Italian verb - conjugation rules

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Italian verbs

Verb forms

1. What is a verb?

In grammar, the verb is not only one of the parts of speech, but is above all the core of the sentence around which the other elements are organized.

A verb presupposes the existence of a subject (a person or a thing) that is usually the person or thing we are interested in, and which is responsible for the action of the verb. (Cases in which this is debatable are discussed in the Section Impersonal verbs, with verbs like “bisognare”, “occorrere” or “piovere”).

  • Marco parte domani. = Marco is leaving tomorrow.
  • Sara diventerà infermiera. = Sara will become a nurse.
  • Io ho mangiato. = I have eaten.

The main variables of the Italian verb are the person, number, tense, mode, its transitivity (transitive or intransitive), form and voice.

Person

1st sing: io penso = I think

2nd sing: tu pensi = you think

3rd sing: lui pensa = he thinks

Number

1st sing: io mangio = I eat

1st pl: noi mangiamo = we eat

Tense

present: io vado = I go

future: io andrò = I will go

Mood

indicative: io vado = I go

conditional: io andrei = I would go

Transitivity

transitive: lei mangia la mela = she eats an apple

intransitive: lei parte = she leaves

Form

negative: non sento = I don't hear

interrogative: hai già telefonato? = Have you called yet?

reflexive: io mi lavo = I wash myself

pronominal: mi sono accorto dell'errore = I realized the mistake

Voice

active: io scrivo una lettera = I write a letter

passive: la casa è stata costruita in tre mesi = The house was built in three months

2. Stem and ending

Verbal forms are made up of a stem that expresses the meaning of the verb (ingrass-are, sottomett-ere, appar-ire) and of an ending that changes according to the person, the number, the tense and the verbal mood:

  • am-are (to love) → am-o (“I love”), am-avo (“I loved”), am-erò (“I will love”)
  • rid-ere (to laugh) → rid-o (“I laugh”), rid-evo (“I was laughing”), rid-erò (“I will laugh”)

Person and number expressed by the ending are important because the verb has to agree with its subject but in Italian, personal pronouns are often omitted, for example:

  • Partiamo? = Are we leaving?/Let’s go?
  • È andato via. = He's gone.
  • Telefonerò può tardi. = I'll call you later.

If we look at the full conjugation for comprare (to buy) at the indicative present, this would appear clearer:

  • (io) compro / (noi) compriamo
  • (tu) compri / (voi) comprate
  • (lui) compra / (loro) comprano

Because the ending of the verb changes every time and is specific to each person, the subject pronoun is not really necessary. Instead, in English because there's no difference in the verbal form between “I buy”, “you buy” and “we buy” the pronouns are the only indication of who the subject is.

Usually personal pronouns in Italian are used when you want to emphasize the subject of the action or when there is ambiguity.

  • Io ci sono andato. = Maybe somebody didn't go, but I did go.
  • Io l’ho detto, non tu. = I said it, not you; or It was me who said it, not you.

3. Mood and tense

There are four finite moods (i.e. having person and number): indicative, subjunctive, conditional and imperative. There are three non-finite moods: infinitive (ex. amare), participle (ex.amato) and gerund (ex.amando). Infinitive and gerund forms don't have person nor number. The participle instead has four forms: masculine singular, feminine singular, masculine plural and feminine plural (amato, amata, amati, amate).

Except for the conditional and the imperative, each verbal mood can have multiple tenses, simple and compound forms. For example, the simple tenses of the indicative are presente, imperfetto, futuro semplice, passato remoto while the compound tenses are passato prossimo, trapassato prossimo, trapassato remoto, futuro anteriore. The compound tenses are formed with the past participle of the verb preceded by the auxiliary verb conjugated (there are two auxiliary verbs in Italian: essere and avere). See also the section Auxiliary Verbs.

Presente – Present simple

The indicative present tense is mainly used to talk about real events at the present time. It is formed in the follow way for regular verbs:

1st group 2nd group 3rd group
(-are) (-ere) (-ire)
(io) compr-o “I buy” (io) perd-o “I lose” (io) part-o “I leave”

If we compare it with English, for example, you can say “I speak”, “I'm speaking” or occasionally “I do speak”. In Italian, instead, you use the same form “parlo” for all of these.

