Or even just being?
The common Italian verbs used to talk about those things—andare, volere and essere, respectively—are all irregular!
This can seem shockingly unfair.
The topics are so simple. Why must the verbs be complicated?
In Italian, it’s simply a fact of life that the most frequently used verbs are often irregular.
But don’t be mad at Italian, it’s not alone in this. Other languages also deform their most popular verb conjugations, including English.
For instance, you’d say, “he has” and not “he haves,” and you’d say “I am” instead of “I be” (except in certain dialects).
A Quick Introduction to Italian Verbs
All Italian verbs are conjugated according to the subject (that is, the person or people doing the action).
So, before you launch into this post, you should be familiar with how to use the subject pronouns. Here’s a quick review:
io — I
tu — you (singular, informal)
lui — he
lei — she
Lei — you (singular, formal)
noi — we
voi — you (plural, informal)
loro — they
This article is intended for learners who have at least that basic amount of knowledge. It is also intended for more advanced learners who are coming back for a refresher or to fix problems.
We’ll move in order from five major types of irregular verbs—those for which there are some very apparent patterns—to six more difficult (but quite common) verbs.
This article can’t possibly cover all Italian verbs that are irregular in the present tense. The goal is to cover many of the ones that you’re most likely to need, and to do so in a way that helps you identify patterns for easy memorization.
The 5 Big Types of Present Tense Irregularities in Italian Verbs
Present Tense Verb Irregularity #1: Spelling Changes
Some Italian verbs undergo very minor spelling irregularities that may catch you off guard, especially when you’re writing. You may have already used the following verb without ever realizing that it’s irregular.
Ex. Piacere (to be pleasing)
lui / lei / Lei piace
Here, the irregularity is the double consonant (cc), and yes, this is something that Italian speakers can actually hear and pronounce—but it can be difficult for learners to master.
With a language partner, you can practice listening and speaking about pleasing singular things versus pleasing plural things to tease out the difference in consonants between piace and piacciono.
Also recall that this verb is used to talk about liking something, but the subject of the verb is the thing that’s pleasing and the object is the person who’s pleased. So:
Mi piace la fisarmonica. — I like the accordion. (literally, the accordion is pleasing to me)
Io gli piaccio. — He likes me. (literally, I am pleasing to him)
Similar verbs include compiacere (to make happy, appease), spiacere and (to mind) dispiacere (to be sorry, regret; the person experiencing the displeasure is the object of the verb, as with piacere).
Present Tense Verb Irregularity #2: Stem Changes
Some verbs just have relatively minor stem changes that occur throughout a number of the subject pronouns in the present tense.
Memorizing these verbs with their stem changes and present tense conjugations at the same time is rather convenient—don’t wait to figure out the stem changes later on.
The io and loro stem changes are often similar. The noi and voi conjugations often don’t have changes in the stem.
Ex. Apparire (to appear, to emerge, to make an impression)
lui / lei / Lei appare
Here’s what the verb looks like in action:
A novembre appaiono le ostriche nel mercato. — The oysters show up in the market in November.
Raffaella appare sempre nei miei incubi. — Raffaella always appears in my nightmares.
Appaiono spesso in minigonna sui loro profili Instagram. — They appear in mini skirts in their Instagram.
And here’s an example of a commonly-said piece of wisdom with this verb:
Le persone vogliono solo apparire e non essere. — People want to show off, and not be themselves.
Just note that conjugation isn’t necessary here, as it’s used with the modal verb volere (to want).
Ex. Morire (to die)
lui / lei / Lei muore
Don’t wait for someone to die to pull out this verb! It has both literal and figurative uses:
Muoio di crepacuore per Raffaella. — I’m dying of a broken heart for Raffaella.
Lei muore a casa. — She’s dying at home.
Moriamo di sonno. — We’re dead tired.
Ex. Sedere (to sit, be seated)
lui / lei / Lei siede
This verb by itself is used to talk about being seated.
Siedono sempre vicino al palco. — They always sit close to the stage.
