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Italian Lesson – April 2021


Why does the Italian language have two verbs that mean “to be” – essere and stare? Well, there is no why. It just happened, and not just in Italian. Some other Romance languages make the same distinction, too. Most notably are Spanish and Portuguese. French does not. There is no “why,”, but the “how” can be explained and is traced back to a time when the Italian language did not even exist. In some late Latin/Early Romance dialects “to stay” started to be used instead of “to be” when a transient state or quality was implied by the speaker.

Let’s look at this. In the present tense the conjugations follow the patterns shown below:

PronounesserestareMeaning: to be
(io)sonostoI am
(tu)seistaiyou are
èstahe/she/it is
you are
(noi)siamostiamowe are
(voi)sietestateyou are
(loro)sonostannothey are

essere is the verb generally used to translate to be:

Cosa sono?What are they?
È italiana.She’s Italian.
Sono io.It’s me.
È un problema.It’s a problem.
Siete pronti?Are you ready?

However, stare is used for to be in some common contexts:

to say or ask how someone is

Come stai?How are you?
Sto bene, grazie.I’m fine thanks.
Mio nonno sta male.My grandfather isn’t well.

to say where someone is

Luigi sta a casa.Luigi’s at home.
Starò a Roma due giorni.I’ll be in Rome for two days.

to say where something is situated

La casa sta sulla collina.The house is on the hill.

with the adjectives zitto and solo

Vuole stare solo.He wants to be alone.
Sta’ zitto!Be quiet!

to make continuous tenses

Sta studiando.He’s studying.
Stavo andando a casa.I was going home.

essere is generally used to translate “to be.”

Stare is used to talk about health, where people and things are and with some adjectives. It is also used to make continuous tenses.

In Italian, the present continuous is used instead of the present simple to talk about what is happening at the moment, when you want to emphasize that it’s happening right now.

Arrivano.They are coming.
Stanno arrivando!They’re coming!

The Italian present continuous is made with the present tense of stare and the gerund of the verb. The gerund is a verb form that ends in –ando (for –are verbs), or –endo (for –ere and –ire verbs) and is the same as the –ing form of the verb in English, for example, walking, swimming.

Sto cercando il mio passaporto.I’m looking for my passport.
Sta scrivendo.He’s writing.
Stanno dormendo.They’re sleeping.
Cosa stai facendo?What are you doing?

To make the gerund of an –are verb, take off the ending and add –ando, for example, mangiando (meaning eating), cercando (meaning looking for).
To make the gerund of an –ere or –ire verb, take off the ending and add –endo,
for example, scrivendo (meaning writing), partendo (meaning leaving).

Tip: Only use the Italian present continuous to talk about things that are happening at this very minute. Use the present simple tense to talk about things that are continuing, but not necessarily happening at this minute.

Studio medicina.I’m studying medicine.

Key points

Only use the present continuous in Italian for actions that are happening right now.

To make the present continuous, use the present tense of stare and the gerund of the main verb.

This month’s proverb:

Meglio solo che male accompagnato.

Translation: “Better alone than in bad company.”

This month’s falso amico:

It is attendere, which doesn’t mean to attend. It means to wait. Attend in Italian is rendered as partecipare or assistere

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