Another question about Italian grammar aside from this one which has bugged me for ages.

In Italian, when forming the passato prossimo with an intransitive verb, we use forms of the auxiliary verb avere; with transitive verbs, essere is used instead.

With avere, the past participle does not agree in number and gender with the verb's subject, but with essere, it does. Why is this?

  • 2
    Great question! Maybe because essere is also used in the copula, so speakers tend to conflate the two, by morphological levelling? – Otavio Macedo Jun 19 '12 at 12:01
  • 2
    AFAIK The same thing is in French – Armen Tsirunyan Jun 19 '12 at 12:53
  • I seem to remember reading once that this is one of the "artificial" rules introduced into both Italian and French by "grammarians" in a recent century in the same way rules were introduced into English about split infinitives, dangling participle, and double negatives. But I could also be totally wrong (-: I think I noticed it when comparing to Spanish which doesn't have this feature. – hippietrail Sep 4 '12 at 10:32
  • It might be relevant to point out that in Asturian (the only Romance language, AFAIK, that still marks neuter distinctly) the neuter form of the past participle is used in compound perfect constructions. – user0721090601 Oct 28 '14 at 11:58

[This should be a comment, but I need room].

As remarked earlier, this feature is shared by French. I'll use French examples, because I'm sure to produce correct and idiomatic sentences in this language.

The rule we are talking about has two aspects:

  • When the compound tense is built with “to be“ [essere / être], there is agreement between the past participle and the subject. When the tense is built with “to have” [avere / avoir], the agreement, if any is between the direct object and the participle.

  • In the “have“-case, there is agreement if and only if the direct object precedes the verb.

Some examples :

Marie est venue. (Marie has come.)

J'ai mangé une pomme (I've eaten an apple.)

La pomme que j'ai mangée était verte. (The apple I've eaten was green.)

My point is that the first part of the rule is perfectly logical. The choice of the auxiliary verb (to be vs. to have) depends on the verb you're conjugating. (Very) roughly speaking, transitive verbs use “to have“ and intransitive verbs use “to be“. Let's also remember that, taken in isolation, the participles of transitive verbs are adjectives. When I eat an apple, what's eaten is the apple, not me, so the agreement with the subject would really be weird. In the other case, agreement with the subject makes sense (in some cases, it is even hard to tell if we're dealing with a verb at a compound tense or with “to be + adjective“; for example « Jean est mort » can mean both “Jean is dead” and “Jean has died.”)

The second part of the rule (and all the subtleties I've hidden [pronominal verbs, special constructions with « voir », « faire », « laisser »...], which are very complicated and largely ignored even by native speakers) is indeed much more artificial. It's also noteworthy that before grammar was taught in schools, there was a lot of variation concerning this part of the rule. Voltaire, for example, systematically left the past participle without agreement (he would have written “La pomme que j'ai mangé était verte.”) [Chervel's Et il fallut apprendre à écrire à tous les petits Français, a marvelous book about the history of school grammar, even makes the case that the development of school grammar was in no small part motivated by this question of the « accord avec l'auxilliaire avoir »]

There are other cases where French grammar asks for an agreement if and only if the part that triggers the agreement comes first, but they are mostly unimportant peculiarities. For example, “barefoot“ is « nu-pieds » or « pieds nus », you write « une heure et demie » (an hour and a half) but « une demi-heure » (a half-hour)... (To be perfectly honest, I wonder how many native francophones know about these rules...) So we could say that, while peculiar, even this artificial part of the rule belongs to some logical framework (but as the other examples are even weirder than the rule we're discussing, this argument doesn't sound very convincing).

A final comment: this rule is very often infringed in speech, even among educated speakers (with a very large tendency to left the participle uninflected). Interstingly, women (who have to apply it in sentences like « Il m'a remise à ma place » = “he put me in my place” ; a man would say « remis ») tend to respect the rule more carefully than men.

| improve this answer | |

Just as in French, in Italian a preceding direct object will cause the normally uninflected participle that goes with avere to agree with that already-seen object. This doesn’t happen in Spanish or Portuguese.