Ci sediamo? — Shall we sit down?
For the action of sitting down, you’ll also need the appropriate reflexive pronoun.
Present Tense Verb Irregularity #3: Adding G to Io and Loro Conjugations
A number of verbs have a G that gets inserted into their io and loro conjugations, and so it can be useful to learn these verbs together.
Some of these also have vowel stem changes like in the section above.
Ex. Venire (to come)
lui / lei / Lei viene
Veniamo da te alle 13:00 per il pranzo, va bene? — We’re coming to your place at 1:00 p.m. for lunch, okay?
Vengo! — I’m coming!
Verbs that are less common but have very similar conjugations include: tenere (to hold, to keep), contenere (to contain) and intervenire (to intervene).
Ex. Rimanere (to stay, to remain, to last)
lui / lei / Lei rimane
Rimaniamo in tema. — We’re staying on topic.
Rimango in Italia per sempre, tesori miei. — I’m staying in Italy forever, my darlings.
This verb can also mean “to become” or “to get,” particularly when you want to be a bit vague about the actor or action.
Alcune rimangono incinte dopo il carnevale. — Some become pregnant after carnival.
Rimani sempre goffo quando bevi vino. — You always get clumsy when you drink wine.
Present Tense Verb Irregularity #4: Modal Verbs
Modal verbs can be thought of as “helper” verbs. They’re used along with a main verb to add meaning.
Since they’re quite common and useful—you guessed it—they’re also quite irregular.
Ex. Volere (to want)
lui / lei / Lei vuole or vuol (both conjugations are correct, vuol is more common colloquially as the modal verb to many speakers)
Volere as a modal verb is directly followed by the verb that indicates what one wants to do. The word “to” from the English version is included within the infinitive (not conjugated) verb.
Vogliamo venire domani. — We want to come tomorrow.
In the case above, venire is “to come,” supplying the “to.”
You can also simply want things, in which case a noun comes after the verb.
Lei vuole una scusa per fare come vuole? — Do you want an excuse to do as you want?
Ex. Potere (to be able to)
lui / lei / Lei può
This one is used just like volere.
Non posso credere che lui sia il presidente. — I can’t believe that he’s the president.
Possono fare i giocolieri. — They can juggle.
Other irregular modal verbs include: sapere (to know) and dovere (to need to / must / should).
And note that many of the verbs in the last section also get used as modal verbs.
Present Tense Verb Irregularity #5: Contracted Infinitive Verbs
Some Italian verbs have an infinitive that’s very short, but the conjugated forms are generally longer and follow their own pattern, distinct from the infinitive.
Learning these as a group can be useful. It’s also useful to identify them as contracted infinitives when learning, as they’ll follow a similar pattern when you learn other tenses, such as the present continuous.
Ex. Bere (to drink)
lui / lei / Lei beve
What do you drink and why? Let folks know with this verb:
Bevo soltanto vino rosso! — I only drink red wine.
Beviamo per dimenticare. — We drink to forget.
Ex. Dire (to say)
lui / lei / Lei dice
When learning this verb, it’s important to remember that a C followed by an E or an I has a CH sound, and otherwise it sounds like K.
I’ve had the following two expressions with this verb said to me a lot while traveling in Italy because I’m mildly naughty and/or because of the faux-shocked, semi-conservative posture that Italians love to adopt.
Dici solo stupidaggini. — You say only stupid things.
Non diciamo sciocchezze! — What are you saying! (literally, let’s not say nonsense)
Ex. Fare (to do, to make)
lui / lei / Lei fa
This nearly all-purpose verb can be translated as both “to make” and “to do.”
The fact that Italian has only one verb for our two English verbs helps explain why Italians often mix these two up when speaking English.
Fare can also be used in all kinds of other ways that lead to different English translations, and is the principal verb in countless expressions.
Faccio la pizza. — I’m making the pizza.
Mi fanno cadere le braccia a terra. — They exasperate me. (literally, they make my arms fall to earth)
Facciamo altrimenti. — We’re doing it another way.
