ESSERE vs. STARE: How to Tell the Difference between these Two Verbs

14th February 2023

In Italian, there are two verbs that mean “to be”: essere and stare. When should you use each one? Find out in this simple guide!

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Should I use essere or stare

If you’ve been learning Italian for a little while, you might have come across these two important verbs and found yourself wondering which one to use. 

That’s because in English, they can both be translated as “to be”, but be careful, because they’re not always interchangeable! 

So, what’s the difference? 

In this blog post, you’ll find everything you need to know about essere vs. stare, including a handy trick that will make learning the difference a lot easier. 

Before you learn the secret to telling them apart, it helps to understand each one, so we’ll look at them separately first.

What does ESSERE mean? 

Essere literally means “to be”. We use it to talk about emotions, nationality, appearance, jobs, locations, descriptions… pretty much the same as in English! 

Sono stanca/o = I’m tired

Sono americana/o = I’m American

Sono alta/o = I’m tall

Sono in pensione = I’m retired

È cuoca/o = S/he’s a chef

Dove sei? = Where are you? 

L’albero è verde = The tree is green

Sono, è, sei… notice how the verb essere changed a lot in these sentences? Let’s quickly review the different forms. 

ESSERE conjugation: io sono, tu sei…

Essere is the base form of the verb “to be”. When we want to talk about specific people, the form changes. Here’s how: 

EssereTo be 
(io)* sonoI am
(tu) sei You are (informal)
(lei/lui) è S/he is; you are (formal)
(noi) siamo We are
(voi) sieteYou are (plural, speaking to 2 or more people)
(loro) sono They are

*Psst! Notice how those little words like “io” (I) and “tu” (you) are in brackets? In Italian, we normally leave ‘em out, because the verb already tells us who’s doing the action. 

What does STARE mean? 

Stare literally means “to stay”, in the sense of “to remain in a place”. For example: 

Oggi sto a casa = Today I’m staying at home 

Stai fermo! = Stay still! 

Stai con me = Stay with me

So far so good! The most basic difference between “essere” and “stare” is very simple: 

Essere = to be

Stare = to stay

So what’s all the confusion about? The problem is that a lot of the time, we use “stare” when in English, we would use “to be”. We’ll look at these in detail soon, but first, let’s quickly review the different forms of “stare”. 

STARE conjugation: io sto, tu stai… 

“Stare” is the base form of the verb “to stay”. When we want to talk about specific people, the form changes. Here’s how:

StareTo stay
(io) stoI stay
(tu) staiYou stay
(lei/lui) staS/he stays; you formal stay
(noi) stiamoWe stay
(voi) stateYou stay (plural for 2 or more people)
(loro) stanno* They stay


*Pronunciation tip! Stare is a regular “-are” verb, except for ‘stanno’, which has a double nn. Remember to make the “nn” sound nice and long when you say it. 

ESSERE vs. STARE: Why the Difference is Easier than you Think 

When you start to learn the difference between essere and stare, you might hear explanations like this:  

“We use ‘essere’ to talk about permanent states and ‘stare’ to talk about temporary situations”. 

This works sometimes. 

For example: 

Sono italiano = I’m Italian (essere = permanent state)

Sto male = I’m ill (stare = temporary situation) 

But this explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense in other situations, for example: 

Sono stanco = I’m tired (essere = temporary situation)

Sono in ritardo = I’m late (essere = temporary situation) 

Approaching the difference in this way can cause more confusion than it resolves. Luckily, there’s a better way. Ready to learn the difference between “essere” and “stare” the easypeasy way? 

Cominciamo! Let’s start: 

When in doubt, use ESSERE

As a rule of thumb, most of the time it’s correct to use essere. You can think of essere as the default word for “to be”, so when you’re not sure, go with essere and you’ll probably be right.

Now you know that you can use essere most of the time, to master the essere vs. stare difference, all you need to do is gradually learn the exceptions, in other words, when to use stare

When do we use STARE? 

