Verbs that sometimes use different auxiliaries
If you are anything like me, you have a hard time understanding the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs. You may even have learned the rule of grammar, that states that “a transitive verb accepts a direct object”, but you don’t really understand what that is saying.
I can normally remember the rules about when you use essere or avere as the auxiliary verb in front of a verb, and sometimes even which verbs “always” use essere (such as “andare” or “venire”, for instance).
Where things get very complicated, is when a verb can be either transitive or intransitive.
Then it becomes a race in my mind to decide which auxilliary to use, and I either guess correctly or not (I tend to favor the forms of “avere”, since there are not as many “essere” (intransitive) verbs available).
What I really want to have happen, is to not have to think about it.
I want to look at a sentence and be able to say, “Oh—that’s intransitive. I must use essere, and I have to remember to match gender and quantity when I get to the verb.”
There is one sure “give-away”; when the sentence is reflexive (she sees herself, I wash myself, etc.) then you must use essere, even if you are used to using avere most other times.
Take the verb trovare, for instance. “To find”.
You can either find (locate) an object, or you can “find yourself” in a place or a situation. It’s the word “self”, in whatever form that it takes (myself, itself, themselves, etc.) that indicates “reflexive”.
- Ho trovato una chiave sulla scrivania. (I found a key on the desk.)
- Mi sono trovato al parco questo pomeriggio. (I found myself at the park this afternoon.)
In the second case, “I” am a male speaker. Otherwise, I would have said, “Mi sono trovata al parco...”
So; can we determine how to tell if the sentence is transitive by just looking at that first sentence?
Indeed, we can!
In its stripped down generic form, it reads “I found an object on the desk.”
The object was a key, but it could be any object. Any noun that I want it to be.
- Ho trovato Maria nella sala. (I found Maria in the living room.)
Maria is an object. A key is an object. So if there is an object directly after the main verb, then the sentence is transitive, and you should use avere as an auxiliary.
Test the theory out by using andare, which we know is intransitive and uses essere:
- Sono andati alla fiera. (They went to the the fair.)
Now you may be thinking that “the fair” is an object, but there is an important word between “went” and “the fair”; and that word is to.
In other words, you cannot leave out to, and still have the sentence make sense (in English):
“They went the fair.”
So that sentence answers the question “where”, and not “what”. You always “go to” or “come from”, “went to”, or “came from” somewhere. Where did they go? They went to the fair.
What did they go? You are now expecting an object as an answer; that makes no sense.
There are other common verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive. Here are a couple of examples, using the verbs Finire and Cambiare.
- Ho finito di lavorare alle sedici oggi. (I finished work at 4:00 pm (1600h) today.)
- Il mio lavoro è finito alle sedici oggi. (My work ended at 4:00 pm today)
In the first sentence, “work” is an object, one that I have finished. I would not say, “I is finished work.”.
In the second sentence, if you translate directly, using English and in the same order, it reads: “My work, it is finished at 4 pm.” There are no objects in that sentence following the verb finish.
- Ha cambiato la sua camicia tre volte. (She changed her shirt three times.)
- Il tempo è cambiato da sole a piaggio. (The weather changed from sun to rain.)
Again, in the first sentence there is an object—her shirt. In the second, no object. “The weather, it has changed...”
There are still rules and exceptions to memorize. The common “action” verbs camminare, correre, saltare and volare are used with essere when a point of departure and/or a point of arrival is indicated, but with avere when they simply express the activity of walking (camminare), running (correre), jumping (saltare), and flying (volare).
- Ho corso per due ore ieri. (I ran for two hours yesterday.)
- Sono corso da casa a scuola. (I ran from home to school.)
When the verb passare means “to pass the time”, it is transitive (and therefore used with avere). When the verb passare means “to (physically) pass by” or idiomatically “to stop by”, it is intransitive (and therefore used with essere).
Ha passato tre ore si veste prima di uscire. (She spent three hours dressing herself before she went out.)
Sono passata l'ospedale e la banca. (I passed the hospital and the bank.)
"I" am a female, as indicated by my use of passata instead of passato (male).
Siamo passati dal supermercato a fare la spesa. (We stopped by the supermarket to do the grocery shopping.)
