How to make the Passato Prossimo
What’s the passato prossimo?
The passato prossimo tense is used in Italian to express actions and events that occurred in the past.
Usually, it appears together with time expressions such as
- ieri – yesterday
- stamattina – this morning
- ieri sera – last night
- venerdì scorso – last Friday
- l’anno scorso – last year
- un anno fa – a year ago
- un’ora fa – one hour ago
- due settimane fa – two weeks ago
- ultimamente – lately
- recentemente – recently
Italian vs English
The Italian passato prossimo corresponds to the English simple past and present perfect, and so we can say that it has two possible translations, as in the examples.
- ho viaggiato means both I travelled and I’ve travelled
- ha dormito means both he slept and he has slept
- hanno studiato means both they studied and they’ve studied
- sono andato means both I went and I’ve gone
- siamo stati means both we were and we’ve been
How to Make the Passato Prossimo
As you can see from the above phrases, the passato prossimo is made up of two entities: an auxiliary or helping verb and a past participle.
HO PARLATO → I spoke, I’ve spoken
The first part, “ho“, is called an auxiliary. The second part, “parlato” is called a past participle. The passato prossimo is always made up of these two entities.
What’s the auxiliary and the past participle?
The auxiliary is the present tense conjugation of avere or essere.
The past participle is the second part of the verb, and it’s formed by dropping the infinitive ending (-are, -ere, -ire) and by adding the suffixes -ato, -uto, and -ito to the stem of the verb.
Examples of regular past participles:
- parlare becomes parl-ato
- avere becomes av-uto
- finire becomes finit-ito
- Ho parlato means both I spoke and I’ve spoken
- Ho avuto means both I had or I’ve had
- Ho finito means both I finished or I’ve finished
This is the full conjugation of the regular verbs that use “avere” as an auxiliary in the past tense.
The Passato Prossimo with “Essere”
The choice of the right auxiliary: essere or avere?
The passato prossimo is a super easy tense, but there is something that confuses most students: what auxiliary to choose between essere and avere.
The rule says that transitive verbs use the auxiliary avere and intransitive verbs use the essere auxiliary. However, since the notion of transitive and intransitive is sometimes unclear, I prefer to teach that 97% of Italian verbs default to the avere auxiliary when conjugated in the passato prossimo.
And then, there’s a number (luckily not too large) of verbs using essere as an auxiliary. The most common ones are andare (to go), arrivare (to arrive), tornare (to return), essere (to be), stare (to stay), entrare (to enter), uscire (to go out, to leave), partire (to leave for), diventare (to become), salire (to go up), scendere (to go down), nascere (to be born).
How to conjugate the “essere verbs”
When avere is used as an auxiliary, the past participle of the verb stays the same, so it doesn’t agree with the gender and number of the subject. However, when essere is used as an auxiliary, the past participle must agree with the gender and number of the subject. It means that the past participle works as an adjective and can have four different endings, including -o, -a, i, and -e.
“O” and “A” are used for the io, tu, lui/lei forms. “O” stands for masculine singular, and “A” stands for feminine singular.
“I” and “E” are used for the noi, voi and loro forms. “I” stands for the masculine plural. “E” for the feminine plural.
If you’re having trouble with this, memorize the pattern of the verbs essere and andare (two of the most commonly used Italian verbs) and apply it to the other verbs on the list above.
Note that the verb essere (=to be) has an irregular participle form, which is “stato“.
The Irregular Forms
Some verbs, just like in English, have an irregular past participle (the second entity). It means that the past participle has its own structure and is not conjugated in the regular forms. It may be helpful to remember that in Italian, the same verbs with an irregular past participle (past) in English also have an irregular conjugation.
Basic list of commonly irregular participles
- fare – ho fatto (I did/I’ve done)
- dire – ho detto (I said/I’ve said)
- leggere – ho letto (I read/I’ve read)
- scrivere – ho scritto (I wrote/I’ve written)
- prendere – ho preso (I took/I’ve taken)
- spendere – ho speso (I spent/I’ve spent)
- chiudere – ho chiuso (I closed/I’ve closed)
- mettere – ho messo (I put/I’ve put)
- succedere – è successo (it happened/it has happened)
- discutere – ho discusso (I discussed/I’ve discussed)
- accendere – ho accesso (I turned on/I’ve turned on)
- spegnere – ho spento (I turned off/I’ve turned off)
- vincere – ho vinto (I won/I’ve won)
- piangere – ho pianto (I cried/I’ve cried)
- scegliere – ho scelto (I chose/I’ve chosen)
- rimanere – sono rimasto (I stayed/I’ve stayed)
- chiedere – ho chiesto (I asked/I’ve asked)
- rispondere – ho risposto (I answered/I’ve answered)
- vedere – ho visto (I saw/I’ve seen)
Imperfetto and Passato Prossimo: The Difference
If you are a beginner you should skip this topic for now. If you already know the Italian imperfect tense, you can have a look at this article to clarify any doubts.