Il suo piano fa acqua da tutte le parti. — Her plan is full of holes. (literally, her plan makes water from all parts)
Lui fa capo a la sua ragazza per tutto! — He depends on his girlfriend for everything!
Beware of (or enjoy) the fact that alongside a reflexive pronoun, fare becomes a vulgar term for sexual relations. In other uses, it’s not at all vulgar.
Other contracted infinitive verbs include condurre (to drive, to lead), trarre (to pull, to bring) and porre (to put, but not as common as the verb mettere for this use).
6 Very Common, Very Irregular Italian Verbs in the Present Tense
The following verbs are so common that you’ll probably use them throughout every Italian conversation you have.
They’re also the most irregular verbs.
And they’re the most likely to have many sub-meanings and expressions to go with them.
You’ll absolutely want to know all of them very well, and then be alert to the various situations in which they’re used. I’d suggest learning each one and its many uses in separate study sessions, and allowing a lot of time to do so.
1. Andare (to go)
lui / lei / Lei va
Dove andate? — Where are you going?
Ricardo e Josa vanno dal dentista. — Ricardo and Josa are going to the dentist.
2. Avere (to have)
lui / lei / Lei ha
You can have both literal and figurative things. Examples:
Lei ha due ragazzi. — She has two boyfriends.
Abbiamo paura. — We’re afraid. (literally, we have fear)
3. Essere (to be)
lui / lei / Lei è
You can be anything! One of the first uses you likely learn is talking about origins.
Sono di Roma. — I’m from Rome. / They’re from Rome.
Notice how there could be some confusion.
The conjugation is the same for both io and loro.
If it’s not clear who you’re talking about in context, you’ll need to add in the personal pronoun as well. For example:
Io sono di Roma. — I’m from Rome.
You can also talk about being many other things. If a beautiful woman—oh heck, let’s call her Raffaella—isn’t taking you seriously, you can give up and tell her:
Non fa’ caso a quello che dico, sono un pagliaccio. — Don’t pay attention to what I say, I’m a clown.
4. Dare (to give)
lui / lei / Lei dà
One can give all kinds of literal and figurative things with this verb. Examples:
Danno il coniglio a mia sorella. — They’re giving the rabbit to my sister.
Ti do un consiglio. — I’m giving you a piece of advice.
5. Stare (to be located, to remain, to be about to)
lui / lei / Lei sta
This verb has many, many uses, and is worth learning well. Examples:
Lui sta per arrabbiarsi. — He’s about to get angry.
Sto al mio domicilio a Barcellona tutte le primavere e gli autunni. — I’m residing at my domicile in Barcelona for all of the springs and autumns. (This is a very stiff, formal use of stare.)
6. Uscire (to go out)
lui / lei / Lei esce
This verb takes on both the literal sense of going out (leaving) and of dating someone, among other uses. Examples:
Esco con Raffaella. — I’m going out with Raffaella.
Usciamo da casa alle 19:00. — We leave home at 7:00 p.m.
Taken together, the present tense irregular verbs can seem like a lot to take on and memorize.
I highly recommend using flashcards (or a flashcard mobile app like Anki) for those that give you the most trouble. These will also eventually start to seem natural through speaking practice and consuming Italian media.
You can look up verbs that aren’t covered here individually on WordReference or check out this full printable sheet of the whole bunch. Wikipedia has a good page that groups the irregular Italian verbs by families, which is also worth a look.
The present tense conjugations of irregular verbs are important not just because they’re used so much, but also because they form the basis for conjugations that you’ll need to study later, especially the imperative and the subjunctive.
The work you do now towards really nailing your irregular verbs in the present tense will give you payoffs many times over as you continue with your Italian studies and start to work with other tenses.
Whatever you do, don’t give up and don’t feel like this subject is something you can skip over.
Stick with these verbs until you’ve mastered them all!
Mose Hayward blogs about flirting with girls in disappearing tongues, and other spectacular, useless ventures.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Italian with real-world videos.