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Learning a new language is not only tough because there are thousands of new words to learn, but even tougher because those words often overlap in meaning.
This is definitely the case with the two verbs in Italian - “tenere - to hold, to keep” and “avere - to have, to obtain, to hold”.
What are the main differences?
First, "tenere" is often understood as "to keep" or "to hold", like "to keep a window open", "keep a secret" or "hold a baby."
"Avere" is to understood as meaning, "to have", in the sense of possession, like age, fear, or an iPhone.
Second, "tenere" is used, more often in the south, particularly in Naples, in the place of "avere", but grammatically, it's incorrect.
Meaning, even if you hear "Tengo 27 anni" or "Tengo fame," it's not grammatically correct.
Here are some situations where choosing between "avere" and "tenere" might be tricky.
1.) To have/keep an item
- Ho una mela, ma voglio mangiare un'arancia. - I have an apple, but I want to eat an orange.
- Non ho una borsa che si abbina a/con questo vestito. - I don't have a purse that matches this dress.
- Ho il nuovo iPhone. - I have a new iPhone.
In the situation above, you couldn't use "tenere" as a substitute for "avere".
- Tengo questo iPhone fino all'uscita di quello nuovo. - I'm keeping this iPhone until the new one comes out.
2.) To not have any money
- Non ho una lira. - I don't have any money.
Here, you can use "tenere", but "avere" is still preferred.
- Non tengo una lira. - I don't have any money.
"Non avere/tenere una lira" is an expression that literally means, "I don't have one lira".
To Maintain a Situation
1.) Keep/have a secret
- È un segreto che tengo per Silvia, quindi non posso dirtelo. - It's a secret that I'm keeping for Silvia, so I can't tell it to you.
However, if you have a secret and you're not keeping a secret for anybody, you can just use "avere."
- Ho un segreto. Ho un amante! - I have a secret. I have a lover!
2.) Have/keep in pockets
- Ha le mani in tasca. - He has his hands in his pockets.
In this situation, both "avere" and "tenere" can be used.
- Tiene le mani in tasca. - He has (keeps) his hands in his pockets.
3.) Have/keep In mind
- Ti spiegherò quello che ho in mente. - I'll explain to you what I have in mind.
In this context, "avere" and "tenere" can both be used although the sentence structure will change.
- Tieni in mente quello che ti ho detto ieri. - Keep in mind what I told you yesterday.
To Hold Something
1.) Hold/have a baby in your arms
- Tiene in braccio un bimbo. Il bebé ha sei mesi. - She is holding a baby in her arm. The baby is six months.
In this situation, you can use "avere" interchangeably.
- Ha in braccio un bimbo. Il bebé ha sei mesi. - She is holding a baby in her arm. The baby is six months.
2.) Have a bouquet of flowers
- Perché hai un mazzo di fiori? Hai molti spasimanti? - Why do you have a bouquet of flowers? Do you have a lot of admirers?
- Non posso rispondere perchè ho un mazzo di fiori in mano. - I can't answer the phone because I'm holding a bouquet of flowers.
Then, the person you're talking to might respond to you using the verb "tenere".
- Rispondi, che te lo tengo io. - Answer, and I'll hold it for you.
3.) Hold a bouquet with style
- La sposa tiene il bouquet con classe. - The bride holds the bouquet in her hands with style.
In the example above, "tenere" is used to stress the way she holds the bouquet.
To help make this easier, use "tenere" whenever you have something that you're physically holding "in mano - in your hands" or "in braccio - in your arms."
It can also be used in figurative expressions, as you saw "tenere in mente," but since we would be likely to translate that as "keep in mind", it's easier to distinguish from "avere."
"Avere", on the other hand, is used to talk about something you possess, either literally or figuratively.
If you find yourself in conversation, and you can't think of which one is right to use, it's best to ask yourself what the simplest meaning is. For example, instead of saying, "He had a change of heart", you can say, "He changed his mind" or “Ha cambiato idea”.