Unwrap the Present: How to Use This Essential Italian Tense
The Italian present tense indicative is crucial for having everyday discussions.
Since this tense is so fundamental, it’s useful to first start by looking at each of the four types of regular present tense verb conjugations.
In this post, we’ll do that, and we’ll also look at the different ways that the present tense is actually used in the language since it’s a little different from other languages.
- How to Conjugate Regular Italian Present Tense Verbs
- Questions to Make Memorization of the Present Tense Easier
- How to Use the Italian Present Tense in Context
How to Conjugate Regular Italian Present Tense Verbs
The infinitive (dictionary form) of Italian verbs generally ends in –are, –ere or –ire. Each of these are conjugated according to different rules. We’ll look at conjugations for each separately, and the last one, –ire, has two types of conjugations and so is given two separate sections below.
Conjugating –are Verbs
To see what happens with the present tense of –are verbs, we’ll look at the example of cantare (to sing).
First, we take that infinitive and remove the –are ending so that we’re left with the stem cant– and add the following endings (in bold), depending on the grammatical subject (that is, depending on the person doing the singing).
io canto — I sing
tu canti — you (singular, informal) sing
lui/lei/Lei canta — he/she sings/you (singular, formal) sing
noi cantiamo — we sing
voi cantate — you (plural) sing
loro cantano — they sing
Note that when you’re actually speaking Italian, the subject pronoun (io, tu, etc.) is often omitted because the verb ending by itself makes it clear who’s performing the action.
Here are some examples of this verb cantare used in context in the present tense.
Cantano canzioni tipiche del sud d’Italia. — They sing typical songs from the south of Italy.
Canto samba rock. — I sing samba rock.
Want to give it a try yourself?
Similar –are verbs that you can practice conjugating include: volare (to fly), portare (to wear, to bring) and abitare (to live [somewhere]).
There’s one wrinkle to be aware of with only –are verbs, which is that they sometimes undergo spelling changes in order to maintain the expected pronunciation.
So with verbs ending in –ciare or –giare, an i is dropped from the end of the stem before (only) the tu and noi endings; otherwise you would get a strange double ii. For example, we conjugate the verb mangiare as such:
tu mangi (you sing) and not
noi mangiamo (we eat) and not
The other pronouns’ conjugations (io, lei, lui, Lei, voi, loro) don’t need such changes.
And one more spelling change to be aware of with tu and noi conjugations of –are verbs: verbs that end in –care and –gare get an extra h added to the end of their stems. This serves to indicate that the c or g sounds stay hard in those conjugations.
So for example with the verb pagare (to pay), the stem is pag– (and the conjugations are regular, like io pago — I pay), but we add an h to the tu and noi forms:
tu paghi — you pay
noi paghiamo — we pay
If we’re generous, we thus say:
Loro non pagano il conto. Lo paghiamo noi. — They aren’t paying the bill. We’re paying it.
Conjugating –ere Verbs
Present tense verbs with an infinitive ending in –ere have that ending removed and then get the following endings added to form their conjugations. We’ll take the example of credere (to believe), so the stem is cred– and the endings are:
io credo — I believe
tu credi — you (singular, informal) believe
lui/lei/Lei crede — he/she believes/you (singular, formal) believe
noi crediamo — we believe
voi credete — you (plural) believe
loro credono — they believe
These can then be used to make sentences like these:
Non credo in quel dio. — I don’t believe in that god.
Credi a qualsiasi cosa! — You believe anything!
Other regular –ere verbs that you can practice conjugating in this manner include: scrivere (to write), conoscere (to know [someone]), leggere (to read), vincere (to win), perdere (to lose), prendere (to take), mettere (to put) and chiedere (to ask).
Conjugating –ire Verbs (Group One)
There are, unfortunately, two ways to conjugate –ire verbs in the present tense, so each time you learn a new –ire verb, you need to also learn which set of conjugations is appropriate for that verb.
Here is the first conjugation of –ire verbs. We’ll take the example of the wonderfully dramatic fuggire (to escape, run away). Removing the ending, we get fugg-, and then we add endings as follows:
io fuggo — I escape
tu fuggi — you (singular, informal) escape
lui/lei/Lei fugge — he/she escapes/you (singular, formal) escape
noi fuggiamo — we escape
voi fuggite — you (plural) escape
loro fuggono — they escape
Here they are in action:
Fuggiamo da una situazione straziante. — We’re escaping from an excruciating situation.