It is also possible to use another form: sto parlando ( see Progressive forms), which is the exact equivalent of “I am speaking”, but this form in Italian is used to stress that something is happening just now:

  • Cosa stai facendo? = What are you doing?

In Italian as in English you can also use the present tense to talk about something that is going to happen in the near future.

  • Parto domani alle undici. = I'm leaving tomorrow at eleven.
  • Arriva la settimana prossima. = She's coming next week.

Imperfetto - Imperfect

The indicative imperfect is used to describe real actions or events in the past especially in descriptions, and to say what used to happen, or was happening. These are generally actions that occurred at the same time as something else, often because they were repeated or lasted for a long time.

The indicative imperfect is one of the most regular tenses in Italian, for almost all verbs it is formed by add the follow endings:

1st group 2nd group 3rd group
(-are) (-ere) (-ire)
(io) compr-av-o “I was buying” (io) perd-ev-o “I was losing” (io) part-iv-o “I was leaving”

Examples:

  • Ieri mi sentivo bene. = I felt fine yesterday.
  • Quando ha telefonato dormivo. = I was sleeping when he phoned.
  • Ci trovavamo ogni venerdì. = We used to meet every Friday.

Passato Prossimo – Present Perfect

The indicative passato prossimo is mainly used to refer to real actions or events in the recent past. It is a compound tense which is conjugated by combining the auxiliaries “avere” or “essere” with the past participle of the main verb regardless of its conjugation group. Most transitive verbs (most verbs in general) take “avere” as their auxiliary, while most intransitive and all reflexive verbs take “essere”. (see Auxiliary Verbs).

When “essere” is the auxiliary, the past participle must agree in gender and number with the grammatical subject, so for example “Lui è partit-o” (masc. s.) vs. “Lei è partit-a” (fem. s.) vs. “Loro sono partiti” (masc. plur.)

Aux. Avere Aux. Essere
(io) ho comprato “I bought/have bought” (io) sono partito(a) “I left/have left”

Examples:

  • Si è rotto una gamba. = He's broken his leg.
  • Sono partita prima di lui. = I left before him.
  • Nadia è uscita. = Nadia has gone out.

Trapassato Prossimo – Past Perfect

By substituting the imperfect forms of “avere” and “essere” for the present forms of these auxiliaries, the passato prossimo becomes the trapassato prossimo or “pluperfect” which indicates a previous moment in the past, what had happened or had been true at a point in the past:

Aux. Avere Aux. Essere
(io) avevo comprato “I had (already) bought” (io) ero partito(a) “I had (already) left”

Examples:

  • Avevamo già mangiato quando è arrivato. = We’d already eaten when he arrived.
  • Non gli avevo mai parlato prima. = I’d never spoken to him before.
  • Ovviamente avevo sbagliato. = I’d obviously made a mistake.
  • Avevano lavorato molto il giorno prima. = They’d worked hard the day before.

Passato Remoto – Historic Past or Preterite

The indicative passato remoto is a simple tense, like the imperfect and present, which does not take an auxiliary. It is used to refer to actions or events which have no connection with the present and are therefore in a “remote” past. The past historic is equivalent to the English simple past, except that it is mainly used in written Italian.

1st group 2nd group 3rd group
(-are) (-ere) (-ire)
(io) compr-ai “I bought” (io) perd-etti (or perdei)* “I lost” (io) part-ii “I left”

*The verb “perdere”, like many -ere verbs, also has irregular forms. See Irregular Verbs.

Examples:

  • Ci fu un improvviso silenzio quando entrai nella stanza. = There was a sudden silence when I came into the room.
  • Non ebbero nessuna speranza. = They had no hope.
  • Parlò lentamente. = He spoke slowly.

Trapassato remoto - Preterite Perfect

By substituting the past historic forms of “avere” and “essere” for the imperfect forms of these auxiliaries, the trapassato prossimo becomes the trapassato remoto.

Aux. Avere Aux. Essere
(io) ebbi comprato “(as soon as) I had bought” (io) fui partito(a) “(as soon as) I had left”

This tense is rarely used in conversation, just like the passato remoto, and you’ll see it mostly in literature. It is used to express something like: “After Pocahontas had finished talking, John Smith left.”

