Italian For Beginners: Essere vs Stare

One particular phenomenon I often encounter in foreign languages is their unusual treatments of the verb "to be". We tend to generalize things in English. But Spanish, for instance, differentiates between temporary states (like emotion or location) and permanent states (like a career, or a physical trait). Most language prefer "I have hunger" over our "I am hungry". And at least one language I know of (Russian) actually omits the verb "to be" completely from the sentence!

When in Rome...

In Italian, "being" is handled in a way that is somewhat similar to what I learned in Spanish, but different enough to require learning new rules. The verbs essere and stare both translate as "to be" in most uses, but they represent two different concepts which need to be understood in order to effectively communicate in Italian.

Stare actually means something more like "to stand" or "to stay". This is the ver to use with a gerund in the present and past continuous tenses, with an infinitive to describe something "just about to happen", or in a handful of idiomatic situations.

Come stai? - How are you?
Sto bene. - I am well.
Sto in piedi. - I am standing [on my feet].
L'uomo sta andando. - The man is walking.
Stavo per chiamare te. - I was just about to call you.

Essere is the verb that means "to be", and should be the one you instinctively choose in any situation not covered by the exceptions above. This would be the verb to describe an identity, a career, a classification, or a physical trait. It's is also appropriate for time of day and possession.

Io sono Eduardo. - I am Edward.
È un dottore? - Is he a doctor?
Tu sei cattolico. - You are a catholic.
Siamo Americani. - We are American.
Sono le sei. - It's six o'clock.
Questo è il libro di mia sorella. - This is my sister's book.

So basically, start with the expectation of using essere, unless you are constructing a continuous action using a gerund, describing something on the verge of happening, or in idiomatic expressions such as describing a person's mood or general state, in which you would use stare.


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  • And then there's E-Prime (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_prime), which is a reconfiguration of the English language that eliminates the verb "to be" altogether. It really makes you think about everything you're saying - just try to hold a conversation without "is," "are" or "am." It's rather frustrating! :)

  • Hey you said you know Russian, why don't you show us how you learned this interesting language?

  • Very interesting! After reading the description, it reminds me very much of the Russian language, which also drives a mental process that is more focused on action and causation, rather than statement of opinion. Very cool. Thanks for sharing that!

  • As my goal this year is to learn Italian fluently, the bulk of my posts this year will be about the Italian language. However, I will be mixing in posts about other languages in between, and I actually have one written about Russian already, which is scheduled to post in a few days.
    In the beginning of the year, there is a lot of new grammar to learn and a lot of new concepts to try to understand, so my expectation is that the beginning of each year will be very focused on that year's target language, but then as the year goes on, I will have more opportunities to mix in interesting things about other languages.
    I definitely have a lot to say about Russian; it is by far my favorite language! And there are endless tricks to making it easier to learn, which I would love to share with my readers.

  • I'm very interested in studying Russian too. I've been playing around with it for over a year, but still haven't committed to the time and effort it really takes to become fluent. I would love to hear some of your tricks to help make it easier- I need all the motivation I can get.

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