« uses of the infinitive in italian | Main | having people do things - il fare causativo »

gerunds vs. present participles in italian

Gerunds in English end in -ing.

to talk - talking

to read - reading

to leave - leaving

In Italian the ending depends on the verb type. For verbs that end in -are, the gerund ends in -ando. For -ere and -ire it’s -endo.

parlare - parlando

leggere - leggendo

partire - partendo

The only irregular gerunds are…

bere - bevendo

dire - dicendo

fare - facendo

porre - ponendo

soddisfare - soddisfacendo

tradurre - traducendo

trarre - traendo

All of this is known as the “gerundio semplice” in Italian. But there is also a “gerundio composto.” To form the gerundio composto, you take the gerund of avere or essere and add the past participle (form ending in -ato, -uto or -ito) of another verb. The same verbs that take essere in the passato prossimo take essere in the gerundio composto.

avendo parlato

avendo letto

essendo partito

English has this too – having talked, having read, having left.

So what do gerunds do?

When you have a sentence consisting of a main clause and a dependent or subordinate clause, and the verbs in both clauses have the same subject, you can often replace the verb in the dependent clause with a gerund. For example…

When I make mistakes [dependent clause], I learn [main clause].


By making mistakes [dependent clause verb replaced by gerund], I learn.

While I write, I think. = While writing, I think.

While he read, he ate an apple. = While reading, he ate an apple.

While they ate, they talked. = While eating, they talked.

Notice the gerund doesn’t change forms to reflect different subjects or tenses. It’s “writing” whether the subject is he, she, I or we, and whether the tense of the main clause verb is present, past or future.

All of this is true in Italian too.

Quando sbaglio, imparo. = Sbagliando, imparo.

Mentre scrivo, penso. = Scrivendo, penso.

Mentre leggeva, ha mangiato una mela. = Leggendo, ha mangiato una mela.

Mentre cenavano, parlavano. = Cenando, parlavano.

As long as the two clauses have the same subject you’re good to go. Conjunction and conjugated verb or gerund – the choice is yours. The difference is purely stylistic. Some people find conjugated verbs more clear and specific, others find gerunds more fluid and concise.

So when do you use a gerundio composto? When the verb in the dependent clause took place before the verb in the main clause.

Ha dormito male perché aveva mangiato troppo.


Avendo mangiato troppo, ha dormito male.

The eating too much took place prior to the sleeping badly so we use the gerundio composto.

Pronouns stick onto the end of gerunds.

Copiandolo ho sbagliato. (While copying it I made a mistake.)

Parlandogli, lo ho persuaso. (By talking to him, I persuaded him.)

It’s important to note that the relationship between the gerund and the main clause verb isn’t always temporal.

Sometimes it’s causal

Siccome è malata, non viene. = Essendo malata, non viene.

Dato che non ho capito la domanda, non ho potuto rispondere. = Non avendo capito la domanda, non ho potuto rispondere.

Poiché era indisposto, non è intervenuto al dibattito. = Essendo indisposto, non è intervenuto al dibattito.

Sometimes the dependent clause gerund describes the means by or manner in which the main clause verb is performed.

Ha attraversato il fiume a nuoto. = Ha attraversato il fiume nuotando.

Si tiene su di morale con il canto. = Si tiene su di morale cantando.

And sometimes the gerund sets up a concession in spite of which the main clause verb holds true.

Benché sia piccolo, capisce tutto. = Pur essendo piccolo, capisce tutto.

Sebbene mangi molto, non ingrassa. = Pur mangiando molto, non ingrassa.

Nonostante abbia promesso di venire, non è ancora qui. = Pur avendo promesso di venire, non è ancora qui.

One last important note about the gerund before we move on to the present participle: in Italian (unlike English) it can never be a subject or direct object. For this, Italian uses the infinitive.

Learning a language well is not easy. (English uses gerund.)

Imparare bene una lingua non è facile. (Italian uses infinitive.)

Do you prefer singing or dancing? (English uses gerund.)

Preferisci cantare o ballare? (Italian uses infinitive.)

So what does all this have to do with “present participles”? Nothing! The two are completely separate and unrelated. Beginners sometimes confuse them only because they look similar (e.g. andando / andante), and because both often end in –ing in English. But grammatically the two couldn’t be less alike.

So what is a present participle? The short answer: a present participle is a verb made into an adjective.

By adding -ante to -are stems and -ente to -ere or -ire ones, you create an adjective. As such it must agree in gender and number with the noun it modifies.

In agosto ci sono molte stelle cadenti. (from cadere - to fall)

Per cuocere la pasta ci vuole l’acqua bollente. (from bollire - to boil)

D’inverno si usano vestiti pesanti. (from pesare - to weigh)

L’ebreo errante (from errare - to wander) è una figura leggendaria.

Some present participles (like many adjectives in general) have become nouns over time. A good example of a present participle that became a noun is Sabrina, because she is una bravissima insegnante (from insegnare – to teach)!

Important note: not all Italian verbs have a present participle. For instance, you can’t say, “Il ragazzo mangiante.” Or, “Jung Hoo è una persona molto studiante.”

Often to get around this you use the relative pronoun “che” – il ragazzo che mangia, Jung Hoo è una persona che studia molto, etc.

Hope this is clear! C4N.

Reader Comments (5)

Thank you - much clearer to me now.
May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAym
Very helpful!
March 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa
This is fantastic! Thank you so much!
August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Another good explanation from Tutorino. Came across the word "interessante" in a transcript i had to translate really confused me until i read this, Grazie mill :-)
March 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDavid
It's very clear! Thank you.
July 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.