It is only used after words that talk about time, like:

  • Quando = when
  • Dopo che = after
  • Non appena = as soon as
  • Finché = as long as
  • Solo dopo che = only after

Important: you only need to use the trapassato remoto when you’re already using the passato remoto (Consecutio temporum): supporting sentence (trapassato remoto) + most important part of your sentence (passato remoto).

Example:

  • Non appena ebbe visto l’automobile, decise di comprarla. = As soon as he had seen the car, he decided to buy it.

Futuro semplice – Future simple and Futuro anteriore – Future perfect

The future tense is used to talk about something that will happen or will be true. If in English there are several ways to express the future tense: will, ing form and ing + infinitive, in Italian, you can use the future tense or the present tense.

  • Quando saranno pronti i documenti? = When will the documents be ready?
  • Se non le dispiace ripasso sabato. = If you don't mind, I'll come back on Saturday.

The future in Italian has two tenses: futuro semplice and anteriore. Let’s see some examples of futuro semplice:

1st group 2nd group 3rd group
(-are) (-ere) (-ire)
(io) comprer-ò “I will buy” (io) perder-ò “I will lose” (io) partir-ò “I will leave”
  • Non credo che farà bel tempo. = I don’t think the weather will be nice.
  • Lo sapremo domani. = We’ll know tomorrow.
  • Quando finirò, verrò da te. = When I finish, I’ll come to yours.
  • Lo comprerò quando avrò abbastanza denaro. = I’ll buy it when I’ve got enough money.

The futuro anteriore is created when you combine a future tense conjugation (like “sarò”) with a past participle (like “riuscito”), which makes it a compound tense. In general, you’ll use this verb tense when you’re talking about an action in the future before something else happens.

You can also use it when you’re not sure about something that’s happening in the future or that happened in the past. In this case, other words that you could use instead of forming the futuro anteriore would be “forse - maybe”, “magari - maybe” or “probabilmente - probably” (in English you would probably use “must”).

Examples:

  • Alle sette avremo già mangiato. = By seven we'll already have eaten.
  • Noi avremo parlato al padre di Anna. = We will already have spoken to Anna's father.
  • Marco non è venuto alla festa, sarà stato molto impegnato. - Marco didn’t come to the party, he must have been very busy.

Condizionale - Conditional

The conditional mood refers to hypothetical events, especially those which depend on a particular condition, for instance, 'I would help you if I could'.

1st group 2nd group 3rd group
(-are) (-ere) (-ire)
(io) comprer-ei “I would buy” (io) perder-ei “I would lose” (io) partir-ei “I would leave”

It is generally used in the main clause, in connection with a second clause in the subjunctive that expresses the “if” condition necessary for the conditional to take place:

  • Comprerei quella macchina, se non fosse così costosa. = I would buy that car if it wasn’t so expensive.

It is also used to express wishes and desires, even for something as basic as, 'I would like a coffee'. It is often used with the verbs: volere (to want), potere (to be able) and dovere (to have to – 'should' in the conditional).

  • Vorrei un caffè. = I'd like a coffee.
  • Potrebbe venire domani. = He could come tomorrow.
  • Luca dovrebbe imparare inglese. = Luca should learn English.

Congiuntivo - Subjunctive

The subjunctive is used in unreal or hypothetical situations, often after certain impersonal expressions and after verbs expressing desire, will, preference, opinions and feelings (when the subject of the desire, wish, etc, is different to the subject of the verb). Usually there will be che ('that') between the expressions and the subjunctive.

1st group 2nd group 3rd group
(-are) (-ere) (-ire)
che io compr-i “(a shame) for me to buy/that I should buy” che io perd-a “(a shame) for me to lose/that I should lose” che io part-a “(a shame) for me to leave/that I should leave”

The subjunctive mood has two tenses, present and imperfect. Let’s see some examples:

  • Penso che siano pronti. = I think that they are ready. => pres. subj
  • Bisogna che Fabio parta subito. = Fabio needs to leave now. => pres. subj
  • Preferisce che stiamo in casa. = He prefers us to stay at home. => pres. subj
  • Se fossi ricco, mi comprerei un appartamento a Parigi. = If I were rich, I would buy an apartment in Paris. => imperfect subj.