Note that it is not only in the "passato prossimo" (recent past) tense where auxiliaries occur.
You will find the same situations in the subjunctive ("sia" or "abbia"), the conditional ("avrei" or "sarei"), past perfect ("avevo" or "saro") or even the remote past ("fu" or "ebbi").
So now it is time to practice locating for objects in your sentences.
Once you can reliably do that, then you will instinctively know the difference between transitive and intransitive.
This is a complex but very interesting topic.
In both languages some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive according to the sentence. I'll focus on this difference first.
A transitive verb can accept a direct object, as well as one or more indirect objects, while an intransitive verb can accept only indirect ones. So being able to tell direct objects from indirect ones is very important.
Direct objects are usually easy to detect, because they are nouns or pronouns that follow the verb without any preposition:
I bought the newspaper [direct object] for you.
He saw us [direct object] at the market.
When the verb of the sentence is turned into its passive voice, if the original object becomes the subject of the new sentence, it is direct, otherwise it is indirect:
I bought the newspaper for you. → The newspaper [subject] was bought by me for you.
He saw us at the market. → We [subject] were seen by him at the market.
So 'the newspaper' and 'us' are the direct object of these sentences, 'for you' and 'at the market' are indirect objects, and 'to read' and 'to see' are transitive verbs because they can take a direct object.
The passive voice itself identifies a transitive verb, because only transitive verbs can be passivized:
I drank a beer with him → a beer was drunk by me with him
I returned from work. → (this verb cannot form the passive voice)
So 'to return' is intransitive, and 'from work' can only be an indirect object.
One obstacle, though, is that in English two types of indirect object exist, i.e. prepositional indirect object and non-prepositional indirect object.
Any indirect object introduced by a preposition ('to', 'with', 'on', 'from', etc.) is obviously a prepositional indirect object:
- I returned from work [prepositional object] with him. [prepositional object]
But quite a good number of English verbs, such as 'to give', 'to tell', 'to buy', 'to lend', 'to promise', and many others, can take an indirect object without the need of adding a preposition:
I gave my friend [non-prepositional indirect object] a book.
I told him [non-prepositional indirect object] about the project.
Such verbs are said to be ditransitive, i.e. twice transitive, and can take up to two different objects without any preposition.
One of the two, though, is an indirect object 'in disguise', i.e. a non-prepositional indirect object.
In the aforesaid examples, 'my friend' and 'him' are non-prepositional indirect objects; since there is no preposition, they might be mistaken for a direct object.
But you can tell they are indirect objects because they can be easily turned from non-prepositional into prepositional, whereas with the real direct object this is impossible:
I gave a book to my friend. ('book' cannot take any preposition → direct object)
I told about the project to him. (→ two indirect objects)
A further peculiarity (or complication) of these verbs is that if the passive voice is used, the sentence can be arranged in two different ways:
The book [subject] was given to my friend by me.
My friend [subject] was given the book by me.
The second sentence shows that a non-prepositional indirect object can turn into a subject when the passive voice of the verb is used, exactly as a direct object can do (but not a prepositional indirect object).
In Italian such complications do not exist, because there are no ditransitive verbs; all indirect objects are prepositional, so it is impossible to mistake a direct object (without any preposition) for an indirect one (always with a preposition):
(Io) ho comprato il giornale [direct object] per te. [indirect object] = I bought the newspaper for you.
(Io) ho dato il libro [direct object] al mio amico. [indirect object] = I gave my friend the book.
(Noi) siamo andati a casa [indirect object] = We went home.
For the same reason, an English non-prepositional indirect object cannot turn into the subject of the sentence if the verb is passivized:
I gave my friend [non-prepositional indirect object] the book. = Ho dato il libro al mio amico.
The book was given to my friend by me. = Il libro è stato dato da me al mio amico.
My friend was given the book by me. → this is untranslatable into Italian !
In this example, the verb dare ('to give') is transitive, because it can take a direct object ('a book'), and because it can form the passive voice ('to be given'). But in Italian only the book can 'be given', whereas the friend cannot 'be given' (this would sound as if the friend had been handed over to someone).
The teacher read the students [non-prepositional indirect object] a poem. = L'insegnante ha letto una poesia agli studenti.
