We have recently been sent some questions on how the tenses imperfetto and passato prossimo are used. Here are some tips which we hope will help you with the use of these two tenses.
Both imperfetto and passato prossimo refer to something that happened in the past. It is helpful to know that in Italian there are three tenses that are used for past events: imperfetto, passato prossimo, and passato remoto. Passato remoto is slowly disappearing in spoken Italian or is mostly used in the south of Italy, so let’s focus on the other two tenses and their differences.
Passato prossimo is formed with the verbs avere or essere and the participle of the verb:
Ho parlato con Luigi. I spoke to Luigi.
Hai scritto la mail? Have you written the email?
Gina è venuta alle sei. Gina came at six.
I ragazzi sono partiti alle undici. The children left at eleven.
(Notice that when essere is used, the participle has to agree with the subject: venuto becomes venuta because the subject is Gina and partito becomes partiti because the subject is i ragazzi (the children). Parlato and scritto however do not change).
The characteristic letter of imperfetto is the letter “v”:
amavo (I used to love)
sapevo (I used to know)
finivo (I used to finish/I was finishing)
And now the big question: How and when are these tenses used? Sometimes the translation helps. The imperfetto is used when you refer to a) something that you used to do in the past, or b) something that “was happening” while another event happened, or c) when another event “was happening.” For instance:
Quando ero in Italia parlavo italiano ogni giorno. When I was in Italy I used to speak Italian every day.
Ieri facevo un gelato quando ha telefonato Maria. Yesterday I was making an ice cream when Maria called.
Ieri facevo un gelato mentre lui leggeva il giornale. Yesterday I was making an ice cream while he was reading the paper.
Now, the second and the third example above are quite easy because the imperfetto is used exactly where was/were + ing is used in English. The first case is the most difficult because instead of “used to,” one could use the past tense in English and so one would tend to use the passato prossimo in Italian. So, before you decide which tense to use, try to see if “used to” would be a good translation. Slowly but steadily, the use of imprefetto will become second nature to you and you will use the correct tense without thinking.
When I was in Italy, I spoke Italian many times.
Can you say, “When I was in Italy, I used to speak Italian many times”?
No. So, you can only use passato prossimo in this case:
Quando ero in Italia, ho parlato italiano molte volte.
Let’s see some more examples:
Da piccola avevo i capelli neri. When I was little I used to have black hair.
Da piccola ho avuto i capelli neri. When I was little I had black hair.
Based on what was said above, do you see the difference here? Avevo refers to a continuous state throughout the childhood. Ho avuto refers to a specific period, which is part of the childhood, in which the speaker’s hair was black. Both are completed facts because the speaker is no longer young, however the first example covers a long and continuous period, while the second example refers to an instance, maybe long or maybe short, but not the whole period of childhood.
So far so good.
Let’s take an example from Mango Conversations:
Il regista ha fatto un lavoro incredibile ma il personaggio principale non era bravo per niente.
The director did an incredible job but the main character wasn’t good at all.
The word lavoro is used here with the meaning of “end result,” and does not refer to the process of shooting the film. In this sense, the director either did or did not do an incredible job — the form faceva cannot mean anything here because the phrase does not describe a process. So, although lavoro took some time to be completed, it is now talked about as a completed event.
The second part of the example, il personaggio principale non era bravo per niente, refers to the main actors playing in the movie. Therefore, the speaker prefers to refer to it as a continuous thing, as a description of the actor’s playing.
We hope this has made things a bit clearer!
Ok, here is a question for you now:
Which translation of “When I was in school I liked P.E.” is correct?
Quando ero a scuola mi piaceva la ginnastica.
Quando ero a scuola mi è piaciuta la ginnastica.
Leave your answer in the comments below! And feel free to ask our Italian linguistics expert any additonal grammar questions.
Cosa fai? Keep practicing your Italian with Mango Languages!