V. Ten Things to Know about Verb Rules in Italian.


In this section we will insert pronunciation guides only for words which may be difficult for the beginner, such as three-syllable words stressed on the first syllable (essere, scrivere), or words ending in an accented vowel (partirò), which must be stressed on the final syllable. For an explanation of the phonetics of the Pronunciation Guide, click here.


1. Inflection and infinitives.
In Italian the verb endings undergo changes, called inflection, to indicate the subject of the verb and the tense. Thus porto means "I carry" while portiamo means "we carry," and porterò (pohr-tay-roh) "I will carry." The various endings need to be memorized, but recognizing and using them will become easy with practice. The infinitive is the basic "neutral" form of the verb with no subject or tense indicated, and always ends in -re: portare (pohr-tah-ray), to carry; credere (kray-day-ray), to believe; finire (fee-nee-ray), to finish.


2. The three conjugations.
A regular verb in Italian will belong to one of three conjugations or inflection systems. The conjugations are distinguished by their different infinitive endings (-are, -ere, and -ire) attached to the “root” or main part of the verb. Thus portare is a first conjugation verb, credere belongs to the second conjugation, and finire and partire to the third.
The third conjugation is further divided into those verbs that add the syllable -isc- to some of the present tense forms (finisce, fee-nee-shay, he finishes), and those that do not (parte, pahr-tay, he leaves).


3. Irregular verbs.
Many of the most common verbs in Italian, such as essere (ehs-say-ray), "to be," and avere (ah-vay-ray), "to have," are irregular, that is, their forms do not always follow the regular conjugation systems. Other irregular verbs include andare, to go; sapere, to know; and dire, to say. These irregular forms must be learned by heart--but most irregular verbs, you will be happy to know, are irregular only for a few of the tenses and regular everywhere else.


4. Past participle.
To form the past participle, add the ending -ato to the root for a regular first conjugation verb, -uto for the second conjugation, and -ito for the third: portato, carried (from portare, to carry); creduto, believed (from credere, kray-day-ray, to believe); finito, finished (from finire, to finish).
Some verbs have irregular past participles: perso, lost (from perdere, pehr-day-ray, to lose), scritto, written (from scrivere, skree-vay-ray, to write).
The past participle may be used as an adjective and must be inflected as such: il lavoro finito, the finished work; questa facenda è finita, this business is finished.
An important use of the past participle is in the compound tenses of the verb, discussed in the next paragraph.


5. Auxiliary verbs and compound tenses.
In addition to their function as stand-alone verbs, avere (to have) and essere (to be) are also used as “auxiliaries” in the various compound tenses, where they are combined with the past participle of a verb. Examples: ho portato, I have carried; siamo andati, we have gone; aveva mandato, he had sent; sarà partito, he will have left. 
The general rule is that avere is the auxiliary used for transitive verbs (those that can take a direct object, like portare, to carry, and finire, to finish), while essere is used for intransitive verbs (those that cannot take a direct object, like andare, to go, and venire, to come).
Note that when essere is used as the auxiliary, the past participle is treated as an adjective and must be inflected to agree with the subject of the verb: mia sorella è partita, my sister has left.


6. Gerund.
The gerund is formed by adding -ando to the root of first conjugation verbs, and -endo to second and third: portando, credendo, partendo. The gerund is used to indicate an action performed by the subject at the same time as the main verb: Sono arrivato alla stazione, portando una grande valigia, I arrived at the station carrying a large suitcase. Passegiando per la strada, incontreremo molta gente, walking along the street, we will meet many people.
The gerund is also combined with forms of the verb stare (to stay, stand) to create the progressive tense: Non posso andare stanotte, sto studiando, I cannot go tonight, I am studying. Stavamo finendo la cena quando è arrivato Gino, we were finishing dinner when Gino arrived.


7. Reflexive verbs.
Reflexive verbs are those that must be used with the reflexive pronouns mi, ti, si, ci, vi, already encountered in the section on pronouns. Reflexive verbs are indicated in the infinitive form with the suffix -si, and they are often used in Italian where English has a simple non-reflexive verb, such as to wash (lavarsi), to get up (alzarsi), to remember (ricordarsi). Examples: noi ci laviamo, we wash (ourselves); lui si alza, he gets up; tu ti ricorderai, you will remember.
When compound tenses are used, the reflexive verbs must take essere (to be) as the auxiliary: si è ricordato, he remembered; ci siamo alzati, we got up.


8. Impersonal form of verbs.
Italian commonly uses an “impersonal” form of the verb, namely the third person singular with the reflexive pronoun si, where English speakers might use the indefinite subject “one” or “they.” Examples: Si viaggia oggidì in treno, one goes by train nowadays. Si dice che la mostra sia spettacolare, they say the exhibit is spectacular. Si mangia bene in quel ristorante, one eats well in that restaurant.


9. Subjunctive mood.
Unlike the indicative "mood" where the verb is used to state a simple fact (Paolo ha una nuova macchina, Paul has a new car), the subjunctive mood indicates a situation that is wishful, doubtful, unproven or subjective. Examples: crediamo che Paolo abbia una nuova macchina, we believe that Paul has a new car. Non sono certo che Gina sia qui, I am not sure that Gina is here.  
The subjunctive is also used when direct discourse is changed to indirect. Gina dice “Paolo ha una nuova macchina,” Gina says “Paulo has a new car” (direct discourse--indicative mood). But: Gina dice che Paolo abbia una nuova macchina, Gina says that Paulo has a new car (indirect discourse--subjunctive mood).
There are only four tenses in the subjunctive mood: present, perfect, imperfect, and past perfect, and the rules that govern them are explained in our Section VIII, Ten Things to Know about the Subjunctive in Italian.


10. Passive voice.
The passive in Italian is indicated by a combination of the verb essere (to be) with the past participle. Luigi scrive la lettera, Luigi writes the letter (active voice). But: la lettera è scritto da Luigi, the letter is written by Luigi (passive voice). La loro macchina è stata rubata ieri, their car was stolen yesterday.
The verb venire (to come) is sometimes found in place of essere to express the passive: la chiave viene persa ancora, the key is lost again. Il contratto verrà firmato dal direttore, the contract will be signed by the director.


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