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Auxiliary selection in Italian compound tenses: a problem that can be solved.

In this paper I show how transitivity and intransitivity are not directly related to auxiliary selection for Italian compound tenses: in Italian, while transitive verbs only select avere, intransitive verbs can select both avere or essere. In section 1, I briefly describe the structure of the passato prossimo in Italian. In section 2, I present how the passato prossimo is presented in some Italian introductory manuals published in the United States. In section 3, I take into consideration two descriptions of the problem of auxiliary selection in Italian: one (following Burzio 1986 and Salvi 2001) looks more into the syntactic aspects of the problem and the other focuses more on the semantics involved in the process of auxiliary selection of verbs (Sorace 2000). Finally, in section 4, I present a sequence of activities that, instead of relying on misleading traditional grammatical concepts, lead the students to discover by themselves how auxiliary selection works. Working inductively, the students will have a clearer view about the implication of auxiliary selection in Italian.

In their first or second course in Italian students start learning to use the passato prossimo, a compound tense used to describe actions completed in the past. Learning this tense is a great challenge for the students, and at the same time most of the operations involved in the constructions of this tense will be used for the formation of any other Italian compound tense.

1. The Italian passato prossimo

The Italian passato prossimo is a compound tense formed with the present tense of an auxiliary verb (essere or avere) followed by the past participle of the verb being used. The formation of this tense seems easy at first glance, but in reality it involves a great number of choices that are not always straightforward.

First of all, the passato prossimo requires the formation of the past participle of the main verb, or the verb being used. When it comes to past participle formation, regular verbs respect the following pattern:

--are verb endings change to -ato (parlare > paria!o);

--ere verb endings change to -uto (credere > creduto);

--ire verb endings change to -ito (dormire > dormito).

Nonetheless, a considerable number of commonly used verbs display an irregular past participle form which require memorization in order to learn the irregular verb forms in the passato prossimo.

A second characteristic of the Italian passato prossimo is linked to the selection among the two possible auxiliary verbs essere and avere.

And finally, depending on the selected auxiliary, agreement rules may come into play affecting the past participle's ending. These agreement rules can be summarized as follows:

a. when avere is selected as auxiliary (AUX) no agreement feature between the past participle (PPart) and the subject (SUBJ) is required.
Ex.: SUBJ        AUX    PPart       DO
     Antonio     ha     mangiato    una mela.
     *Antonio    ha     mangiata    una mela

unless a preverbal direct object (DO) pronoun is present in which case the past participle (PPart) shares gender and number features with the preverbal direct object pronoun (DOpron);
Ex.: SUBJ         DOproni   AUX   PParti      <begin strikethrough>DOi
                                              <end strikethrough>

     Antonio      lai       ha    mangiatai   <begin strikethrough>
                                              una melai.
                                              <end strikethrough>

     * Antonioi   la        ha    mangiatoi   <begin strikethrough>
                                              una mela

b. when essere is used as auxiliary (AUX) the past participle (PPart) shares gender and number features with the subject (SUBJ):
Ex.: SUBJi    AUX   PParti
     Mariai   e     arrivatai.

c. when essere is used as auxiliary (AUX) in co-occurrence with a preverbal direct object pronoun (DOpron), the past participle shares gender and number features with the preverbal direct object pronoun and not with the subject (SUBJ): (1)
Ex.: SUBJ      RefPron   DOproni   AUX    PParti      DO

     Maria e   se        lai       sono   mangiatai   <begin
     Paola                                            strikethrough>
                                                      una melai.

     * Maria   se        la        sone   mangiatei   <begin
     e Paolai                                         strikethrough>
                                                      una mela

Learning to use the passato prossimo involves the following operations which are not always easy: (a) building the past participle of a given verb; (b) deciding which of the two auxiliary verbs must be used; and (c) deciding which agreement rules to apply.