  • Ho comprato i pantaloni.
  • Li ho comprati.

So the participle is thought to concord to the object with avere, but not with essere, where it concords with the subject. And the concordance only applies when the object is seen before the participle.

To go further, you’ll have to look at how the perfect tenses came to be formed in Romance, synthesized using auxiliary verbs.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. I know the underlying rules, but it's the why I am not sure about. Do you know whether Spanish or Portuguese lost the phenomenon, or whether Italian and French gained it? – jogloran Aug 5 '12 at 1:50
  • @jogloran Oddly enough, it appears that they lost it! El Cantar de Mio Çid has: “La paria qu’el a presa tornar nos la ha doblada” and “A cavalleros e a peones fechos los ha ricos”, so doblada agrees with the la before the ha in the first, and fechos agrees with los before the ha in the second. – tchrist Aug 5 '12 at 2:01
  • I think this may well be due to different rationalizations during the standardizing of the various Romance languages at a time when there was a fashion of "grammarians" looking to include "rules" based on their ideas of "logic" and other such concepts. – hippietrail Sep 6 '12 at 22:34
  • 2
    @tchrist I find it completely logical that Spanish and Portuguese lost it. You could argue that Spanish still has it in sentences like "Tengo comprados los pantalones". Latin didn't have the "perfecto" or "passato prossimo", but it did have the past participle. So in the construction, the past participle was obviously an object predicate until reanalyzed as part of the compound verb. – dainichi Sep 7 '12 at 0:09
  • 1
    Are you sure about that rule? I thought the important factor is whether the object is a clitic or not. Compare "Sono le notizie che Maria ha ricevuto" with an "o" versus "Le ha ricevute" with an "e". I'm no expert in Italian, so I could easily be completely wrong... – dainichi Sep 7 '12 at 0:37

When forming the "passato prossimo" with an intransitive verb, we use forms of the auxiliary verb avere or essere. It dependes on the main verb. The question you ask is named "Concordanza del participio passato" and concerns the use of the auxiliary essere or avere.

The matter is complicated but is addressed quite well in this post about "concordanza" which concludes that in the current use (I do not mean rule) the past participle conjugated with the auxiliary have is usually invariable, except when accompanied by unstressed personal pronoun direct object.

I would also like to point out that errors in the "concordanza" can lead to change in meaning or interpretation of the phrase:

"VOI SIETE PARTITI/E" if mispelled/mistaken with "VOI SIETE PARTITO" is understood as "TU SEI PARTITO", whereas in the south of Italy, it is still common the form of courtesy with the second person plural pronoun "VOI".

"VOI AVETE PAGATO" if mispelled/mistaken with "VOI SIETE PAGATI" (even though it's an error) could be understood as "VOI SIETE STATI PAGATI" (you received your payment).

| improve this answer | |
  • Hi Ronda, and welcome to Linguistics.SE. I know the underlying agreement rules, but my question was about why the agreement only occurs with essere or, as you say, with avere only in conjunction with pre-verbal direct object pronouns. @Otavio Macedo ventured a plausible guess in a comment to the question. – jogloran Aug 3 '12 at 5:47
  • Hi jogloran, the key of my answer is the link to the article by M. Pistone which essentially say that italian's two rules follow two absolutely different reasoning because of its undergone profound changes through the centuries with the lost of consciousness of the original meaning, the agreement of the participle was no longer strictly observed. I understand that this might not be convincing enough. I hope that the careful reading of Article might be interesting for you and more intelligible than i did. – Franco Rondini Aug 3 '12 at 6:47

There is an interesting juxtaposition in the well-known romanza Musica Proibita -- within a few lines we have "perche me l'ha proibita" [a choice perhaps influenced by the adjectival use in the title] and "la frase che m'ha fatto palpitar" [this locution may have some affinity with the exceptional usages with faire in French, mentioned in a preceding post].

In any case [i.e., regardless of my bracketed comments above], both of these phrases do conform to the usages that others have already set forth here.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.