Remember: Notice that unlike the English past tense, the indicative imperfect is not used to make hypothetical conjectures (e.g. “If I had a million dollars, I'd quit this lousy job.”), for this the subjunctive is used in Italian (see the example below).

  • Se avessi un milione di dollari, lascerei questo lavoro e partirei per l’Australia. = If I had a million dollars, I’d quit this job and go to Australia.
  • Se io fossi ricco, viaggerei sempre. = If I was rich, I'd always travel.

This is the expression of the “if” condition in Italian: the conditional mood is generally used in the main clause (the one without “if”), in connection with a second clause in the subjunctive.

Sometimes the Subjunctive Present can be very ambiguous:

  • Spero che vinca = I hope she/he wins.

We don’t know who should win. Because the subjunctive is the only mood which doesn't have a specific form for each person in Italian! So, unless the subject of the verb "win" can be inferred from the context, it must be specified Spero che tu vinca or Spero che lei vinca. = I hope you win or I hope she wins.

4. Transitivity and Voice

Transitive and intransitive verbs

The verb is transitive when it can have a direct object complement:

  • Paola legge il libro. = Paola reads the book.

It is intransitive when it does not have the direct object.

  • Luca viaggerà (in treno). = Luca will travel (by train).

Active and passive voices

The active voice of Italian verbs presents the following structure: Subject + Verb + Object The main function of the active voice is to point out who is acting and which is the direct object of the verb.

Remember! The verbs with the active voice have the auxiliary avere (to have) for the compound tenses.

The passive voice aims to focus on the action conveyed by the verb and it is used when the subject of the verb is the person or thing that is affected by the action.

Usually, the structure of the passive voice follows the same rules: - the subject of the active sentence becomes the agent of the passive one; - the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive one.

The passive voice in Italian is formed essentially in the same way as in English, by adding the past participle to the auxiliary “essere” (although “venire” can also be used):

  • (io) sono invitato(a) etc. “I am invited etc.”
  • (tu) sei invitato(a) etc. “you (sing.) are invited etc.”
  • (lui/lei) è invitato(a) etc. “s/he is invited etc.”
  • (noi) siamo invitati(e) etc. “we are invited etc.”
  • (voi) siete invitati(e) etc. “you (pl.) are invited etc.”
  • (loro/esse) sono invitati(e) etc. “they are invited etc.”

Notice that with “essere” (or “venire”) as the auxiliary, the past participle must always agree with the subject in gender and number.

Transitive verbs (those which take a direct object like “costruire”) can be active or passive. In the active form the subject performs the action, in the passive voice the subject undergoes it.

  • La ditta costruisce la casa. (active voice) = The company builds the house.
  • La casa è costruita dalla ditta or La casa viene costruita dalla ditta. (passive voice) = The house is built by the company.

Often in passive sentences (as for example in the one above) the person performing the action is expressed by the preposition "da = by" followed by a noun, i.e. by an agent complement. The agent complement, however, is not necessarily present:

  • Siamo stati promossi. = We have been promoted.

Attention: intransitive verbs do not have a passive form.

BUT they look like passives in compound forms because they also take “essere” as their auxiliary followed by a past participle:

  • Lei è rispettata nel suo lavoro. = passive voice of the verb rispettare
  • Lei è rimasta nel suo ufficio. = passato prossimo of the verb rimanere

Verb forms

Italian verbs

1. Negative and interrogative forms

All verbs can have the negative form: in order to conjugate verbs with this form we use the negative adverb non, or the double negation with mai and/or nessuno.

  • Non bevo alcolici. = I don't drink alcohol.
  • Non lo vedo mai. = I never see him.
  • Non c’è mai nessuno. = There's never anyone.

An interesting case to discuss is the imperative mood at the negative form. How to tell someone NOT to do something?

For TU use non with the infinitive (the –are, –ere, –ire form) of the verb:

  • Non dire bugie Marco! = Don’t tell lies Marco!
  • Non dimenticare! = Don’t forget!

If there is also a pronoun (see below for more details), join it onto the infinitive, or put it before:

  • Non toccarlo! OR Non lo toccare! = Don’t touch it!
  • Non dirglielo! OR Non glielo dire! = Don’t tell him about it!
  • Non farmi ridere! OR Non mi far ridere! = Don’t make me laugh!
  • Non preoccuparti! OR Non ti preoccupare! = Don’t worry!