2. The passato prossimo construction and how it is presented in Italian introductory manuals

We all agree that the most challenging decision to be made when building the passato prossimo is the choice between the two available auxiliaries. If we look carefully at how the passato prossimo is presented in some introductory Italian manuals, (2) we realize that the explanations given are not always clear enough for the students who prefer a set of rules to follow. (3)

most intransitive verbs are conjugated with the auxiliary essere. (Larese Riga 2009, 119)

avere is the auxiliary for all transitive verbs as well as for many intransitive. (...) essere is the auxiliary for many intransitive verbs. (Banciforte and Grassi 2002, 135-136)

most transitive verbs are conjugated with avere (...). Nearly all intransitive verbs are conjugated with essere. (...) Reflexive verbs, both transitive and intransitive, are always conjugated with essere. (Tognozzi & Cavatorta 2009, 41-42)

not all intransitive verbs are conjugated with essere. (Melis 2007, 141) some verbs are conjugated with essere in the passato prossimo rather than with avere. (Danesi 2006, 198)

As we can see from this small number of examples, it is not clear at all why the concepts of transitivity and intransitivity are used if they cannot be reliable characteristics for choosing the right auxiliary verb. Transitivity implies the use of avere as auxiliary verb in compound tenses,4 but intransitivity does not exclusively imply essere as auxiliary verb. After reading those explanations, we wonder why the concepts of "transitivity" and "intransitivity" are used, if they are not a reliable tool when it comes to auxiliary selection in compound tenses.

In addition, if we look at a common dictionary we realize that it is not clear to what the two words actually refer. Two Italian online dictionaries define the two words as follows:

transitivo agg. si dice di verbo che regge il suo complemento senza alcun intermediario, cioe si costruisce col complemento oggetto

intransitivo agg. e s. m. (gramm.) si dice di verbo che non puo avere un complemento oggetto


transitivo agg., s.m. che esprime un'azione che passa direttamente ad un complemento oggetto

intransitivo agg., s.m. che esprime un'azione che si esaurisce nel soggetto, senza passare a un complemento oggetto


Basically the difference between the sets of definitions relies on two different perspectives. The definition given in is of a syntactical nature. In this case transitivity is defined as the possibility of a verb to allow the presence (required by the verb) of another NP (noun phrase or nominal element) besides the one acting as the sentence subject. On the contrary, intransitivity is defined as the impossibility of a verb to allow a second NP. The definitions given in state that transitivity relates to the action itself and the transition from the subject to the direct object. Intransitivity relates to an action accomplished without transiting from the subject to the direct object.

Linking transitivity and intransitivity to auxiliary selection is dangerous because the presence or the absence of a direct object cannot be used as the rule for establishing auxiliary selection in Italian. There are verbs that even without having a direct object still select avere and not essere: are these verbs intransitive or not? We also have to remember that verbs in themselves are not transitive or intransitive: what is transitive or intransitive is the construction (and sometimes the constructions) of the verb that is being built. (5)

3. Syntactic and semantic analysis of (in)transitivity

Verbs traditionally defined as intransitive due to the lack of a direct object display different characteristics that force us to make some distinctions. Luigi Burzio (Burzio 1981 and 1986),6 in his analysis of Italian auxiliaries, is among the first to claim that the class of the so-called intransitive verbs is not as homogeneous as the traditional definition seems to indicate. Let us examine the examples of lavorare and arrivare; both verbs have one only nominal element, the subject, but in Italian those verbs select avere and essere respectively in compound tenses.

(1) Gianni lavora. / Gianni ha lavorato.

Gianni works. / Gianni (has) worked.

(2) Gianni arriva. / Gianni e arrivato.

Gianni arrives. / Gianni has arrived.

The verbs in (1) and (2) only need one nominal element to build a nuclear simple sentence. On the other hand, if we look at the auxiliary each of those verbs requires in any Italian compound tenses, we realize that lavorare selects avere whereas arrivare selects essere. The two verbs have something in common--they only need a subject to build a well formed sentence. However, they behave in completely different ways when it comes to auxiliary selection.

Italian is a language in which the linear order of the elements is not so rigorous. The sentences presented in (3)a, (4)a, and (5)a, displaying a normal SUBJECT VERB (OBJECT) word order, are still considered well formed if the SUBJECT (see [3]b, [4]b and [5]b) comes after the VERB (OBJECT). This phenomenon is usually referred to as free inversion and Italian allows this free inversion to happen.


a. Gianni ha salutato molte ragazze.

b. Ha salutato molte ragazze Gianni.


a. Molte ragazze hanno lavorato.

b. Hanno lavorato molte ragazze.


a. Molte ragazze sono arrivate.

b. Sono arrivate molte ragazze.