Fuggo dalla guerra. — I’m escaping from war.
Some of the most common verbs that take this group of conjugations are: aprire (to open), coprire (to cover), divertirsi (to have fun), offrire (to offer), partire (to leave), pentirsi (to regret), scoprire (to discover), seguire (to follow), sentire (to feel or to hear), servire (to serve), soffrire (to suffer), vestirsi (to dress).
(The infinitives ending in –si are reflexive verbs, which is a topic for another day; for now it’s worth being able to recognize them as part of this group.)
Since the second group of –ire verbs (below) is much vaster than the first group (above), some learners simply memorize a list of the common verbs in the first group and then know that any others that they come across will generally fall into the second group.
Conjugating –ire Verbs (Group Two, “-isc-”)
This “second” or “isc” type of conjugation in the present tense is more common (so if you’re not sure and you have to make a guess…).
These verbs also remove their –ire endings and then have isc in some of their conjugations.
They’re conjugated as follows with the example verb capire (to understand):
io capisco — I understand
tu capisci — you (singular, informal) understand
lui/lei/Lei capisce — he/she understands/you (singular, formal) understand
noi capiamo — we understand
voi capite — you (plural) understand
loro capiscono — they understand
Recall that the Italian letters sc, when followed by an e or an i, have a “sh” sound; when followed by an o they have a “sk” sound.
Here are some examples with these conjugations:
Capisco tutto. — I understand everything.
Lei capisce la spiegazione. — She understands the explanation.
Take particular care with this conjugation group to note: which subject conjugations don’t have an isc inserted in their endings?
That’s right: noi and voi. It’s common for beginning speakers to mistakenly form conjugations like
Questions to Make Memorization of the Present Tense Easier
Identifying a few patterns can help make these conjugations more memorable and can also help you to avoid common errors. The following questions should help you see these patterns.
We’ll provide the answers to each question just below, but to really test your knowledge, try to first answer them on your own by looking back at the conjugations above if need be.
1. Which is the only lui/lei/Lei conjugation that doesn’t end in –e? How does it end?
2. Which subject pronoun gets the exact same conjugated ending for all regular –are, –ere and –ire verbs?
3. Which is the only loro conjugation that doesn’t end in –ono? How does it end?
1. The –are verb conjugations end in –a.
2. The regular noi conjugations all end in –iamo.
3. The loro conjugations of –are verbs end in –ano.
What other patterns do you see that could help you with memorization?
How to Use the Italian Present Tense in Context
To Discuss Events Happening Now
The foremost use of the Italian present tense is talking about things that are happening in the moment as they’re taking place.
Loro piangono. — They’re crying. (I.e. I’m standing right in front of them and I can see them crying.)
Mandiamo un regalo a nostro nipote. — We’re sending a present to our grandson. (We’re in the post office right now.)
Il professor Rossi allena la squadra di calcio della scuola. — Mr. Rossi is drilling the school’s soccer team.
Ti spiego il mio piano. — I’m clarifying my plan for you.
Notice that in English, this here-and-now idea is often translated with gerund endings (-ing), as in, “they are crying.” While such a construction, the present continuous, also exists in Italian (loro stanno piangendo), it’s less common than in English and reserved for emphasizing that things are currently taking place.
Some Italians prefer to generally use the present continuous in most such here-and-now situations like those above. To some, doing so seems more colloquial. But it’s perfectly correct to use the standard present tense.
To Discuss Regular Events
You can also use the present tense to discuss how things generally, habitually are (e.g., all the time, sometimes, rarely, etc.).
Loro piangono spesso. — They often cry.
Mandiamo i soldi a nostro nipote tutti i mesi. — We send money to our grandson every month.
Riceve sempre una riduzione del cinque per cento. — He always receives a 5 percent reduction.
Finisco di lavorare alle 18:00. — I get off work at 6 p.m. (generally, daily).
Raramente rispondono quando squilla il telefono. — They rarely answer when the phone rings.
Lui apre la farmacia alle 8:00. — He (usually, generally) opens the pharmacy at 8 a.m.
Lavorano a casa. — They work at home.
Lasciate sempre la cucina sporca! — You (plural) are always leaving the kitchen dirty!