A poem has been read to the students by the teacher. = Una poesia è stata letta dall'insegnante agli studenti.
The students have been read a poem by the teacher. → untranslatable!
Two examples that include clitic pronouns for the indirect object:
Paul sold us [non-prepositional indirect object] a car. = Paolo ci ha venduto un'auto.
A car has been sold to us by Paul. = Un'auto ci è stata venduta da Paolo.
We were sold a car by Paul. → untranslatable!
They read me [non-prepositional indirect object] your message. = (Loro) mi hanno letto il tuo messaggio.
Your message has been read to me by them. = Il tuo messaggio mi è stato letto da loro.
I was read your message by them. → untranslatable!
[to be continued]
Quite a few English verbs can be used either with a transitive meaning (thus accepting a direct object) or with an intransitive meaning. One of them is 'to open':
Someone opened the window. → transitive meaning, 'the window' is the direct object.
The window opened. → intransitive meaning, no direct object can be taken.
Verbs that feature such dual meaning are said to be ergative. Similar ones are 'to walk', 'to lift', 'to fly', 'to melt', 'to burn', 'to transform', 'to expand', 'to sink', 'to freeze', 'to shorten', and several others.
Also Italian has ergative verbs, most of which are the same ones as in English, although in a few cases some slight differences exist, e.g. the verb sbagliare = 'to mistake' → transitive, or 'to be wrong' → intransitive (see further).
They are divided into two main groups (labelled as 'active form ergatives' and 'reflexive form ergatives').
The ones belonging to the first group are dealt with exactly as in English, i.e. they are inflected according to the standard conjugation, regardless of whether their meaning is transitive or intransitive. But only when the meaning is transitive they can accept a direct object:
aumentare (transitive meaning) = 'to raise', 'to increase'
aumentare (intransitive meaning) = 'to rise', 'to increase'
The stores (have) increased the prices. = I negozi hanno aumentato i prezzi.
The prices (have) increased. = I prezzi sono aumentati.
In the first sentence, the verb is used with a transitive meaning; 'the store' is the subject, which performs the action of increasing, i.e. raising 'the prices' (the direct object, which receives the action).
In the second sentence, the same verb is used with an intransitive meaning; 'the prices' is the subject, which performs the action of increasing, i.e. rising (an action that does not allow a direct object, because it cannot be performed upon anything).
When the verb conveys the transitive meaning, the auxiliary is avere (hanno aumentato), with no agreement by the past particle (aumentato).
When the verb conveys the intransitive meaning, the auxiliary is essere (sono aumentati), and the past participle agrees with the subject (i prezzi → aumentati).
One more example:
finire (transitive meaning) = 'to finish', 'to end'
finire (intransitive meaning) = 'to finish', 'to end', 'to come to an end'
We (have) finished our work. = (Noi) abbiamo finito il nostro lavoro.
Our work has finished. = Il nostro lavoro è finito.
Similar verbs are migliorare ('to improve'), avanzare ('to advance', 'to move forward'), bruciare ('to burn'), affondare ('to sink'), and others.
In a few cases, an Italian ergative verb can take two different meanings when it is used as transitive and as intransitive, therefore it is translated into English using two different verbs:
fallire (transitive meaning) = 'to fail'
fallire (intransitive meaning) = 'to close down', 'to go bankrupt'
They failed their goal. = (Loro) hanno fallito il loro obiettivo.
Those companies closed down. = Quelle ditte sono fallite.
Instead, with verbs belonging to the second group (reflexive form ergatives) only the transitive meaning is conveyed by the standard conjugation. In order to express the intransitive meaning, the reflexive conjugation has to be used:
aprire (transitive meaning) vs. aprirsi (intransitive meaning) = 'to open'
The lady (has) opened the window. = La signora ha aperto la finestra.
The window (has) opened. = La finestra si è aperta.
When the verb takes a transitive meaning, the auxiliary is avere (→ ha aperto), and the past participle remains invariable, unaffected by the subject (in this sentence la signora disagrees with aperto).
When the verb takes an intransitive meaning (reflexive conjugation), the auxiliary is essere, and the past participle agrees with the subject (la finestra agrees with aperta).
rompere (transitive) vs. rompersi (intransitive) = 'to break'
The boys had broken the vase. = I ragazzi avevano rotto il vaso.
