to wait in line.
When Laura and Giorgio see their classmates at the museum at around noon, they ask the group what they did that morning. Laura asks the group the question, using avere as an auxiliary:
Che cosa avete fatto questa mattina? — What did you do this morning?
A girl from the group answers:
Noi siamo partiti dal dormitorio alle 8 per andare al museo. — We left the dormitory at 8 to go to the museum.
E poi, siamo andati al bar per un espresso e un cornetto. — And then we went to the bar for an espresso and a croissant.
Cultural tip: Maybe the boys went to the bar to catch up on the score from last night’s football game! If you see a TV in a bar with sports news on, then you know that bar is frequented by Italian locals. If there’s no TV, then you’re probably in an establishment for tourists.
Giorgio then asks the following question:
E quando siete arrivati al museo? — And when did you arrive at the museum?
Le ragazze sono arrivate alle 9. E i ragazzi sono arrivati alle 9:30. Ma la fila era lunga. Allora, siamo entrati tutti alle 10. — The girls arrived at 9. And the boys arrived at 9:30. But the line was long. So, we all entered at 10.
You’ll notice in all these examples, essere is acting as an auxiliary verb. It’s “helping” you know that these sentences are all in the past perfect tense.
Use essere as an auxiliary verb in the past perfect tense with this formula:
subject + auxiliary essere in present tense + past participle (agreeing in gender and number with the subject) + rest of sentence
Using the Past Perfect Tense with Reflexive Verbs
Remember that reflexive verbs always take the auxiliary essere in the past perfect tense. To form the simple past tense with reflexive verbs, simply place the pronoun before the auxiliary verb:
C’e molto da vedere al museo. Le ragazze si sono alzate presto. — There’s a lot to see at the museum. The girls woke up early. (feminine plural)
Ma i ragazzi si sono alzati più tardi. — But the boys woke up later. (masculine plural)
If you need to use a reflexive verb in the past perfect tense, don’t despair! Simply use this formula:
subject + reflexive pronoun + auxiliary essere in present tense + past participle + rest of sentence.
Using Stare in the Present Continuous Tense
To learn more about the present continuous (presente progressivo) or present progressive tense, see the FluentU post on the subject.
For now, let’s observe the ways that stare is used as an auxiliary verb in these two sentences:
Laura sta scrivendo un SMS a Giorgio. — Laura is writing a text message to Giorgio
Giorgio sta aspettando un SMS da Laura. — Giorgio is waiting for a text from Laura.
Here, the present tense form of stare is acting as an auxiliary, accompanied by the actual action.
But wait, what’s with these verbs ending -ando and -endo? That’s called the gerund form of the verb. You use the gerund form with the present and past continuous tenses.
Find out all about the Italian gerund and how to form it at The Iceberg Project, which also includes a useful podcast on the topic.
The present continuous tense uses stare as an auxiliary verb in this fashion:
subject + auxiliary stare in present tense + gerund form of verb + rest of sentence.
Using Stare in the Past Continuous Tense
How do you talk about activities that were going on over a period of time in the past? For that, you can use the past continuous tense (passato progressivo).
Let’s take a look at these sentences:
Stavo guardando “La Nascita di Venere” quando gli altri studenti sono arrivati al museo. — I was looking at “The Birth of Venus” when the other students arrived at the museum.
Laura e Giorgio stavano guardando “La Nascita di Venere” quando gli altri studenti sono arrivati. — Laura and Giorgio were looking at “The Birth of Venus” when the other students arrived.
So what’s going on in these two sentences? The subject is engaged in an activity going on in the past. Then the subject is interrupted by another action.
In these sentences, the past continuous is used to indicate the action that was going on over a period of time, then the past perfect is used to indicate that that action got interrupted by another action (that wasn’t ongoing).
In these sentences, we also see two auxiliary verbs. Stare (in its imperfect form) is used as an auxiliary for the first part of the sentence, and essere is used as an auxiliary in the second part. You can also use avere in the same way. For example:
Noi stavamo guardando “L’Annunciazione di Da Vinci” quando Giorgio ha detto «Che bel dipinto!». — We were looking at “The Annunciation” of Da Vinci when Giorgio said “What a beautiful painting!”
Here’s a recap of stare in its past imperfect form, to make building this tense easier:
The past continuous tense uses stare as an auxiliary in its past imperfect form along with a gerund. Here’s the formula:
subject + auxiliary stare in past imperfect form + gerund form of verb + rest of sentence
Avere, essere, stare. These verbs really make up the bedrock of the Italian language. Often, when beginners learn Italian, they learn how to use the past and continuous tenses without really thinking about all the ways that avere, essere and stare “help out.”
You also may not have thought much about the role these words play as helpers. By drawing attention to these verbs as auxiliaries, you should be able to better understand how they give meaning to sentences.
Jesica Versichele is a freelance writer who specializes in language and culture blogging. Check out her work at JV Creative Content.
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