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When to use the auxiliary verb ‘avere’ versus ‘essere’ in the ‘passato prossimo’?

You generally use the auxiliary verb avere [to have] when the main verb is followed by a direct object — an answer to the question “what/who(m)?” — and essere [to be] if it is not. In this post, we’ll review when to use avere and essere as auxiliary verbs. What if specific main verbs take both auxiliaries? Read on to learn the rules and the exceptions!

Table of Contents

What are the two auxiliary verbs in Italian?

The two auxiliary verbs in Italian are avere [to have] and essere [to be]. Here are two examples:
avere ho studiato I have studied.
essere sono partito I have left.

Both sentences above are in the passato prossimo, but in the first one, the verb studiato is introduced by ho (a form of avere [to have]); while in the second one, the verb partito is introduced by sono (a form of essere [to be]). Even though the English present perfect tense is structurally similar to the Italian one, it differs from it in the auxiliary verbs used: in English this tense is formed mainly with “to have,” as shown in the example above. In Italian though, the two auxiliary verbs avere and essere are used alternatively. How can you choose between avere and essere? Keep reading!

What is the rule to help you choose between ‘avere’ and ‘essere’?

To help you choose between avere and essere, remember that the auxiliary is dependent on the main verb and ask yourself the simple question: “what/who(m)?” after this main verb. Knowing this rule for how to choose between avere and essere is fundamental for learners of Italian every time they have to deal with passato prossimo. This will also help when using the other compound tenses formed by the combination of avere/essere conjugated in different tenses + the past participle. Let’s see how it works.

‘Avere’ with TRANSITIVE verbs (= answering the question what/who(m))

The auxiliary avere is used with transitive verbs, which answer the question “what/who(m)?” Let’s say we have to turn the following infinitive into the passato prossimo:

SubjectInfinitiveWhat? Object
Mia mamma
My Mom
to buy
un regalo
a present

The verb comprare [to buy] is the main verb we want to change into passato prossimo; so, let’s ask ourselves: “To buy what?” The answer to the question “what?” is un regalo [a present], which we call “direct object,” or a word not introduced by a preposition. Verbs that take direct objects are called “transitive” and are introduced by the auxiliary verb avere

SubjectPassato prossimo What? Object
Mia mamma
My Mom
ha comprato
has bought
un regalo
a present

The same with the question, “who(m)?” 

SubjectInfinitiveWhat(m)? Object
to meet

We ask ourselves, “incontrare [to meet] who(m)?” “Lucia” is the answer to “who(m)?” and is not introduced by any preposition. Therefore, the verb incontrare is transitive and takes avere.

SubjectPassato prossimo What(m)? Object
ho incontrato
have met

So far, so good. But what if the main verb cannot be followed by a direct object, or an answer to “what/who(m)”?

‘Essere’ with INTRANSITIVE verbs (= not answering the question what/who(m))

When the main verb cannot answer the questions “what/who(m)?” (meaning it cannot be followed by a direct object),  it is intransitive and you can use the auxiliary verb essere. Let’s take a look at the following four categories:

1. Intransitive verbs that indicate an action experienced by the subject

Some intransitive verbs indicate an action experienced by the subject, for example:

  • Sono nato.  I was born.
  • Sono cresciuto.  I have grown up.

BUT you use the auxiliary verb avere with: 

Intransitive verbs that indicate an action actually performed by the subject

  • Ho parlato di te. I have talked about you.
  • Ho creduto a te. I have believed you.

2. Reflexive verbs (the action is performed and reflects back to the subject)

Reflexive verbs, where the action is performed by and reflects back to the subject, also use the auxiliary essere.

  • Mi sono preparato per uscire.  

I got ready to go out. (lit. I prepared myself to go out).

3. Impersonal verbs (the subject is not a person)

Essere is also used as an auxiliary with impersonal verbs, where the subject is not a person.

  • Questa cosa è appena successa.   This thing has just happened.


You’ve got the rule…Here is the exception!
Verbs that indicate the weather or atmospheric phenomena can also use the auxiliary verb avere. You can say:

ha piovuto AND è piovuto       It has rained.
ha nevicato AND è nevicato   It has snowed.

4. Intransitive verbs of movement and status answering “where?”

Finally, intransitive verbs of movement and status, answering the question “where?” are used with essere.

Io sono andato a scuola ieri.               I went to school yesterday.
(I went where? – to school)

Tu sei rimasto a casa tutto il giorno.   You stayed at home all day long.
(You stayed where? – at home)


But remember! Movement verbs such as

  • viaggiare to travel
  • attraversare to cross
  • nuotare to swim
  • camminare to walk
  • sciare to ski
  • girare to turn

are exceptions and take avere:

Ho viaggiato in lungo e in largo. I have traveled far and wide.

‘Avere’ and ‘essere’ with the same verb

Sometimes avere and essere are used with the same verb. Ready for a big surprise? Look at the following examples with the verb passare:

Oggi Anna ha passato tutta la mattina a casa. 

Today Anna has spent all morning at home.

Oggi Anna è passata all’ufficio postale. 

Today Anna passed by the post office.

Both sentences are correct, so, what do you do when a verb can be introduced by both avere and essere, then? 

With verbs that take both avere and essere, depending on their use, the key question “what/who(m)?” is again of great help. The verb passare, when used to talk about spending time (transitive use), takes avere; when used to talk about passing by (going) somewhere (intransitive use), it takes essere.

Oggi Anna ha passato tutta la mattina a casa.

Today Anna has spent (what?) all morning at home.

Oggi Anna è passata all’ufficio postale. 

Today Anna passed (where?) by the post office.

If you look closely, you’ll notice another key difference in the two examples: the past participle endings change (ha passato vs. è passata). Why? With avere, the past participle does not agree in number and gender with the verb’s subject, Anna, but with essere, it does. That’s due to the agreement rules that regulate the structure of sentences in Italian. Keep in mind that the same rules and exceptions apply to all the compound tenses in Italian: passato prossimo, trapassato prossimo [past perfect], futuro anteriore [future perfect], and trapassato remoto [past anterior]. In the meantime, let’s see how it works for the passato prossimo.


In conclusion,

  • The use of avere and essere depends on the verbs they ‘help,’ that is, the verbs they precede.
  • The key question “what/who(m)?” is of great help for learners of Italian who do not have a dictionary handy to check whether a verb is transitive or intransitive.

And now, buona fortuna [good luck] with our exercises.

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