If, as Burzio shows (Burzio 1986, 21), free inversion works then necliticization is possible only in some cases (see Burzio 1986, 22).


a. Gianni ne ha salutate molte.

b. Ne ha salutate molte Gianni.


a. * Molte ne hanno lavorato.

b. * Ne hanno lavorato molte.


a. Molte ne sono arrivate.

b. Ne sono arrivate molte.

As we can see from these examples something is going on between auxiliary selection and the (im)possibility of ne-cliticization. (6) and (7) select avere as auxiliary while (8) selects essere. (6) and (8) allow necliticization both in normal and in the inverted word order whereas (7) does not. (7)

The clitic ne works for direct object of transitive verbs (as in [3] and [6]) but also for some subjects of so-called intransitive verbs that take essere as auxiliary (as in [5] and [8]). Ne-cliticization does not work for the subjects of intransitive verbs that take avere as auxiliary (as in [41 and [7]).

Interestingly, ne-cliticization is possible for direct objects (of transitive verbs) as well as for the subject of verbs that select essere as auxiliary which makes us think that there is a correlation between the direct objects of (3) and (6) and the subjects of (5) and (8). (8)

In fact, from a syntactic point of view (3), (4), and (5), in their normal word order, display three different structures that may be presented as shown below in (9), (10), and (11). (9)

(9) TRANSITIVE [Gianni [VP saluta [[sub.NP] molte ragazze]]]

(10) INTRANSITIVE [Gianni [VP lavora [[empty set]]]

(11) INTRANSITIVE [Gianni i VP arriva [NP[begin strikethrough]i[end strikethrough]]]]

The verb phrase (VP) salutare in example (9) has two arguments: one external Gianni and one internal molte ragazze. In the external argument, the NOMINATIVE case is assigned functioning as the sentence's subject. In the internal argument, the ACCUSATIVE case is assigned functioning as the direct object. (10)

Both lavorare in (10) and arrivare in (11) have only one argument, what differs is their different VP structure. The sentence in (10) has only an external argument whereas (11) has only one internal argument which appears displaced from its VP internal position.

In (10), lavorare assigns the NOMINATIVE case to its VP external argument but is not able to assign an ACCUSATIVE case because the verb thematic structure does not display a VP internal argument.

In (11), something different happens with arrivare. The element Gianni is a VP internal argument but the verb is not able to assign ACCUSATIVE case to it due to the lack of an external argument that can only accept the NOMINATIVE case. The element Gianni is displaced in a pre-verbal position where it can receive the NOMINATIVE case and function as subject and the ACCUSATIVE case is not assigned since one argument can only accept one case.

The lack of ACCUSATIVE case assignment is different in (10) and in (11). In (10) there is no argument that can accept it where as in (11) the element that could receive it cannot receive because instead the NOMINATIVE case is assigned to it.

Nonetheless, the internal argument of salutare ("molte ragazze" in [9]) and the internal argument of arrivare ("Gianni" in [11]) do have something in common, as the ne-cliticization in (3)-(5) and (6)-(8).

Looking more in detail at what happens in the examples presented above it is also clear that in (9) and (10) the subject of the sentences can be interpreted, in theta-role assignment theory, 11 as the AGENT of the action. What happens with the subject of (11) and the direct object of (9) is that both have in common the fact that they are undergoing the consequences of the action, which is normally defined as THEME (or PATIENT) in theta-role assignment theory.

Putting all this things together we can say that:
(12) TRANSITIVE     [Gianni         [saluta      [le ragazze]]].
                    SUBJ            VERB         DIRECT OBJECT

Case:               NOM             ACCUSATIVE
Theta-role:         AGENT           VERB         THEME/PATIENT

(13) INTRANSITIVE   [Gianni         [telefona    [[empty set]]].
                    SUBJ            VERB

Case:               NOM
Theta-role:         AGENT           VERB

(14) INTRANSITIVE   [Gianni         [arriva      [[begin
                    SUBJ            VERB         strikethrough]
Case:               NOM                          strikethrough]]]].

