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Passato Prossimo e Imperfetto Posted by on Feb 4, 2009 in Grammar

If you’re struggling to understand when to use the present perfect and when it is more appropriate to use the imperfect this blog should help you. In my experience of teaching Italian to English speakers I have found this to be a very common problem. It is equally difficult for Italian people learning English to know when to use the appropriate past tense: is it “I have done” or “I did” or even “I have been doing”? Hmmmm…….anyway, lets have a look at those elusive Italian past tenses.

The passato prossimo, which is usually called the “present perfect” or “perfect” in English grammar, is formed by the auxiliary verb essere or avere followed by the participio passato (past participle): e.g. sono andata (I went), ho fatto (I did). The passato prossimo is the main tense used in Italian to convey an action which has been completed in the past, and is used to translate both the English present perfect and the simple past: e.g.: ho gia’ visto quel film (I have already seen that film), ho visto quel film sabato scorso (I saw that film last Saturday).

The imperfetto (imperfect) is characterized by the sounds -evo, -avo orivo e.g. avevo (I had/was having), pensavo (I thought/was thinking), dormivo (I slept/was sleeping) with the exception of the verb essere which is irregular (ero, eri, era, eravamo, eravate, erano). The imperfect describes past actions that are incomplete, that is the starting and/or finishing moments are not expressed, are left vague.

Because of its incomplete nature, the imperfetto is used:

1) to describe the way people, objects or places were in the past: e.g. da piccola avevo i capelli ricci (when I was a child I used to have curly hair); era un uomo coraggioso (he was a brave man); la macchina era arrugginita (the car was rusty);

2) to describe situations and factual conditions (this tense is used a lot in literature): e.g. la citta’ era deserta e non si vedevano macchine (the town was empty and there were no cars to be seen); era buio e la pioggia cadeva gentilmente (it was dark and the rain was falling lightly);

3) to describe states of mind or health: e.g. avevo sonno (I was sleepy); gli faceva male la testa (he had an headache); ero triste (I was sad);

4) to describe what used to happen such as habits and repeated actions in the past: e.g. ogni venerdi’ ci incontravamo al bar (every Friday we used to meet at the bar); d’estate andavamo sempre al mare (in the summer we always used to go to the sea); correva alla porta ogni volta che suonava il campanello (he would run to the door every time that the bell rang).

Because of their differences in nature the imperfetto and the passato prossimo can be found together in the same sentence, with the imperfect giving the setting or scenario, and the passato prossimo describing the main action: e.g. mentre guardavo la televisione e’ suonato il telefono (while I was watching television the phone rang); dov’eri quando e’ arrivato Giovanni? (where were you when Giovanni arrived?); quando ci siamo svegliati pioveva (when we woke up it was raining).

N.B. when the exact time or duration of an action is specified, the passato prossimo is used: e.g. Giovanni e’ vissuto in Inghilterra dal 2002 al 2007 (Giovanni lived in England from 2002 to 2007); ho studiato il francese per tre anni (I studied French for three years); Mario ha dormito fino alle 11 (Mario slept until 11 o’clock).

To clarify: we would use the imperfetto to say non sapevo che eri malato’ (I didn’t know that you were ill) because the time is not specified, and the passato prossimo to say ‘solo ieri ho saputo che eri malato’ (I only found out yesterday that you were ill), as the time, ieri, is specified.

For more information on the use of the past tense with da (since) or per (for), see my post Da or Per

If you are looking to learn Italian, check out our website at Transparent.com for free resources like Italian Word of the Day and our Italian Facebook community, or take it to the next level with a free trial of our self-guided online Italian course.

Adesso ho finito!

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Comments:

  1. annie:

    I have a test tomorrow and this was very helpful! Thank you!!!

  2. Stephen:

    This was very helpful. I am vexed by the differences between the imperfetto and the passato prossimo and this was a wonderful explanation. Though I understand it intellectually, I need to practice speaking it as much as possible! Grazie mille!

  3. karen:

    Hello I struggle with the pronunciation of noi and loro versions of imperfetto - e.g. volevamo contro volevano. Is it right the stress for noi is on the second 'v' - vol-eh-VAH-mo contro vol-EH-vano or the other way round? Molto grazie per la tua auita! Karen

    • Serena:

      @karen Salve Karen! Yes, your pronunciation of the imperfect tense is correct: in 'noi' the stress is always on -VA-mo, eg: voleVAmo, whilst in LORO the stress is always on the syllable before -vano, eg: voLEvano. Saluti da Serena

  4. eli:

    thank you,was very helpfull.

  5. Joel Hardman:

    Thank you for this post. I am studying Italian in Rome and came across this post. Keep up the good work.

  6. Shanon fish:

    Excellent blog, I'm studying in Prato, Italy and this is really helping me clarify this topic. Thanks

  7. Clive Moore:

    It would be really good to have the conjugation for Italian essere set out as it is in Latin grammar books with English meanings. Present Tense: sum I am, you are, etc Future Simple Tense: ero, I shall be, you will be, etc Imperfect Tense: eram, eras, I was, you were, etc Perfect Tense: fui, -isti, I have been,etc Future Perfect Tense: fuero, eris, I shall have been, etc Pluperfect Tense: fueram,-eras, I had been, you had been,etc

    • Serena:

      @Clive Moore Salve Clive, If you can get hold of any good Italian grammar book you will certainly find the conjugation for essere. Alternately you could do a search on the net for 'conjugation Italian essere' and you will find results such as this: http://italian.about.com/library/verb/blverb_essere.htm and this: http://www.italian-verbs.com/italian-verbs/conjugation.php?id=3835 Saluti da Serena

  8. Ala jordan:

    io sono nel livello intermedio uno. e questi informazioni eri piu important me li hanno aiuti. grazie a lei. penso che in 3 mesi saro' meglio in italiano. spero.