Here are the main situations when you should use “stare” in Italian: 

Health and how you areCome stai? Sto bene!How are you? I’m fine! 
Spending time with peopleStare con la famiglia To be (spend time with) with family 
Fixed expressionsLasciare stare To let it go
To be about to do somethingSto per uscireI’m about to go out
The “-ing” formSto mangiando I’m eating

Come stai? Use STARE to talk about health and how you are

Probably the most common and important use of stare is in this exchange: 

- Come stai? - Sto bene, grazie! 

- How are you? - I’m fine, thanks! 

We use stare to talk about how we are, when referring to our health and wellbeing in a very general way (usually with bene or male)

Sto bene = I’m well

Sto male = I’m ill, I’m not well

Sto meglio = I’m better

If you only learn one thing from this article, remember this one and you’ll already get essere vs. stare right most of the time!

Use STARE to talk about spending time with people 

We also use “stare” to talk about being with people, in the sense of spending time with them. 

For example: 

Mi piace stare con la famiglia. 

I like spending time with family. 

Stai sempre con i tuoi amici! 

You’re always with your friends! 

Preferisco stare in compagnia 

I prefer to have some company (lit. to stay in company)

Per me la cosa più importante è stare insieme

For me the most important thing is spending time together

You can also use it to talk about spending time alone: 

Voglio stare solo/a

I want to be alone

And to talk about being in a couple:

Jennifer Lopez e Ben Affleck stanno insieme di nuovo! 

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck are together again! 

Spending time in places and situations

By the same logic, we use stare to talk about spending time in certain places or situations: 

Adoro stare al parco!

I love being at the park!  

Non mi piace stare in ufficio, preferisco lavorare a casa.
I don’t like being in the office, I prefer working at home. 

È bello stare in barca al tramonto.

It’s nice to be in a boat at sunset.

Non stare troppo al sole.

Don’t spend too much time in the sun.

Fixed Italian expressions with STARE

You’ll also find “stare” in quite a few expressions. In these cases, it’s best to learn the whole phrase without worrying too much about the logic behind it.

Here are a few examples:

Lascia stare = let it go, leave it be, forget about it

Ti sta bene = it suits you 

Mi sta a cuore = it’s important to me (lit. it stays at my heart)

Stammi bene = take care of yourself

Some fixed expressions are related to remaining in a certain state or position: 

Stare zitta/o = to shut up, to be quiet

Stare calma/o = to stay calm

Stare attenta/o = to be careful

Stare ferma/o = to sit/stand/be still* 

Stare in piedi = to be standing (lit. stay in feet)

Stare seduti = to be sitting (lit. to be sitting) 

*Good to know! The word “stand” doesn’t really exist in Italian, so we normally just use ‘stare’. For example “stand in front of everyone” would be ‘stare davanti a tutti’.

You can use a lot of these phrases with essere too, but sometimes the meaning changes slightly. For example, we nearly always use stare with instructions:

Stai calmo! = stay calm! 

Stai attento! = be careful! 

Stai ferma/o! = stay still! 

Stai zitto! = shut up! be quiet! 

Stai seduto = stay seated

STO PER… when you’re about to do something

Here’s another fixed expression, but it’s so common and important we thought it deserved its own section! Use stare per to explain that you’re about to do something: 

- Cosa fai? - Sto per mangiare. 

- What are you doing? - I’m about to eat. 

- Hai un minuto? - No, scusami, sto per uscire.
- Do you have a minute? - No, sorry, I’m about to go out. 

Shhhh, il film sta per iniziare. 

Shhh, the film’s about to start.  

Lavati le mani, stiamo per mangiare. 

Wash your hands, we’re about to eat. 

Use STARE for the “-ing” form

We also use stare with the “gerund”, which is just a fancy grammatical term for the “-ing” form (for example ‘eating’). We use this to talk about things we’re doing right now at this moment. For example: 

Sto mangiando = I’m eating

Sto leggendo = I’m reading

Sta camminando = S/he’s walking

Stiamo ballando = We’re dancing 

Sta dormendo = S/he’s sleeping

The verb that follows stare ends in -ando (-ARE verbs) or -endo (-IRE and -ERE verbs).