Theta-role:         THEME/PATIENT   VERB         [begin

Despite what we see with the syntactic description of a transitive verb like the one presented in (12), the same thing cannot be said about intransitive verbs like those presented in (13) and (14). Even if traditionally both verbs of (13) and (14) are considered intransitive, we have shown that (13) and (14) behave differently. In order to understand the rules underlying auxiliary selection it is imperative to make some distinctions among the so-called intransitive verbs. In linguistics theory, several have been the possible definitions to establish the difference among the traditionally defined intransitive verbs. In order to avoid terminological problems, I suggest we use the following definitions:

* Traditionally intransitive verbs with an AGENT-like subject should be considered as INTRANSITIVE (or UNERGATIVE);


* Traditionally intransitive verbs with a THEME-like subject should be considered UNACCUSATIVE (or ERGATIVE).

In other words, there are several differences between the verbs whose syntactic subjects are semantic agents and verbs whose syntactic subjects are not semantic agents. (12)

More evidence that the class of the so-called intransitive verbs is not a homogeneous one comes from the fact that not all intransitive verbs behave in the same way in absolute past participle constructions (italicized element in the following examples). (13)

In the next set of examples, (15) is derived from transitive verb like in (9); (16) from a verb with an AGENT like subject like in (10); and (17) from a verb with a THEME like subject like in (11).

While (15) and (17) are considered well formed, the same cannot be said for (16):

(15) TRANSIT1VE Salutate le ragazze, Gianni e tornato a casa.

(16) INTRANSITIVE * Lavorato Gianni, siamo potuti partire. (14)

(17) UNACCUSATIVE Arrivato Gianni, siamo potuti partire.

One more argument that allows us to make distinctions comes from the possibility of using the past participle of a verb in predicative function: transitive and unaccusative verbs allow those constructions whereas intransitive verbs do not.

(18) La pioggia distrugge la casa TRANSITIVE VERB La casa e distrutta.

(19) Maria canta. INTRANSITIVE VERB * Maria e cantata.

(20) L'albero fiorisce. UNACCUSATIVE VERB L'albero e fiorito.

A conspicuous group of transitive verbs allows an unaccusative alternative. In some cases, a si-construction is required but not always. In any case, NOMINATIVE case is attributed to the internal argument (the DO of the transistive construction) in the unaccusative alternative. The transitive constructions in (21) and (22) have the unaccusative counterparts given in (23) and (24). (15)

Transitive constructions

(21) Il governo aumenta la benzina.

(22) Il sole scioglie la neve.

Unaccusative constructions

(23) Il prezzo della benzina aumenta.

(24) La neve si scioglie.

Interestingly, the displacement of the internal argument, the THEME of those constructions to which the ACCUSATIVE case is assigned, to a VP external position (a subject position in traditional terms) also forces essere as auxiliary as shown in (25)-(28):

Transitive constructions

(25) Il governo ha aumentato la benzina.

(26) Il sole ha sciolto la neve.

Unaccusative constructions

(27) La benzina e aumentata.

(28) La neve si e sciolta.

It is important to remember that an intransitive verb does not allow an unaccusative alternative as the transitive simply because they lack the internal argument, the direct object in traditional terms.

From a terminological point of view, Salvi and Vanelli (16) propose to consider verbs as transitive or non-transitive according respectively to the presence or absence of an argument that functions as direct object of the verb. Subsequently, the authors divide the non-transitive into intransitives (17) and unaccusatives according to the auxiliary they select in compound tenses, avere and essere respectively. Within the unaccusatives, they identify the simple unaccusatives (18) and the pronominal unaccusatives. (19) On the other hand, Salvi and Vanelli are also aware of the possibility that the same verb may select both auxiliaries when different argument structures are present. (20)

