Monday, March 02, 2015

Italian Verb Patterns

It's a chore memorizing how to conjugate all 45 forms of  Italian verbs--even the regular ones, and when you factor in the irregular ones, it looks hopeless. However, there are patterns, and following those patterns makes the whole thing easier to deal with.

The most important tip is don't try to learn everything at once!

In the tables below, I will offer rules capable of generating all the forms of all Italian verbs, but you really don't want to try to memorize all of this. Not at once, anyway. Instead, look over it and pick the bits that matter to you at the moment. When you find a new verb, look at how it fits into the pattern. Use that to help you memorize it.

Just as you don't try to learn 5,000 new words all at once, try to absorb these rules a little bit at a time. Otherwise it really will be too overwhelming.

Regular Verbs

Non-Finite Verbs

There are three Italian verb forms that don't have a tense: the infinitive, the past participle, and the gerund. A traditional way to represent this would be to use example verbs, one for each of the three conjugation families:

Speak Fear Sleep
Past Participleparlatotemutodormito

But this obscures much of what is common between them. In the table, I have made the "theme vowels" bold to illustrate that the endings (the part to the right of the theme vowel) are the same for all three conjugations, even though the stems (the part to the left of the theme vowel) are different.

A much better (and far more compact) way to represent the same information is to omit the stems, collect the theme vowels together, and thus make the endings stand out.

IT Verb Endings Non-Finite
Past Part.[aui]to

The three letters in brackets show the theme vowel needed by each of the three conjugations. Make sure you see how this little table represents the information in the larger one above it before we move on to apply the same idea to finite verbs. (Verbs that do have a tense.)

Finite Verbs

Italian has seven "simple" (as opposed to compound) verb tenses: the present indicative, the present subjunctive, the imperfect indicative, the imperfect subjunctive, the future, the conditional, and the passato remoto. Verb tables in books go on for many pages. Using the notation we used for the non-finite verbs, we can make the most compact table of Italian verb conjugations you will ever see:

Present Imperfect Fut/Cond P. Remoto
Sg1-o[iaa][aei]vo[aei]ssi[eei-]rò[eei-]rei [aei]i-i
2-i[iaa][aei]vi[aei]ssi[eei-]rai[eei-]resti [aei]sti
3[aee][iaa][aei]va[aei]sse[eei-]rà[eei-]rebbe [òéì]-e
2[aei]te-iate[aei]vate[aei]ste[eei-]rete[eei-]reste [aei]ste
3[aoo]no[iaa]no[aei]vano[aei]ssero[eei-]ranno[eei-]rebbero [aei]rono-ero

A dash in place of square brackets means that there is no theme vowel. A dash in the fourth position reflects the fact that irregular verbs in the future and conditional tenses omit the vowel entirely. More about that below when we discuss irregular verbs.

The three odd forms marked "Irr" under the Passato Remoto are an artifact of the fact that Vulgar Latin had four conjugation families, not just three, but two of them were folded together into today's -ere verbs. As a result, a large number of -ere verbs have different endings in the first person-singular, the third-person singular, and the third-person plural of the passato remoto. Again, we'll discuss this more when we talk about irregular verbs.

Play with this table for a bit and make sure you know how to generate verb forms with it. Compare it with the verb conjugators in WordReference or Cactus 2000 if you need to. In this very compact form, all sorts of patterns are now clearly visible. Patterns make memorization easier, of course. I'll point out a few, but you should study it yourself and find the ones that help you learn.
  • All first-person plural forms end with -mo
  • All second-person plural forms end with -te
  • All third-person plural forms end with -no or -ro
  • Theme vowels are the same for all imperfect forms
  • Theme vowels are the same across all future and conditional forms
  • Despite the  name, the Imperfect tenses are the most perfect ones.

Omitted Forms

You might think that's enough verb forms already, but the astute observer will note that I've omitted a few categories:
  • The so-called "present participle" Verbs that are turned into adjectives e.g. parlante. You form it by changing the gerund ending from -do to -te. Trouble is, it doesn't function as a verb, not all verbs have them, and the meanings are often wildly different. (E.g. dirigente means "manager"). These are probably best learned as separate vocabulary items as you come to them.
  • The imperative forms. The command forms in Italian are just existing present-tense or infinitive forms used for a slightly different purpose. 
  • All of the compound forms. E.g. Lui ha parlato. I have already written about the Italian Perfect Tenses. They're important to get right, of course, but as with the imperatives, the issue isn't with learning how to construct the forms--it's with learning what to do with them after that.


You can think of these tables as little machines that take a verb stem and create all the forms of that verb. These same tables with work for all but the most irregular verbs, as I'll explain in the next section.

Irregular Verbs

Verbs with multiple stems

With the regular verbs, we spoke of the verb stem. The tables above let you generate endings for verb stems. With irregular verbs, we're going to speak of multiple stems. For a regular verb, you only have to learn one stem, but for an irregular verb, you need to know more than that. The more stems you need to learn, the more irregular the verb is. For irregular verbs, then, we need a table to generate stems. Since these still use the same endings as regular verbs, between the two sets of tables we can conjugate everything except the super-irregular verbs.

To see how this works, take a verb like rimanere (to remain). I have made the irregular stems bold.

Past Part.rimasto
Pres. Part.rimanendo

PresentImperfectFut/CondP. Remoto

Notice how the present tenses all share the same irregular stem? And the future and conditional tenses share a single (albeit different) irregular stem? And the passato remoto seems to be derived from the past participle?