ESSERE vs. STARE PASSATO PROSSIMO (Italian Past Tense)

Now you’ve done all the hard work to understand “essere” vs. “stare”, we’ve got some good news for you! The past is really easy, because it’s exactly the same 🥳.

That’s right, no need to worry about telling them apart, because they share the same forms: 

Stare / Essere (Passato Prossimo)To be (Past Tense)
(io) sono stata/o*I was
(tu) sei stata/oyou were
(lei/lui) è stata/os/he was (you formal were) 
(noi) siamo state/iwe were 
(voi) siete state/i you were (plural)
(loro) sono state/ithey were

*When we make the past with ‘essere’, the last letter agrees with the number and gender of the people we’re talking about. 

The Southern STARE

Finally, no article on essere vs. stare would be complete without a quick note about regional variants! In more southern parts of Italy, you’ll hear stare used in situations where we would normally use essere in standard Italian. 

For example: 

Sto stanco = I’m tired (standard = sono stanco)

Dove stai? = Where are you? (standard = dove sei?)

I bicchieri stanno sul tavolo = The glasses are on the table (standard = sono sul tavolo)

When to Use ESSERE vs. STARE: Review

Molto bene! You made it to the end of this guide on the differences between essere and stare. Time for a quick review. 

Remember, most of the time it’s correct to use essere, so when you’re not sure, try that one and you’ll probably be right. 

There are some exceptions when we use STARE

  1. To talk about health and how we are: Come stai? Sto bene! 
  2. To talk about spending time with people: Stare con la famiglia 
  3. In fixed expressions: Stai calmo! 
  4. To be about to do something: Sto per uscire 
  5. The “-ing” form: Sto mangiando 

If that feels like quite a lot to remember, non c’è problema, no problem! You don’t need to remember them all in one go. Start with our rule of thumb - when in doubt use essere - then layer on the uses of stare one by one. 

Stai calmo, take it step by step and you’ll get there! 😎 

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Vocabulary: ESSERE vs. STARE

Sono felice = I'm happy
Sono italiano = I'm Italian (m)
Sono alto = I'm tall (m)
Sono qui = I'm here
Sto bene = I’m well
Sto male = I’m not well, literally “I’m bad”
Sto meglio = I’m better
Stare con le persone = to spend time with people, literally “to stay with people”
Stare con la famiglia = to spend time with the family, literally “to stay with the family”
Stare zitto = to be quiet, to shut up
Stare fermo = to stay still
Stare attento = to pay attention, literally “to stay attentive”
Stare calmo = to stay calm

Quiz: ESSERE vs. STARE

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Flashcards: ESSERE vs. STARE

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Transcript: ESSERE vs. STARE

Please note, this is not a word for word transcript.

K: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti! Hi everyone and welcome to Learn Italian with Joy of Languages! I’m Katie.

M: And I’m Matteo, ciao! 

K: To be or not to be? Or in today’s case, maybe the question should be “to be” or “to stay”? We’re talking about the difference between essere, which means “to be” and stare which literally means to stay. 

But it’s not quite that simple, because in practice, they’re both used when we would normally use “be” in English. 

M: So how do we know when to use which one? 

K: Luckily, there’s a secret to make things a lot simpler and that is… when in doubt, use essere! It’s the verb that breaks down into different forms like “I am”: 

M: Sono

K: And “you are”

M: Sei 

K: She/he/it is

M: È

K: This is the same for the formal “you are”

M: È

K: We are

M: Siamo 

K. You are, the plural when speaking to two or more people

M: Siete

K: They are

M: Sono

K: And it’s the default one that we use most of the time. 

M: We use it to talk about emotions, nationality, appearance, jobs, locations, descriptions… 

M: Pretty much the same as in English! Let’s look at some examples. I’m happy

M: Sono felice

K: I’m Italian

M: Sono italiano

K: I’m tall 

M: Sono alto

K: I’m here

M: Sono qui! 

K: So as a rule of thumb, when you want to say “to be”, use essere and you’ll probably get it right. 

M: Now all we need to do is learn the exceptions. So when do we need to use stare

K: Well, remember when we had to take Brody to the vets because she ate a stick, got it stuck in her cheek and the whole side of her face swelled up? 

