As you may have already noticed, in Italian there are some verbs that you can use both with the verb avere (to have) with the verb essere (to be). But why? And can the two auxiliaries be used without distinction? Let’s find out together!
How to choose between the auxiliary verbs ESSERE and AVERE
First of all, what are the verbs that you can use with both auxiliaries? Some of the most used are:
Aumentare – to increase
Cambiare – to change
Cominciare – to begin
Crescere – to grow
Volare – to fly
Terminare – to terminate
Suonare – to play
Peggiorare – to worsen
Cuocere – to cook
Diminuire – to diminish
Durare – to last
Finire – to finish
Guarire – to heal
Iniziare – to start
Migliorare – to improve
Passare – to pass
Sfumare – to fade
Affogare – to drown
Annegare – to drown
Avanzare – to advance
Esplodere – to explode
Invecchiare – to grow old
Schizzare – to squirt
Scendere – to descend
Salire – to climb
Fallire – to fail
With that said, the first important thing to know is that the use of the auxiliary essere and avere is not accidental, but it depends on the meaning of the sentence, that is, on what we want to say. But how is the choice made? The answer is simpler than it seems.
If the verb has an intransitive use, meaning that it is not followed by an object complement, then the auxiliary will be essere.
Instead if the verb has a transitive use, meaning that it is followed by an object complement, then the auxiliary will be avere.
In other words, if the subject performs an action that has repercussions on something or someone else (the object), then it is used avere; otherwise, it is used essere.
But let’s take a few examples:
Il mondo è cambiato negli ultimi anni. (The world has changed in recent years.)
The world (subject) performs an action that has no repercussions on something or someone else, in fact there is no object: so we use the verb essere.
La tecnologia ha cambiato il mondo. (Technology has changed the world.)
Technology (subject) performs an action on something else (the world), it changes it. The world is the object and we use the verb avere.
Il figlio di Luca è cresciuto molto. (Luca’s son has grown a lot.)
Luca ha cresciuto suo figlio. (Luca raised his son.)
As before, in the first sentence the subject (Luca’s son) performs an action that has no repercussions on anything or anyone, therefore the verb is essere. While in the second one, the subject (Luca) performs an action on someone else, that is his son, which is the object, therefore the verb we use is avere.
Two verbs that often create confusion (sometimes even with Italians!) are salire (climbing / going up) e scendere (descending / going down), but even in this case the same rule applies.
Luigi è sceso dall’impalcatura. (Luigi got off the scaffolding.)
Warning! Do not be fooled by “dall’impalcatura”: when there is a preposition (dalla) before a noun (impalcatura) it can never be an object complement!
Instead, if we do not have prepositions before the noun, then the verb is followed by an object complement, and we use avere.
Luigi ha sceso l’impalcatura. (Luigi has descended the scaffolding.)
Here there are two more examples:
Graziana è salita dalle scale. (Graziana went up the stairs)
Graziana ha salito le scale. (Graziana went up the stairs)
Remember when we first said that the meaning of the sentence changes depending on whether you use essere or avere? Well, actually it is not entirely true… In fact there are verbs with which you can use both auxiliaries, without changing the meaning of the sentence!
These are the verbs used to express the weather, and they work with both essere and avere with no distinction:
Piovere – To rain
Nevicare – To snow
Grandinare – To hail
So we can say:
Oggi è grandinato di continuo.
Oggi ha grandinato di continuo.
(Today it hailed all the time)
Ieri è piovuto per qualche ora.
Ieri ha piovuto per qualche ora.
(Yesterday it rained for a few hours)
The meaning does not change!