To conjugate rimanere, then, you need to know the infinitive, the past participle, the first-person present indicative, and the future/conditional tense. That's just four forms to generate 45--not a bad deal.

In the worst case, you'll need to know eight stems (again, not counting super-irregular verbs), but in many cases two or three will do.

Distribution of stems

These charts show how irregular stems tend to be distributed:

IT Verb StemsNon-Finite
Past Part.PP
Pres. Part.IMP

Verb Stems
Present Imperfect Fut/Cond P. Remoto

Here's what the abbreviations mean:
Infinitive stem
Past Participle stem
First-person singular stem
Third-person singular stem
First-person plural stem
Imperfect stem
Future/Conditional stem
Passato Remoto stem
Now look back at rimanere. See how the 1SG stem rimang- gets used six times in the present tense and the FUT stem rimar- gets used twelve times in the future/conditional? This is a pattern you'll see over and over.

These eight stems are all heavily used forms. Half of the stems come from the present indicative. A single stem covers both imperfect tenses. A single stem covers the future and the conditional.

Even the passato remoto forms are heavily used by narrators in novels. A third-person narrator uses the two third-person forms, while a first-person narrator uses those as well as the first-person singular. (I suppose a first-person narrator could also use the first-person plural, but that's actually rather rare in most books.)

And you don't usually need to learn all eight anyway.

Relations between stems

For a perfectly regular verb, the other seven stems are the same as the infinitive stem, of course. Even for an irregular verb there are often connections between the stems that let you avoid learning all eight of them in most cases.

The imperfect stem is extremely important because when it differs from the infinitive stem, it drags several others along with it. All of the present-tense stems usually follow the imperfect over the infinitive.

The three irregular forms of the passato remoto tend to follow the past participle, although it would be more accurate to say they're "inspired" by it. A common transformation is for the letter 't' to become 's'. For example, the past participle of leggere (to read)  is letto and the passato remoto for "I read" is lessi.

Here's a summary of how the different stems influence each other:

IMP: 1SG, 3SG, 1PL

Irregular infinitives

It seems very strange to think that an infinitive could ever be irregular, but that's the best way to think of verbs like trarre, which seems to be missing an e from the stem, and bere, which has a different stem from all of it's inflected forms.

For the verbs with missing vowels, we'll select the stems as if the vowels were there all along. So we'll treat trarre as if it were trarere. It has an infinitive stem of trar- and an imperfect stem of tra-. It generates the future tenses with a null theme vowel and all the rest with a theme of e.

In the case of bere, the infinitive stem isn't used for anything but the infinitive itself. The imperfect stem, bev-, is used everywhere else except the future/conditional (berr-) and the passato remoto (bevv-).

What is not a stem

Sometimes a stem changes spelling in order to preserve the sound. So mangiare drops the i whenever it doesn't need it to get a soft 'g' sound. e.g. "I will eat" is io mangerò not *io mangiero. This sort of orthographic change I don't count as creating a different stem, since the pronunciation is regular.

Super-Irregular Verbs

There are only ten super-irregular verbs: andare, avere, dare, dovere, essere, fare, potere, sapere, stare, and volere. What makes them super-irregular is that they break the rule that the 1SG form gets used for the third-person plural. E.g. andare has io vado but loro vanno (not *loro vadano). These same verbs often break the rule that the second and third-person singular have the same stem. So lui va but tu vai (not *tu vi).

They follow some patterns of their own, and they're probably best learned all at once. Most of them are not irregular outside the present tense and the past participle. But there are exceptions.

Present Tense, Subjunctive

Four verbs generate the entire present subjunctive from the first-person plural, largely because they have super-short first-person singular forms. These are avere, dare, sapere, and stare. 


For almost all verbs, the imperfect indicative and the imperfect subjunctive share the same stem. The only exceptions are dare, essere, and stare.  Essere even uses a different set of endings in the imperfect indicative. Except for essere, the regular half of the passato remoto follows the imperfect subjunctive while the present tenses follow the imperfect indicative.


This always uses the imperfect indicative stem, with the sole exception of essere, which is essendo. Essere is the ultimate super-irregular verb.

Families of Verbs

According to A Reference Grammar of Modern Italian, Second Edition (Maiden and Robustelli, 2007, pp. 240-242 Table 14A), if you learn how to conjugate every verb in a particular list of forty, that's enough to conjugate every verb in Italian. The reason for that is that sets of verbs that end the same way are conjugated the same way. For example, if you can conjugate correre then you can conjugate occorrere, concorrere, and soccorrere.

I've asked the publisher for permission to reproduce that table--if only to show how finite the problem really is. Even so, rather than try to memorize such a table, it's probably better just to try to get a feel for it over time. Verbs that "sound the same" get conjugated the same way too. After all, despite all the rules you might learn, you eventually need to get to the point where you do this by instinct.

So, yes, there is a lot to learn, but if you do it gradually, there are all sort of patterns that will help you out. Like much of the rest of the language, over time it will become second nature.


Strech said...

Nice job! That is a lot of imformations compressed in a short post!

Jim said...

I really like your compact table of Italian verb conjugations. What a shame that whoever prepared the Collins Unabridged Italian-English dictionary for the Kindle didn’t have a copy!

You may already know Steve Mitchell’s fascinating website:

As well as the grammatical papers, “A Mathematician looks at Italian”, Steve offers lots of entertaining reviews, intended for Italian learners, of books and audiobooks in Italian.