The vase had broken. = Il vaso si era rotto.
asciugare (transitive) vs. asciugarsi (intransitive) = 'to dry'
The wind (has) dried the washing. = Il vento ha asciugato il bucato.
The washing has dried. = Il bucato si è asciugato.
Similar verbs are chiudere vs. chiudersi ('to close'), muovere vs. muoversi ('to move'), fermare vs. fermarsi ('to stop'), accorciare vs. accorciarsi ('to shorten'), and others.
A further peculiarity of this reflexive ergative group is that most verbs it includes take the transitive meaning only when the sentence actually mentions a direct object; otherwise their meaning sounds intransitive also in the standard (non-reflexive) conjugation:
chiudere (transitive meaning = 'to close' only if a direct object is mentioned)
chiudere (intransitive meaning = 'to close' if a direct object is not mentioned)
chiudersi (reflexive conjugation, intransitive meaning = 'to close')
I (have) closed the box. = (Io) ho chiuso la scatola.
The box (has) closed well. = La scatola ha chiuso bene. or La scatola si è chiusa bene.
The verb used in non-reflexive intransitive form (without a direct object) takes the same auxiliary avere as when it is used in transitive form (with a direct object).
Only the reflexive intransitive verb takes essere, and only in this case the past participle must agree with the subject in gender and number.
sbagliare (transitive meaning = 'to mistake' only if a direct object is mentioned)
sbagliare (intransitive meaning = 'to be wrong' if no direct object is mentioned)
sbagliarsi (reflexive conjugation, intransitive meaning = 'to be wrong', 'to be mistaken')
The postman mistook / has mistaken the address. = Il postino ha sbagliato l'indirizzo.
The postman was wrong. = Il postino ha sbagliato. or Il postino si è sbagliato.
cuocere (transitive meaning = 'to cook' only if a direct object is mentioned)
cuocere (intransitive meaning = 'to cook' if a direct object is not mentioned)
cuocersi (reflexive conjugation, intransitive meaning = 'to cook')
I (have) cooked the pizza. = (Io) ho cotto la pizza.
The pizza (has) cooked. = La pizza ha cotto. or La pizza si è cotta.
With this verb, the non-reflexive intransitive form would be used with some types of indirect object, for instance:
- La pizza ha cotto nel forno. = The pizza cooked in the oven.
The reflexive intransitive form, instead, would be used with other types of indirect object:
- La pizza si è cotta in cinque minuti. = The pizza cooked in five minutes.
Please, avoid pizza (and gnocchi) in your sentences.
Forget about the verbs, I am hungry now. :-)
How I disagree. I can get excited about proper Italian pizza and probably learn more and might even speak more with that. Better than Duolingo's sometimes strange offering of dead cows and my cousin being in prison. :-), :-), :-)
Wonderful again. Not only do your explanations and clear examples help me with Italian grammar, but they are leading me to revise the English grammar I learnt sixty years ago in school . So, double thanks for helping me twice.
Fabulous, as usual. I will be studying the text that you have written for the next few days.
I have been reading through your excellent explanation, but when I get to the part with the verb chiedere vs. chiedersi, it becomes a bit murky for me.
I (have) closed the box (Ho chiuso la scatola.)
Chiudere is transitive there (or is it??), and it can be turned into a passive form:
The box was (has been) closed by me.
Are you saying that I could use either avere or essere in the passive sentence, or do I have to use essere?
La scatola ha chiuso da me or La scatola è stata chiusa da me
I don't like the sound of the first one, but in the second case I turned chiudere into an intransitive verb, didn't I?
If you simplify and eliminate "me" from the sentence altogether, and just say that "The box is closed", do you use:
La scatola si è chiusa. or La scatola ha chiuso. or either one?
My guess is the the first (reflexive) one.
Sorry for answering so late your question, but since the time Duolingo stopped notifying replies, I missed quite a few queries. I have just found your post by chance.
I (have) closed the box (Ho chiuso la scatola.) Chiudere is transitive there (or is it??), and it can be turned into a passive form: The box was (has been) closed by me.
Are you saying that I could use either avere or essere in the passive sentence, or do I have to use essere? La scatola ha chiuso da me or La scatola è stata chiusa da me I don't like the sound of the first one, but in the second case I turned chiudere into an intransitive verb, didn't I?