Antonella Sorace is another author that has analyzed auxiliary selection in Italian along with other various languages. Starting from a more semantic analysis and focusing on intransitive verbs (intended here as verbs lacking the direct object, or single argumental verb structures), the author (Sorace 2000) points out that among the so-called intransitive verbs several semantic classes can be identified. The selection of essere or avere seems to be clear if we consider verbs indicating a process (that, select HAVE, her terminology), transition or state verbs (that select BE, her terminology). Sorace's AUXILIARY SELECTION HIERARCHY (Sorace 2000, 863) presents a list of semantic descriptions of verbs and orders them according to which auxiliary those verbs select in compound tenses across languages. (21) According to the author, what differs is how the different verb groups react to the notion of agentivity (22) of the sentence's subject.
Change of location                     selects BE (least variation)
Change of state
Continuation of a pre-existing state
Existence of state
Uncontrolled process
Controlled process (motional)
Controlled process (nonmotional)       selects HAVE (least variation)

To further explain the semantic verb classes to which Sorace refers, some examples are listed below: (23)
   BE (least variation)
       change of location
          Maria e andata alla festa. / * Maria ha andato alla festa.
       change of state
          La temperatura e salita. / ?La temperatura ha salito.
          Le mele sono marcite al sole. / ?Le mele hanno marcito al
       continuation of a pre-existing state
          La guerra e durata a lungo. / ?La guerra ha durato a lungo.
          Il presidente e durato in carica due anni. / Il presidente
          ha durato in carica due anni.
       existence of state
          La farina non e bastata. / ??La farina non ha bastato.
       uncontrolled process
          Il telefono ha squillato. / Il telefono e squillato.
          La fede ha tentennato. / ??La fede e tentennata.
       controlled process (motional)
          Gli atleti hanno corso alie Olimpiadi. / * Gli atleti sono
          corsi alle Olimpiadi.
       controlled process (nonmotional)
          Mario ha lavorato. / * Mario e lavorato.
   HAVE (least variation)

According to Sorace, agentivity plays no role in auxiliary selection in presence of telic verbs expressing a change of location, meaning a concrete displacement from one point in space to another. Most verbs indicating a change of state select essere, but as Sorace points out "native speaker's intuitions are less determinate than with change of location verbs" (Sorace 2000, 865). Agentivity seems to start playing a role with verbs that indicate uncontrolled process. This becomes more and more important with verbs that indicate controlled processes, both motional and non motional, with which essere as auxiliary is completely ruled out.

What is interesting is that in the range of verbs indicating change of location to those indicating controlled process, variation in auxiliary selection occurs and is in a certain way expected. As Sorace points out, (24) native speakers tend to have different judgments about auxiliary selection in the middle of the chart. Even more interestingly, it seems that the verbs in which variation does not occur are the first to be learnt both by native speaker and in SLA. Sorace's analysis is important from a pedagogical point of view because it tells us that it is normal for first year students to have problems with verbs in the middle of the hierarchy and that maybe we should avoid using verbs that can work with both essere and avere.

All these analyses of auxiliary selection from Burzio, Salvi and Vanelli, and Sorace are extremely important for those who teach Italian as a foreign language and even more important for those who teach students in whose native language compound tenses are not built with two different auxiliaries. It seems clear that auxiliary selection is more linked to the semantics of the verbs than to the presence or absence of specific elements, even if some syntactical features are very important in identifying different patterns of behavior.

4. How to teach auxiliary selection in introductory courses of Italian: a suggestion

Next we will look at how we can lead students to discover how auxiliary selection in Italian works. Several manuals for introductory courses of Italian prefer to avoid an explicit grammar explanation while, in some other cases, the manuals prefer to give an introduction to auxiliary selection by giving a small list of verbs that select essere. (25) arranged in an easy-to-remember way.

Despite how complicated auxiliary selection is, I believe it is important to let the students see and discover how auxiliary selection works. The good thing is that, since first semester Italian students are still dealing with a relatively small amount of vocabulary, it is possible to guide them towards a more clear understanding of what is at stake when it comes to auxiliary selection in Italian.

After having been exposed to a specific structure in class both passively and productively, students start to discover patterns of behavior in order to be able to apply a specific rule in contexts other than those elicited by in-class activities. I do believe that a careful and controlled analysis of what is going on can give the students a clearer understanding about what is at stake with auxiliary selection in Italian compound tenses. I am not talking about explicit grammar presentation, but as we will see, I think it is important to lead the students through the difficult process of discovering the patterns of auxiliary selection in Italian.

