“To Be” in Italian: The Simple Guide to Conjugating Essere

Essere is an Italian verb meaning “to be” or “to exist”. Learning the conjugations of essere immediately gives you the ability to create simple sentences, such as “I am American” or “What time is it?”

You also need it to say where you’re from or to express possession. Essere also functions as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses, so you can talk about events beyond the present tense.

Clearly, knowing how to use “to be” in Italian is essential learning if you want to become fluent.

Below is a quick and simple guide with conjugations, common expressions, tips and more to get you started!


The Present, Imperfect and Future Conjugations of Essere

Learning the conjugations of essere happens in the first few pages of any Italian textbook, and there’s no way to get around it. Luckily, as far as grammar goes, it’s fairly straightforward.

How to conjugate essere in the present tense (note that it’s an irregular verb!):

Io sono I am
Tu sei You are (informal)
Lui è
Lei è
Lei è
He is
She is
You are (formal)
Noi siamo We are
Voi siete You all are
Loro sono They are

Naturally, as you progress in Italian, you’re going to want to communicate about more than what’s happening in just the present moment.

The imperfect tense, or imperfetto, is used to talk about continued actions in the past. It would be used to describe two past actions going on at the same time—instances when the words “used to” or “would” are used in English.

How to conjugate essere in the imperfect tense:

Io ero I was
Tu eri You were (informal)
Lui era
Lei era
Lei era
He was
She was
You were (formal)
Noi eravamo We were
Voi eravate You all were
Loro erano They were

Next, the future simple tense, or futuro semplice, is used to express what will happen in the future.

While in English we would use the words “will” or “going to,” Italian requires the verb essere to be conjugated. Notice how all the conjugations start with the stem sar-.

How to conjugate essere in the future simple tense:

Io sarò I will be
Tu sarai You will be (informal)
Lui sarà
Lei sarà
Lei sarà
He will be
She will be
You will be (formal)
Noi saremo We will be
Voi sarete You all will be
Loro saranno They will be

There are additional tenses in Italian, including the conditional tense, the subjunctive and other forms of past tenses, some of which use essere as an auxiliary verb.

Learning the conjugations of the present, imperfect and future tenses, however, is a great place to start to build up your communicative ability in the language and prepare yourself for using compound tenses.

How to Form the Negative of Essere

Now we’ll look at how to say when someone or something is not something.

To form the negative with any verb in Italian—including essere—put non before the verb. For example:

Non sono occupato oggi. (I am not busy today.)

Often in Italian, you will omit the pronoun in the sentence because the verb tells you that information. For instance, we left out the subject pronoun Io (I) above.

But what if we are using a pronoun before essere? In that case, non goes after the pronoun and before the verb.

Lei non è mia cugina. (She is not my cousin.)

Common Expressions That Use Essere

General descriptions: As noted before, the verb essere is very useful when starting to learn Italian. This is because it can lead to a lot of simple expressions, particularly in terms of describing people, objects and places.

The conjugated verb connects the subject with an attribute, like this:

Il cappello è rosso. (The hat is red.)

Il film è lungo. (The movie is long.)

To indicate place of origin: When we want to say where a person or object is from, we use the appropriate form of essere di.

Io sono di Roma. (I am from Rome.)

Il professore è di Madrid. (The professor is from Madrid.)

To show possession: Much like in English, essere can be used in simple phrases to indicate possession.

Questa è la mia giacca. (That is my jacket.)

Questo è il gatto di Maria. (That is Maria’s cat.)

Basic Grammatical Pointers for Using Essere

  • Essere is regularly irregular. While most verbs maintain their stem and change their endings based on their conjugation, this doesn’t hold true for essere (although it does maintain the same stem throughout the simple future tense).

    Essere is therefore an irregular verb and often looks very different in different tenses. Unfortunately, you’ll just have to commit its conjugations to memory.

  • Pronouns: take them or leave them. Unlike in English, Italian pronouns are optional, as mentioned above. The conjugation of the verb is usually enough.

    In cases where the conjugation is the same (as in sono for both “I am” and “they are”), context is used to determine meaning. Often, pronouns are added in order to express an emphasis, like “Io sono stanco.” (I am tired.)

  • You’ll have to decide how formal you want to be. While we don’t distinguish between forms of the second person in English, Italian speakers do. There are informal and formal ways to say “you.”

    If a person is a stranger or older than you, it’s appropriate to use Lei è for “you are.” However, if you know the person fairly well or if they’re younger, you would probably use tu sei.

  • Age isn’t only a number—it’s something you have. One mistake beginning learners often make is to express age the same way we do in English, with the verb “to be.”

    However, in Italian, you’ll use the verb avere (to have) instead. So Italians don’t say “I am thirty years old,” but “I have thirty years” (Ho trent’anni).

Tips for Mastering “To Be” in Italian

Practice making simple sentences with adjectives

While reciting the conjugations of essere is a handy way to get them in your head (sono, sei, è…), to really get comfortable employing them in writing and speech takes a bit more effort.

As you go down the list of conjugations, put them into simple sentences using adjectives you know. Conjugating essere within the context of a sentence is a great way to increase your proficiency with the verb, as well as pick up new vocab words.

If you don’t know many adjectives in Italian, start with this list here. Feel free to choose words that sound like their English equivalent, such as ignorante, illegale, famoso.

As you’re forming your sentences, don’t forget that the endings of most adjectives change according to the gender and plurality of the subject!

Make use of Italian resources

There are a variety of resources that encourage the correct use of essere. For example, you can listen to native speakers on Forvo’s Italian pronunciation dictionary to check your pronunciation of sei or any other word.

There’s also a host of Italian podcasts, books and TV shows to expose you to the ways native Italians really use the language.

In fact, that’s exactly what the learning platform FluentU does.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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Practice saying the conjugations out loud

Sometimes we forget what a powerful connection there is between our brains and our ears. Something about the act of saying something aloud helps us remember it better. Also, it’s a good way to build up “mouth-memory” for when you speak Italian with someone else.

Easy language exchange

Finding a learning partner can be a great way to speak Italian with someone of a similar level. It can also be a source of motivation to keep learning.

To find someone to speak Italian with, consider checking out relevant Facebook groups or sites like The Mixxer and Easy Language Exchange.

Try to practice speaking once a week or more. The more you use the Italian “to be” in your conversations, the more instinctual it will become!


Mastering a few tenses and finding ways to practice them with essere will help you communicate aspects about yourself and others while giving you a solid foundation for continuing toward fluency.

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