M: Sì! 

K: I went back to Inghilterra, England, just after, and when I called you to find out how she was, we used the verb stare quite a lot! 

M: First, listen to the mini-conversation, then we’ll break it down step by step: 

K: Come stai? 

M: Bene, grazie. 

K: E Brody, come sta? 

M: Sta meglio. Ma è un po’ triste perché deve stare a casa. 

K: Povera. 

M: Vuole stare con gli altri cani, vuole stare al parco. 

K: È iperattiva, immagino. 

M: Sì, non sta zitta e non sta ferma! 

K: So first, I asked: 

M: Come stai? 

K: How are you? Literally: 

M: 

Come = how
Stai = you stay

K: This is the most common and important use of stare, which is in this essential conversation opener to talk about how we, or other people are. Matteo answered: 

M: Bene, grazie
K: Good, thanks

K: Then I asked Matteo:

M: E Brody, come sta? 

K: And Brody, how’s she? Literally: 

M: 

E Brody = And Brody
Come = How
Sta = She stays

K: So we’ve seen two forms of stare: stai (literally “you stay”) and sta (literally he or she stays). Let’s review them all. I stay: 

M: Sto 

K: You stay

M: Stai 

K: She, he or it stays

M: Sta

K: This is the same for the formal “you”

M: Sta

K: We stay

M: Stiamo 

K: You stay (plural, speaking to two or more people)

M: State

K: They stay

M: Stanno

K: It’s nearly a regular verb, but watch out for the double nn in the last one. Make it nice and long: 

M: Stanno 

K: Luckily, Matteo answered “she’s better”

M: Sta meglio

K: So whenever you’re asking and answering questions about how you or other people are, we always use stare. And here’s a quick common mistake alert. Often people learning Italian translate directly from English and say things like "sono bene” or "è bene", but in Italian, we always use stare in these situations. Honestly, if you only learn this difference, that we use stare to talk about how we are, you’re already nearly there when it comes to using it like an Italian! 

M: We normally use it with words like: 

Bene = good
Male = bad
Meglio = better

K: How would you say… I’m well?

M: Sto bene

K: You’re well

M: Stai bene 

K: She or he is well? Or you formal are well?

M: Sta bene

K: We’re well 

M: Stiamo bene 

K: You plural are well 

M: State bene 

K: They are well

M: Stanno bene 

K: Next, Matteo said: 

M: Ma è un po’ triste 

K: But she’s a bit sad

M: 

Ma = but
È = she is
Un po’ = a bit
Triste = sad 

K: Why? 

M: Perché deve stare a casa. 

K: Because she has to stay at home. Literally: 

M: 

Perché = because
Deve = she must
Stare = stay
A = at
Casa = home

K: Here we see how we often use “stare” to talk about being or staying at home. 

M: Stare a casa

K: Then I said: 

M: Povera

K: Poor, when talking about people, a bit like saying “poor thing”. PoverA, with an -a because Brody’s female. 

M: Povera

K: Then Matteo said: 

M: Vuole stare con gli altri cani

K: She wants to be with the other dogs. Literally 

M: 

Vuole = she wants
Stare = to stay
Con = with
Gli altri = the other
Cani = dogs

K: We use “stare” to talk about being around or spending time with people (or dogs in this case!). 

K: To spend time with the family, literally “to stay with the family”: 

M: Stare con la famiglia 

K: Or even, the lack of spending time with people. To be alone: 

M: “Stare solo”. I say "solo" with and O at the end. 

K: I would say…

M: Stare sola. With A. Sola.

K: Next, Matteo said: 

M: Vuole stare al parco. 

K: She wants to be at the park. Literally: 

M: 

Vuole = she wants
Stare = to stay
Al = at the
Parco = park  

Following the same logic as spending time around people, we can also use it to talk about spending time in certain places or situations, for example being, or spending time in the park: 

M: Stare al parco

K: Being or spending time in the office

M: Stare in ufficio

K: Being in, or spending time in the sun

M: Stare al sole

K: Next, I said: 

M: È iperattiva, immagino. 