As a first step we can ask the students to match the infinitive form of verbs with their past participle forms, reminding them that some verbs build their past participle form regularly (-are verbs in -ato, -ere verbs in -uto, and -ire in -ito) and others irregularly.
1    svegliare      a   svegliato
2    alzare         b   alzato
3    fare           c   fatto
4    uscire         d   uscito
5    prendere       e   preso
6    scendere       f   sceso
7    lavorare       g   lavorato
8    tornare        h   tornato
9    pranzare       i   pranzato
10   riordinare     j   riordinato
11   lavare         k   lavato
12   andare         1   andato
13   restare        m   restato
14   fmire          n   finito
15   arrivare       o   arrivato
16   preparare      p   preparato
17   cenare         q   cenato
18   telefonare     r   telefonato
19   andare         s   andato
20   ritornare      t   ritornato
21   bere           u   bevuto
22   parlare        v   parlato
23   andare         w   andato
24   addormentare   y   addormentato

The following task is more centered in establishing meaningful connections between isolated verb forms. The students receive the following text and are asked to fill out the blanks of the following text using the past participle forms of the previous task.
   Ieri Michele si e -- alle sette meno un quarto. Si e -- alle
   sette e ha -- la doccia e si e -- . Poi ha -- la colazione
   per lui e per Carla, sua moglie. Hanno -- colazione insieme
   e -- alle otto meno venti per andare al lavoro. Hanno
   -- l'autobus e sono -- in Piazza Venezia. Hanno
   -- fino a mezzogiorno e mezzo e sono -- a casa all'una e
   mezza e hanno -- assieme. Dopo pranzo, Carla ha -- la
   cucina e Michele ha -- i piatti. Alle tre e mezza Carla e --
   al lavoro. Michele, invece, e -- a casa a correggere gli esami dei
   suoi studenti. Carla ha -- di lavorare alle sei e mezza: e
   -- a casa e con Michele hanno -- la cena. Hanno
   e dopo cena Michele ha -- a sua madre. Piu tardi sono
   -- al cinema. Sono -- a casa alle undici, hanno
   -- un te caldo e hanno -- un po'. Verso mezzanotte sono
   -- a letto e si sono -- subito.

The result should be:
   Ieri Michele si e -- svegliato -- alle sette meno un quarto. Si e
   -- alzato -- alle sette e ha -- fatto -- la doccia e si e --
   vestito --. Poi ha -- preparato -- la colazione per lui e per
   Carla, sua moglie. Hanno -- fatto -- colazione insieme e -- sono
   uscito -- alle otto meno venti per andare al lavoro. Hanno -- preso
   -- l'autobus e sono -- sceso -- in Piazza Venezia. Hanno --
   lavorato -- fino a mezzogiorno e mezzo e sono -- tornato -- a casa
   all'una e mezza e hanno -- pranzato -- assieme. Dopo pranzo, Carla
   ha -- riordinato -- la cucina e Michele ha -- lavato -- i piatti.
   Alie tre e mezza Carla e -- andato -- al lavoro. Michele, invece, e
   -- restato -- a casa a correggere gli esami dei suoi studenti.
   Caria ha -- finito -- di lavorare alle sei e mezza: e -- arrivato
   -- a casa e con Michele hanno -- preparato -- la cena. Hanno --
   cenato -- e dopo cena Michele ha -- telefonato -- a sua madre. Piu
   tardi sono -- andato -- al cinema. Sono -- ritornato -- a casa alle
   undici, hanno -- bevuto -- un te caldo e hanno -- parlato -- un
   po'. Verso mezzanotte sono -- andato -- a letto e si sono --
   addormentato -- subito.

