Beginner Italian: Il Passato Prossimo (Present-Perfect Tense)

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

Last week, I showed you just how much you can actually say in a foreign language after only one month of study. It's actually quite a lot, but one of things that held me back the most as I was writing was my desire to use the past tense. So today, we're going to learn how to talk about things that are in the past.

Il Passato Prossimo

One of the most common ways of forming the past tense is il passato prossimo, or what we know in English as the present-perfect tense. We form it in English by conjugating the verb "to have" and following it with a participle. For instance: I have arrived.

It should come as no surprise that the passato prossimo is formed in the same way in Italian: conjugate avere and add the participle. The only catch is that Italian doesn't always use avere. For reflexive verbs and verbs of motion, you use the verb essere instead.

Forming the past participle

The past participle is formed by simply replacing the verb's infitive ending (-are, -ere, or -ire) with a participle ending (-ato, -uto, or -ito).

Replace -are with -ato. (ex: parlare becomes parlato)

Replace -ere with -uto. (ex cadare becomes caduto)

Replace -ire with -ito. (ex finire becomes finito)

There are a handful of irregular participles. For instance, leggere becomes letto; and vedere can become either veduto or visto. Most verbs will stick to the formula, though.

For most verbs, conjugate avere

For most verbs, the passato prossimo will be formed by using the verb avere (to have). It's an irregular verb. You should have already learned it by now, but in case you haven't learned it yet it is conjugated as follows:

singular plural
1st person io ho noi abbiamo
2nd person tu hai voi avete
3rd person lui/lei ha loro hanno

This makes it easy to construct common sentence types we are accustomed to using in English.

Ho mangiato la pizza ogni giorno di questa settimana.

I have eaten pizza every day this week.

Non hai già veduto questo film?

Haven't you already seen this movie?

When to use essere

For reflexive verbs, and for some verbs of motion, you use essere instead of avere to form the passato prossimo. We've already talked about how to recognize reflexive verbs in Italian, so that should be easy. Choosing the right form for a motion verb will be a little tricker.

The most common verbs requiring essere are:

  • arrivare - to arrive
  • andare - to go
  • entrare to enter
  • essere - to be (becomes stato)
  • morire - to die (becomes morto)
  • nascere - to be born (becomes nato)
  • partire - to leave
  • rimanere - to remain (becomes rimasto)
  • sparire - to disappear stare - to stay, be
  • tornare - to return uscire - to go out
  • venire - to come (becomes venuto)

And then there is one final detail to make these exceptions just a bit more difficult — the participle must match the gender of the subject. So for these special cases, you should form the passato prossimo with essere, as in the following examples:

Noi tutti siamo nati negli ospedali.

We are all born in hospitals.

Lei si è lavata la faccia.

She washed her face.

The meaning seems to change a bit in these cases, too. No doubt this is due to the specific meanings of verbs which just don't make sense in a purely present perfect tense.