With verbs such as chiudere (standard conjugation → transitive) vs. chiudersi (reflexive conjugation → intransitive), the transitive form of the verb can be used either when the sentence has a direct object:
- (Io) chiudo la porta. = I close the door.
or when a direct object is missing:
- La porta chiude bene. = The door closes well.
In this second sentence, the verb is perceived as intransitive, but it is still theoretically transitive. What makes its meaning sound intransitive is not the verb itself, but the inanimate subject (i.e. 'the door'), which could not actively perform an action.
If we change the subject, the same verb takes once again a transitive meaning, although without adding a direct object to the sentence something seems to be missing:
- Il ragazzo chiude bene [la porta]. = The boy closes [the door] well.
So whenever chiudere (standard conjugation) takes a compound tense, the auxiliary is avere:
Il ragazzo ha chiuso bene [la porta]. = The boy has closed [the door] well.
La porta ha chiuso bene. = The door has closed well.
Il ragazzo aveva chiuso bene [la porta]. = The boy had closed [the door] well.
La porta aveva chiuso bene. = The door had closed well.
Using essere instead of avere could be understood in two ways:
La porta è chiusa = The door is closed (by someone). [→ passive voice of the verb, essere is the passive auxiliary or the past particple chiusa]
La porta è chiusa. = The door is closed. [→ describes a condition, essere is the only verb, present tense, chiusa is an adjective]
In the first sentence, instead of using essere, the auxiliary venire can disambiguate the passive meaning:
La porta è chiusa = The door is closed. [→ both meanings]
La porta viene chiusa = The door is closed. [→ passive voice of the verb only]
La porta era chiusa = The door was closed. [→ both meanings]
La porta veniva chiusa = The door was closed. [→ passive voice of the verb only]
La porta sarà chiusa = The door will be closed / might be closed. [→ both meanings]
La porta verrà chiusa = The door will be closed / might be closed. [→ passive voice of the verb only]
The passive auxiliary venire can only be used for simple tenses; for compound tenses of the passive voice, the only auxiliary allowed is, again, essere:
La porta è stata chiusa = The door has been closed. [→ both meanings]
La porta era stata chiusa = The door had been closed. [→ both meanings]
La porta sarà stata chiusa = The door will have been closed / might have been closed. [→ both meanings]
Instead, using chiudersi (reflexive conjugation → intransitive), essere is the only auxiliary that can be used for compound tenses:
La porta si chiude. = The door closes.
La porta si chiudeva. = The door closed / used to close.
La porta si chiuderà. = The door will close / might close.
La porta si è chiusa. = The door has closed.
La porta si era chiusa. = The door had closed.
La porta si sarà chiusa. = The door will have closed / might have closed.
No passive voice can be formed, because the verb is intransitive.
There is a difference in meaning between the two ways of saying 'the door has closed':
La porta ha chiuso. = The door has closed.
La porta si è chiusa. = The door has closed.
In English this difference is barely perceived, because the verb is exactly the same.
The first construction, with chiudere (a transitive verb, despite the subject, which takes the auxiliary avere), emphasizes the quality of the action:
- La porta chiude bene. = The door closes well (without any blockage, or friction, i.e. nothing hinders the action).
The second construction, with chiudersi, puts emphasis on the autonomous nature of the action:
- La porta si è chiusa. = The door closed (literally, 'the door closed itself', i.e. nobody performed the action upon the door).
If the door had a bad hinge and got stuck, I would use the first construction:
- La porta non chiude bene. = The door does not close well.
but I could also use the second construction (which is more colloquial for this meaning):
- La porta non si chiude bene. = The door does not close well.
Instead, if a gust of wind caused an open door to close, I could only use the second construction, with chiudersi (the first one would sound wrong):
La porta si chiude. = The door closes.
La porta si è chiusa. = The door has closed.
I hope I cleared your doubt.
Sorry again for the delay in answering
This......is just so freaking helpful! I learned passato prossimo weeks ago on Duo and from other resources and was still very confused about when to use "essere" or "avere". Now that I know this situation will occur with other tenses, I'm definitely glad to have read this.
Must save for review later.