In all other cases, for VOI, NOI use non with the imperative:

  • Non dimenticate, ragazzi. = Don’t forget, children.
  • Non esageriamo! = Don’t let’s go too far!

With pronouns:

  • Non guardateli! = Don’t look at them.
  • Non ditemelo! = Don’t say it to me!
  • Non mangiamoli tutti. = Let’s not eat them all.
  • Non diamoglielo. = Let’s not give it to them.

For polite forms LEI, LORO of the imperative put pronouns before the verb and take the subjunctive:

  • Non li guardi, signora. = Don’t look at them, madam.
  • Non si preoccupino, signori.= Don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen.

NB: Notice that the Imperative combines, “borrows” forms form the Subjunctive (polite imperatives) and Infinitive (negative imperatives).

Interrogative form: for this form the order of words in Italian does not change: what changes, compared to the same affirmative sentence, is only the intonation of the voice.

  • Hai visto Sara? = Have you seen Sara?

DOUBLE/CONTRACTED PRONOUNS

Since we have mentioned the Italian double and contracted pronouns in the previous examples, here we’ll make this topic clearer. These pronouns are commonly used by Italian speakers.

1. When we use two pronouns together, some pronouns of indirect object change:

mi - me
ti - te
ci - ce
vi - ve
  • Me li dai? = Do you give it to me?
  • È mia, non te la do. = It’s mine, I’m not going to give it to you.
  • Ce l’hanno promesso. = They promised it to us.
  • Ve lo mando domani. = I’ll send it to you tomorrow.

2. When you want to use gli (meaning to him or to them) and le (meaning to her) with lo, la, li or le, you add an –e to gli and join it to lo, la, le, li.

gli/le + lo - glielo
gli/le + la - gliela
gli/le + li - glieli
gli/le + le - gliele
  • Glieli hai promessi. = You promised them to her.
  • Gliele ha spedite. = He sent them to them.
  • Carlo? Glielo dirò domani. = Carlo? I’ll tell him tomorrow.

3. When using two pronouns together to give an order or when using the infinitive, the two pronouns join together and are added on to the verb.

  • Mi piacciono, ma non vuole comprarmeli. = I like them but he won’t buy me them.
  • Ecco la borsa per Anna, puoi dargliela? = Here’s Anna’s bag, can you give it to her?
  • Non abbiamo i biglietti, può mandarceli? = We haven’t got the tickets – can you send them to us?

4. Notice that when using two pronouns together the indirect object comes first and that the final e of the infinitive is dropped:

prendere + mi + li - prendermeli
mandare + ti + le - mandartele

Remember! If you are searching for these verb forms, with double and simple pronouns, you will not find them in our Conjugator, since they follow the same rules of normal forms + the pronouns. In order to see the conjugation of the verb you are interested in, for example

  • prendermeli - it is formed by prendere + me + li; so you will have to type prendere in the Conjugator and you will see all the conjugation.
  • spiegargliele - it is formed by spiegare + gliele (gli/le + le); so you will have to take spiegare if you need to check the conjugation.

2. Reflexive forms

In Italian we can find a lot of reflexive verbs.

These verbs are called reflexive because they "reflect" the action of the verb on the subject of the sentence. When a verb is reflexive, the pronoun (mi, ti, si, ci, vi, si) has the function of direct or indirect object (Mi sono detto che = I said to myself that).

Here are some important Italian reflexive verbs: accomodarsi (to sit down; to take a seat), addormentarsi (to go to sleep), alzarsi (to get up), annoiarsi (to get bored; to be bored), arrabbiarsi (to get angry), chiamarsi (to be named), chiedersi (to wonder), divertirsi (to enjoy oneself; to have fun), farsi male (to hurt oneself), fermarsi (to stop), lavarsi (to wash; to get washed), perdersi (to get lost), pettinarsi (to comb one’s hair), preoccuparsi (to worry), prepararsi (to get ready), ricordarsi (to remember), sbrigarsi (to hurry), svegliarsi (to wake up), vestirsi (to dress; to get dressed).

  • Io mi lavo. = I wash myself.
  • Mariella si veste. = Mariella dresses herself.
  • Mi alzo alle sette. = I get up at seven o’clock.
  • Lucia si è fatta male. = Lucia hurt herself.
  • I bambini si divertono. = The children are enjoying themselves.
  • Si accomodi! = Take a seat!