To Ask Questions
The same tense with no modifications can be used to ask questions; in English we often need the word “do/does.” Rising intonation in Italian is enough to indicate that the statement is now a question. Take, for instance, the previous two example statements. They can also be questions:
Lavorano a casa? — Do they work at home?
Lasciate sempre la cucina sporca? — Do you always leave the kitchen dirty?
Since Italian present-tense questions can look exactly the same as Italian present-tense statements, it’s incredibly important to raise the intonation for these sentences much more than you would in English. Italians always do so; it’s part of that flowery, wildly pitched sound that probably got you interested in speaking to Italians in the first place!
Listen to some Italians asking questions and then try to mimic that level of pitch variation. You must get this right!
Otherwise, it’s all too common for certain Italian girlfriends to fly off the handle over totally innocent questions asked by their poor American boyfriends who I swear were just seeking information and not trying to make a statement but lacked that emphasized Italian upper inflection at the end of the phrase, and really wished they’d practiced that harder…
You’ve been warned.
If you don’t want to completely forswear Italian romance, another—perhaps safer—way to turn a present tense phrase into a question is to add a question tag at the end.
Lavorano a casa, non è vero? — They work at home, don’t they?
Lasciate sempre la cucina sporca, vero? — You always leave the kitchen dirty, huh?
Traslocano in Nord Italia, no? — They’re moving to the north of Italy, aren’t they?
Lui ci cambia sempre le carte in tavola, giusto? — He’s always changing the rules on us (literally, “changing the cards on the table”), isn’t he?
Finally, Italian’s range of interrogative adverbs, adjectives and pronouns (question words) can also be used with the present tense to make questions.
Perché rimandiamo sempre? — Why are we always delaying?
Con chi passi la maggior parte del tuo tempo? — With whom do you pass most of your time?
Quale restaurante chiude più tardi? — Which restaurant closes later?
With Vedere and Sentire
Moving on to other uses, with the verbs vedere (to see) and sentire (to hear), the present tense on its own is enough to give the idea of being able to do these things.
Mi senti? — Can you hear me?
Vediamo il palco perfettamente. — We can see the stage perfectly.
To Discuss Upcoming Plans
The present tense is also not strictly reserved to talking about the present! For example, as is often the case in English, the present tense can give off a whiff of future meaning, especially when you’re talking about plans.
Domani balliamo con i brasiliani. — Tomorrow we’re dancing with the Brazilians.
Stasera proviamo la coreografia. — Tonight we rehearse the choreography.
To Discuss Ongoing Situations
And the present tense can also be used in certain past situations. It, along with the preposition da and expressions of time, can be used to indicate how long something has been going on for (that is, it started in the past and is still going on at present).
(In English this is often accomplished not with the present tense but with “have/has” plus “been” followed by the gerund.)
Da molti anni lavoro con Raffaella. — I have been working with Raffaella for years.
Mangiamo dalle 17:00. — We have been eating since 5 p.m.
Studio l’italiano da un mese. — I have been studying Italian for one month.
Abito a New York da 1997. — I have lived in New York since 1997.
To Add Some Drama
And finally, while the present tense isn’t generally used to talk about past events in conversation, in speeches or literature you may come across it used to heighten the drama of historical events. (This is sometimes but more rarely done in English as well.)
L’esercito catalano avanza per difendere la frontiera. Le forze armate del Re scappano dalla paura e il popolo dichiara la vittoria. — The Catalan army moved forward to defend the border. The king’s armed forces ran off in fear and the people declared victory.
You should now be quite ready to start practicing speaking and writing your own first Italian sentences. As you experiment, it’s best at first to stick to practicing from lists of regular verbs; there are lots of unfortunately very common irregular verbs that don’t follow the patterns you’ve just learned.
While irregular verbs can be difficult to learn, it’s quite possible to familiarize yourself with how they’re used. You can do this by listening to native speakers or reading Italian content and finding these verbs there. The more you see the language used, the easier it’ll become to understand and learn it yourself.
You can use a program like FluentU, for example, to both listen to and read Italian verbs in action. After you watch these videos, you can use the customized quizzes to review these verbs or create flashcards with these verbs to further drill them.
The good news is that using the Italian present tense become easier to learn once you’ve really mastered the regular verbs, so take your time with these and have fun describing how things are now, how they generally are and what’s happening around you!
Mose Hayward is currently traveling Italy and the rest of Europe with just a wheeled carry-on backpack.