Sample Grammar

The Nature of a Verb, the Conjugation

We begin the study of VERBS with the PRESENT tense of the INDICATIVE mood. Remember that verbs are words that describe an action or a state, such as TO WALK or TO FEEL. The “present tense” merely means that the action takes place in the present, as opposed to in the past or in the future. The “indicative mood” simply means that the action is real, as opposed to actions which MIGHT occur or actions which are conditioned on other actions. The concepts of TENSE and MOOD will become clearer as we progress; these brief definitions are enough for now.

Fundamental to the study of verbs is the concept of a CONJUGATION. To “conjugate a verb” means to enumerate all the possible PERSONS that can perform that action. An action can be performed by “me”, by “you”, or by “he/she”: these are called respectively the first, second, and third persons singular. If there is more than one actor then the action can be performed by “us”, by “you all”, or by “them”: these are called respectively the first, second, and third persons plural. It is now the fashion in language instruction to have students conjugate verbs without the accompanying pronoun. We think this is bad practice, and that a verb should be conjugated explicitly with the pronoun.

The Verbs ESSERE and STARE

The verb TO BE in Italian is ESSERE (accent on the first ‘E’). In some Italian constructions the English verb ‘TO BE’ is rendered with the verb STARE, which corresponds to the English verb TO STAY. The most important instances of the usage of STARE are:

1. talking about one’s well-being, for examples, stare bene, io sto male, come stai tu?, ecc.
2. referring to someone’s appearance, as in lei sta bene con quel vestito, etc.
3. using the progressive tense with the GERUND of a verb, as in lui sta mangiando. We will study this tense in greater depth when we get to the gerund.

The table below gives the conjugation of these verbs in English and in Italian. It should be memorized.

IMPORTANT: the third person singular is è‘, with the accent explicitly shown. The ‘e’ without the accent means ‘and’, very different from ‘is’.

We leave the verb ESSERE for now by learning two very useful expressions:

c’è – there is, (this is a contraction of ci è)
ci sono – there are

The Personal Subject Pronouns

Note that we have snuck in here another grammatical element: the SUBJECT PERSONAL PRONOUNS. These are simply I/YOU/HE/SHE/WE/YOU/THEY in English. In Italian they are:

IO (first person singular)
TU (second person singular)
LUI (masculine third person singular)
LEI (feminine third person singular)
NOI (first person plural)
VOI (second person plural)
LORO (third person plural).

The English second person happens to be the same in the singular and in the plural; this is merely a coincidence and of no importance to our study. We will study pronouns in due course; for now we just learn these as the minimum required to conjugate a verb. Note that, differently from English, the pronoun io is not capitalized unless it starts a sentence.

Formal and Informal Address

In Italian there are TWO distinct forms for the singular ‘you”, an informal form, ‘tu’, which we have seen above, and a formal “lei”, which looks just like the feminine third person singular (sometimes, but not always, the polite ‘you’ is capitalized, ‘Lei’, to distinguish it from the feminine third person singular.) Use the informal ‘tu’ when addressing children, close friends, or family members. Use the formal ‘Lei’ in all other circumstances.

So, ‘you are’ to a close friend is ‘tu sei’, ‘you are’ to the maitre d’ or to the President of the Republic or to the cleaning lady is ‘Lei è’. Other verbs work the same way. Essentially, address a person deferentially just as if you were talking about a female third person. Use the same mode of address if you wish to maintain a certain social distance between yourself and the other person.

Memorize the conjugations of the verbs ESSERE and STARE.

QUIZ – Choose the correct form of ESSERE or AVERE for each question.


Comments are closed.