At this point students should be informed that anytime the past participle is preceded by essere, the past participle form should agree in gender and number with the subject of the sentences. Students are asked to make the necessary changes in the ending of the past participles.
   Ieri Michele si e -- svegliato -- alle sette meno un quarto. Si e
   -- alzato -- alle sette e ha -- fatto la doccia e si e -- vestito
   --. Poi ha -- preparato -- la colazione per lui e per Carla, sua
   moglie. Hanno -- fatto -- colazione insieme e -- sono usciti --
   alle otto meno venti per andare al lavoro. Hanno -- preso --
   l'autobus e sono -- scesi -- in Piazza Venezia. Hanno -- lavorato
   -- fino a mezzogiorno e mezzo e sono -- tornati -- a casa all'una e
   mezza e hanno -- pranzato -- assieme. Dopo pranzo, Carla ha --
   riordinato -- la cucina e Michele ha -- lavato -- i piatti. Alle
   tre e mezza Carla e -- andata -- al lavoro. Michele, invece, e --
   restato -- a casa a correggere gli esami dei suoi studenti. Carla
   ha -- finito -- di lavorare alle sei e mezza: e -- arrivata -- a
   casa e con Michele hanno --preparato -- la cena. Hanno -- cenato --
   e dopo cena Michele ha -- telefonato -- a sua madre. Piu tardi sono
   -- andati -- al cinema. Sono -- ritornati -- a casa alle undici,
   hanno -- bevuto -- un te caldo e hanno -- parlato -- un po'. Verso
   mezzanotte sono -- andati -- a letto e si sono -- addormentati --

Once the students have obtained the final text we asked them to fill out the following chart dividing the verbs into two groups: in the column on the left the students should transcribe the verbs that have a direct object and in the second column the verbs that don't have a direct object.
verbs with direct object    verbs without direct object

ha fatto la doccia          si e svegliato
ha preparato la colazione   si e alzato
hanno fatto colazione       si e vestito
hanno preso 1'autobus       sono usciti
ha riordinato la cucina     sono scesi
ha lavato i piatti          hanno lavorato
hanno preparato la cena     sono tornati
hanno bevuto un te caldo    hanno pranzato
                            e andata
                            e restato
                            hanno cenato
                            ha telefonato
                            sono andati
                            sono ritornati
                            hanno parlato
                            sono andati
                            si sono addormentati

And we can show the students that all the verbs with a direct object build up the passato prossimo using avere as auxiliary.

The next step is to look at the column with verbs without the direct object. We ask the students to divide the verbs according to the auxiliary being used.
verbs with AVERE   verbs with ESSERE

hanno lavorato     si e svegliato
hanno pranzato     si e alzato
hanno cenato       si e vestito
ha telefonato      sono usciti
hanno parlato      sono scesi
                   sono tornati
                   e andata
                   e restato
                   sono andati
                   sono ritornati
                   sono andati
                   si sono addorn?entati

And we ask the students to look carefully and try to find out an explanation for the use of two different auxiliaries when a direct object is not present. It should be clear that when there is a subject which can be considered an AGENT of the action, then avere is used as auxiliary, whereas essere is used when the subject of the sentence is undergoing the action: in other words, when the subject is more a PATIENT of the action rather than an AGENT. (26) Usually in reflexive verbs essere is used when the subject is undergoing or is the beneficiary of the action.

Hopefully, at this point we can move on to more complex exercises such as asking the students to insert only the auxiliary in a given text describing past actions, (27) or to insert (from a given verb bank) both the auxiliary and the past participle form of a verb in a text expressing past actions.

Auxiliary selection in Italian is a difficult topic for students whose native languages do not display a similar structure. There are several morphological operations to be performed at the same time (past participle formation, auxiliary selection and agreement, as well as agreement features to be checked). Nonetheless, I think it is important that the students realize that what triggers auxiliary selection is inscribed in the meaning of the action being expressed and not linked to some extra linguistic rule.


Belletti, A. & L. Rizzi. "On the syntax of 'ne': some theoretical implications." The Linguistic Review 1 (1981): 117-155.

Burzio, L. Intransitive verbs and Italian auxiliaries. PhD Dissertation, MIT, 1981.

--. Italian syntax. Reidel: Dordrecht, 1981.

Levin, B. & M. Rappaport Hovav. Unaccusativity: at the syntax-lexical interface. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.