In Italian there are different types of reflexive verbs, known as reciprocal, apparent, pronominal etc. Not all will be listed here but only some interesting cases useful for non-native speakers will be presented.

  • Mario si è comprato un orologio = Mario bought himself a watch. - Apparent reflexive form, when the action of the verb is not reflected on the subject, so the reflexive pronoun does not have the function of direct object.
  • Alessia e Caterina si sono abbracciate = Alessia hugged Catherine and Catherine hugged Alessia, that is they hugged each other. - Reciprocal reflexive form
  • Mi si è informicolato un braccio. = My arm has become numb; I've got pins and needles in my harm. - Pronominal reflexive verb (because of the double/triple pronoun)

Infinitive forms of reflexive and pronominal verbs are recognizable because they end in -si: abbracciarsi, scurirsi, invidiarsi. Conjugated forms of such verbs are preceded by pronominal particles (mi, ti, si, ci, vi, si) and the auxiliary is always “essere” (even if the verb takes “avere” when it's not used reflexively)!

In order to make this clearer, here we will see how the pronominal particles of the infinitive form of the reflexive verb abbracciarsi change according to the person used:

Person and number Italian English
1 sing Vieni ad abbracciarmi Come and give me a hug
2 sing Non posso abbracciarti I can't hug you
3 sing Tra poco sarà possibile tornare ad abbracciarsi Soon it will be possible to go back to hugging
1 pl Non possiamo abbracciarci We can't hug
2 pl Voi potete abbracciarvi You can hug each other
3 pl Loro amano abbracciarsi They love to hug

NB: Some pronominal verbs in Italian add the pronoun ne after the reflexive pronoun. The most important of these verbs is andarsene (to go away, to leave).

Me ne vado. I’m leaving.
Vattene! Go away!
Ce ne andiamo. Let’s be off.
Se ne sono andati. They’ve left

It is important to retain, as well, the verb prendersela (to blame, go after), that is very commonly used nowadays:

  • Non te la prendere, è solo un bambino! = Don’t be mad, he’s just a child!
  • Se la prende ogni volta che provo a dirgli qualcosa! = He gets mad every time I try to tell him something!

3. Progressive and gerundive forms

Italian has a progressive construction, similar to English “I am doing”, which is formed by combining the auxiliary “stare ” in the present or imperfect with the gerundive form of any verb:

Present progressive Imperfect progressive
(io) sto parlando, correndo etc. (io) stavo parlando, correndo etc.
(tu) stai parlando, correndo etc. (tu) stavi parlando, correndo etc.
(lui) sta parlando, correndo etc. (lui) stava parlando, correndo etc.
(noi) stiamo parlando, correndo etc. (noi) stavamo parlando, correndo etc.
(voi) state parlando, correndo etc. (voi) stavate parlando, correndo etc.
(loro) stanno parlando, correndo etc. (loro) stavano parlando, correndo etc.

The gerundive expresses a verbal action which is connected in some way to another action, for example “by stretching”, “while reading” etc. The exact interpretation of the relationship between the two verbs depends largely on context. It is a non-finite form of the verb and therefore does not vary according to a grammatical subject.

The gerund therefore has only one form: “-ando” for 1st group verbs, and “-endo” for all others.

  • Leggendo, ho imparato molte cose. = By reading, I've learned many things.
  • Mentre stavo leggendo è entrata la zia. = When I was reading, my aunt came in.

IMPORTANT to retain: Where to put pronouns used with the gerund?

Pronouns are usually joined onto the end of the gerund.

Vedendoli è scoppiata in lacrime. When she saw them she burst into tears.
Ascoltandolo mi sono addormentato. Listening to him, I fell asleep.
Incontrandosi per caso sono andati al bar. Meeting each other by chance, they went to a café.
Alzandosi dal letto, ha sbattuto la testa. Getting out of bed, he hit his head.

When the gerund is part of a continuous tense the pronoun come before stare.

Ti sto parlando I’m talking to you.
Ci sto pensando I’m thinking about it.
Si sta vestendo He’s getting dressed.
Me lo stavano mostrando They were showing me it.
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