K: She’s hyperactive, I imagine. 

K: And Matteo replied: 

M: Sì, non sta zitta 

K: Yeah, she won’t shut up. Literally

M: 

Non = not
Sta = she stays
Zitta = silent (for a male, it would be zitto). 

K: Stare zitto or stare zitta, means to stay quiet or shut up. It’s quite harsh, but if Brody’s been barking all day, you might hear one of us shout

M: Stai zitta! 

K: Shut up! 

K: Then Matteo said: 

M: E non sta ferma

K: And she won’t stay still. Literally: 

M: 

E = and
Non = not
Sta = she stays
Ferma = still (for a male, it would be fermo). 

K: Here’s another phrase with “stare”. Stay still: 

M: Stare ferma, or stare fermo. 

K: There are quite a few examples of fixed expressions like this with “stare”. For example: 

M: 

Stare attento = to be careful, literally “to stay attentive”
Stare calmo = to stay calm 

K: In these cases, it’s best to just learn the whole phrase, without worrying too much about the logic behind it. Over on the blog, you’ll find lots more examples of these. 

M: For now, let’s recap essere vs. stare. Remember when we use each one? 

K: As a rule of thumb, we use essere most of the time, so the secret is actually just to learn the exceptions when we use stare.  

M: You heard lots of examples in our conversation, let’s listen again: 

K: Come stai? 

M: Bene, grazie. 

K: E Brody, come sta? 

M: Sta meglio. Ma è un po’ triste perché deve stare a casa. 

K: Povera. 

M: Vuole stare con gli altri cani, vuole stare al parco. 

K: È iperattiva, immagino. 

M: Sì, non sta zitta e non sta ferma! 

K: The first situation is “come stai” to talk about how we are and our health. For example: 

M: 

Sto bene = I’m well 
Sto male = I’m not well, literally “I’m bad” 
Sto meglio = I’m better 

K: Then we used it to talk about spending time with people: 

M: 

Stare con le persone = to spend time with people, literally “to stay with people” .
Stare con la famiglia = to spend time with the family, literally “to stay with the family”.

K: Finally, you’ll find it in lots of fixed expressions, for example: 

M: 

Stare zitto = to be quiet, to shut up
Stare fermo = to stay still
Stare attento = to pay attention, literally “to stay attentive”
Stare calmo = to stay calm

K: To see everything written down, learn more common phrases with stare, and test yourself with a quiz and vocabulary cards to help it all sink in, head over to our website by clicking the link in the description. 

M: Or you can go to joyoflanguages.com/italianpodcast and search for episode 88. 

K: If you enjoyed this episode, you can get notified about new episodes by subscribing to Learn Italian with Joy of Languages, wherever you listen to podcasts. 

M: And if you have time, don’t forget to leave us a review. It means a lot to us because it helps other learners find the podcast. Grazie mille! 

K: See you next time, or as we say in Italian 

K, M: Alla prossima! 

---------------------------

M: Ehi, Katie, they’re still here, so let’s talk about a quick bonus one! What about how we use stare in Naples? 

K: Oh yeah, the southern stare

M: People from the South of Italy tend to use stare a lot in situations where we normally use essere in standard Italian. For example, in Naples, to say where something is, like “the glasses are on the table” we might say “i bicchieri stanno sul tavolo”. 

K: Can you guess what the standard Italian version would be? We would use essere, so we’d say: 

M: I bicchieri sono sul tavolo. 

K: I live with Matteo and have a lot of friends from the south of Italy, so I’ve picked this habit up too, and sometimes Italians from the North laugh at me. 

M: That’s because it’s a bit strange hearing a foreigner using a regional variant in that way, but it’s nice! In the South of Italy, you might also hear it for any kind of temporary situation, for example “sto felice” (I’m happy) or “sto in ritardo” (I’m late). That’s a very regional use. 

K: How would you say these sentences in standard Italian? We’d use essere. I’m happy: 

M: Sono felice

K: I’m late

M: Sono in ritardo

K: That’s really it from us now, see you soon!

M: A presto!

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