Pearlmutter, D. "Impersonal passives and the unaccusative hypothesis." Proceedings of the 4th Annual Meeting of the Berkley Linguistics Society. Ed. J. Jager et al. 1978. 157-189.

Salvi, Giampaolo. "La frase semplice." Grande grammatica italiana di consultazione. Ed. L. Renzi, G. Salvi, and A. Cardinaletti. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2001.

Salvi, Giampaolo and Laura Vanelli. Nuova grammatica italiana. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2004.

Sorace, A. "Gradients in auxiliary selection." Language 76.4 (2000): 859-890.

Manuals cited

Banciforte, S. & A. Grassi. Parliamo Italiano. Boston, MA: Hongton Mifflin, 2002.

Danesi, M. Adesso 3rd edition. Boston, MA: Thonson Higher Education, 2006.

Larese Riga, C. Salve. Boston, MA: Heinle, Cengage Training, 2009.

Lazzarini, Dini, Peccianti. Prego! An invitation to Italian 7th edition. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2008.

Melis, D. Pronti ... Via! Beginning Italian. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

Tognozzi, E. & G. Cavatorta. Ponti. Italiano terzo millennio 2nd edition. Boston, MA: Heinle, Cengage Learning, 2009.


University of Georgia


(1) It is the case of reflexive constructions that have at the same time a direct object.

(2) The choice of the manuals to be analyzed was dictated by the availability of the same manuals when I was preparing this article, and were chosen merely as illustrative examples.

(3) Some manuals, due to the teaching philosophy adopted, prefer to avoid overt explanations of grammar points. Even if in the article I will present my personal point of view about this particular topic, discussing the utility or inutility of overtly presenting grammar points to the students is not within the scope of the article.

(4) When discussing the rules of agreement of the past particle, we have al ready seen a case in which a reflexive construction--which normally would imply the use of essere as auxiliary--is done with the preverbal direct object pronoun.

(5) Just to give an example: the verb correre (to run) allows a transitive construction (correre la maratona) which requires avere as auxiliary, and two different intransitive constructions (correre alle olimpiadi and correre a casa) that, on the other side, select respectively avere and essere as auxiliaries for compound tenses.

(6) Following Pearlmutter 1978.

(7) See also Salvi and Vanelli 2004, 58-59.

(8) See also Belletti & Rizzi 1981.

(9) 1 use the Government and Binding approach of syntactical description. For more details see Burzio 1986, 3-19.

(10) See Burzio 1986, 3-19 for Case Theory and Case Assignment.

(11) See Burzio 1986, 3-19 for Theta-role Assignment theory.

(12) Burzio (Burzio 1986) prefers to use the term ergative for unaccusatives. See also Salvi & Vanelli 2004, 51-53.

(13) For more examples see Salvi and Vanelli 2004, 59-60.

(14) For the same reasons, if (15) displayed the subject in the absolute past participle construction (Salutate le ragazze Gianni, Gianni e tornato a casa), it should be considered ill-formed.

(15) For more details, see Salvi & Vanelli 2004, 49-51.

(16) Salvi & Vanelli 2004, 49-53.

(17) Like camminare, russare, tossire, sorridere, funzionare, etc. (see Salvi & Vanelli 2004, 49).

(18) Examples of simple unaccusatives are arrivare, arrossire, partire, etc. (see Salvi & Vanelli 2004, 49).

(19) Examples of pronominal unaccusatives are arrabbiarsi, pentirsi, disperarsi, etc. (see Salvi & Vanelli 2004, 49).

(20) Personally I think it would be too much to present to first or second semester students of Italian this complexity of behavior.

(21) For more cross linguistics evidence see Levin & Rappaport 1995.

(22) For more specific information on the differences between 'agentivity' and 'internal causation,' please refer to Sorace 2000, 862.

(23) The examples presented are from Sorace 2000, 863-879.

(24) See Sorace 2000, 860-863, 865, 867, 869, and 871.

(25) 1 am referring to the so-called House of BE, which actually comes from the French teaching tradition and is used in several interesting manuals for introductory courses of Italian.

(26) Even if a notion of agentivity is still present.

(27) It could help the student to have the past participle endings displaying different gender and number features according to the subject's gender and number.
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