ESSERE VS STARE. What’s the difference?

In Italian two verbs have just one equivalent in English: stare and essere. They are not interchangeable, though. Let’s start by saying that in 98% of the cases, the verb to use is essere. However, there are cases where using stare is expected and mandatory. In this article, I clarify when using essere and especially when it is necessary to stare  

Essere                                                   

Essere indicates the state of being and it used to identify

  • yourself and your nationality: sono Serena e sono italiana.
  • your job: sono un’insegnante di italiano per stranieri.
  • origins: sono di Milano.
  • physical appearance and personality: sono alta e simpatica.
  • describing locations: Roma è una bella città.
  • describing objects: la mia casa è grande e luminosa.
  • locating objects: dove è la mia borsa? E’ sulla sedia.

Essere is also widely used in combination with “ci” in the verb esserci (c’è – ci sono, in English there is, there are). Esserci states the existence of someone or something. 

  • C’è un ragazzo nuovo a scuola – there is you a new kid in the school
  • Ci sono quattro sedie in cucina  – there are four chairs in the kitchen

Stare

Stare has a variety of usage, some of those are idiomatic expressions. However, we can generally say that stare indicates location, health, appearances. It is also used in a great deal of idiomatic expression and with the present continuous.

LOCATION

In this case stare means also rimanere (to remain, to stay in English)

  • Oggi sto a casa – today I stay home

HEALTH

  • come stai?
  • sto bene 
  • sto male 
  • sto meglio 

APPEARANCE

Stare bene and stare male mean that something (e.g. a piece of clothing) is looking great on you or not. Other possible translations into English are to suit, to fit.

  • Questa giacca mi sta benissimo this jacket looks great on me!
  • Quel capello ti sta male – that hat does not suit you 

IDIOMATIC EXPRESSIONS 

Stare means to be in a variety of idiomatic expressions, as in the following examples

  • Stare in piedi – to be standing 
  • Stare seduto – to be sitting
  • Stare zitto/a – to be quiet
  • Stare attento – to pay attention
  • Stare calmo – to stay calm 
  • Stare a cuore – to have at heart 
  • Stare con – to date someone

In some of the above expressions, stare, and essere are interchangeable. There is a subtle difference between them, though. ESSERE would instead state quality or being statement while STARE would rather indicates a voluntariness in action described.

  • sono in piedi – I stand / sto in piedi – I voluntarily stand
  • sono seduto – I sit / sto seduto – I voluntarily sit
  • sei calmo – you are calm person (quality) / stai calmo! – please, try to stay calm (voluntarily)

PRESENT CONTINUOUS  

The present continuous describes an action that is happening at the moment that you speak, right now. The present continuous in Italian is expressed by the present tense of the verb stare plus the gerund. 

  • Sto cucinando – I am cooking
  • Sto parlano al telefono – I am on the phone with Maira

STARE PER + INFINITIVE 

When stare appears in a sentence in a combination with per and an infinitive, it describes an action that will happen in the nearest future/

  • La lezione sta per finire – the lesson is about to finish
  • Sto per uscire – I am leaving any moments

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