    • Serena:

      @Ala jordan Salve Ala, Let me give you a bit of help if you don't mind. Here is what I think you were trying to say: 'Io sono nel livello intermedio uno, e questa informazione era molto importante, perciò mi ha aiutato, grazie a lei. Penso che in tre mesi il mio italiano sarà migliorato, almeno spero.' (I'm on level one intermediate, and this information was very important, therefore it has helped me, thank you. I think that in three months my Italian will have improved, at least I hope so) A presto, Serena

  9. Terrilyn:

    This was sooo helpful. My professor is insane and she definitely was not good at explaining this. Grazie!!

  10. karen:

    Serena I struggle with when to use 'ero' and 'sono stata'. I know some fixed phrases, e.g. 'sono stata in Italia per la mia vacanza' but even my teacher hasn't been able to explain how to use it properly. Can you help? Molto grazie Karen

    • Serena:

      @karen Salve Karen, I'm on holiday in England at the moment. When I'm back in Italy I'll write you a proper reply and try to help you with 'sono stata', 'ero' ecc., va bene? Saluti da Serena

  11. Christine Waters:

    How would I write 'I grew up in a terrace house'? Would I use the passato prossimo as I have finished growing up or the imperfect? Sono cresciuto or crescevo? Thanks.

    • Serena:

      @Christine Waters Salve Christine, In this case you would use the passato prossimo: Sono cresciuta in una casa a schiera. N.B. as a female you would use cresciuta and not cresciuto :-) Saluti da Serena

  12. Christine Waters:

    Grazie Serina. I appreciate your help.

  13. Christine Waters:

    Mi dispiace! Grazie Serena. Christine

  14. Irene:

    Dear Serena, I'm Russian. I speak English. I'm learning Italian. Your plain explanations are of great help! Thank you very much! Irene

  15. alexa:

    this concept has been confusing me for years. thanks for the help!

  16. Dona:

    Just another hint on pronunciation-- third pers. plural matches singular: vol - EH -va vol- EH - vano in the present, too: des- I -der -a des -I - der - ano

  17. mike:

    helpful...but i'm still confused.

    • Serena:

      @mike Try this more recent blog: http://blogs.transparent.com/italian/imperfetto-e-passato-prossimo-quale-devo-usare/ Saluti da Serena

  18. andrea:

    this was so helpful. i was really having trouble with when to use essere or avere, and also with what you call "imperfect setting the stage and passator prossimo telling the main event" my text book uses the term "interrupting" for stuff like that and i just could not grasp it. thank you so much

  19. tiveavillare:

    i have known more clearly than before. This is very helpfull.

  20. Emily:

    This was so helpful! I've been confused all semester and my test is in an hour and I think i got it!

  21. Michael Gooldrup:

    I am learning Italian one of the more difficult areas for me has been discorso diretto e indiretto, specifically the combinations of the verb tenses moving from direct to indirect and then back again. Have you addresses this topic in any of your blogs? I would appreciate any information you might want to share. Thank you, Michael Gooldrup

    • Geoff:

      @Michael Gooldrup Salve Michael! Yes, discorso diretto vs discorso indiretto is a difficult topic, and I haven't addressed it yet. I'll try my best, soon. A presto Serena

  22. mike:

    You mentioned that the Imperfect tense describes incompleted events. You said "he was a brave man". What if he WAS a brave man, but is no longer, now he is a coward. Is it, "è stato un uomo coraggioso" or still, "era un uomo coraggioso" and why? Thank you!

    • Geoff:

      @mike Salve Mike! You asked: "What if he WAS a brave man, but is no longer, now he is a coward. Is it, “è stato un uomo coraggioso” or still, “era un uomo coraggioso” and why?" Well, in this particular case either tenses can be used, depending on the aspect you want to stress. The imperfect, "era un uomo coraggioso", implies that "he used to be a courageous man", whilst "è stato un uomo coraggioso" implies 1. that this is not true any more, it's finished, e.g. "in passato è stato un uomo coraggioso, ma adesso è diventato un codardo" or 2. it is referring to a particular event and not to his personality, e.g. "è stato un uomo coraggioso nell'affrontare la malattia" Va bene? Saluti da Serena

  23. Maggie:

    Should the imperfect be used to describe a sequence of events? Like in a fictional story?

    • Serena:

      @Maggie Salve Maggie! I'm not sure about your question: "Should the imperfect be used to describe a sequence of events? Like in a fictional story?" Can you give me an example? A presto Serena

  24. Maggie:

    Nevermind, I found my notes! But thank you so much for your time! This was a great refresher!

    • Serena:

      @Maggie Salve Maggie, sono contenta che hai trovato i tuoi appunti. In bocca al lupo! Saluti da Serena

  25. Fr. Godfrey:

    Thank you very much. It was helpful because on the day the teacher taught that topic I did not attend the lessons due to some un avoidable circumstances.

  26. Valerie:

    I've been struggling with this for a while and this was a very useful, clear explanation. Thank you so much. V.

    • Geoff:

      @Valerie Salve Valerie, benvenuta nel nostro blog. Mi fa sempre piacere sapere che le mie spiegazioni sono d'aiuto a qualcuno. Saluti da Serena

  27. Lili:

    Ciao! Ciaaaao! Amici, grazie mille per questo blog! E` veramente utile! Grazie, grazie, grazie! :)

  28. John:

    Thanks for the information to clear up Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto tenses - however, I am an English teacher and you have made an error... From what you're trying to say, Passato Prossimo would technically be like Past Simple in English as it is finished, past actions (I did). Whereas the Imperfetto meaning is the same as Present Perfect in English - unfinished actions / actions which are important now (I have done). However in English we use the auxiliary verb 'have' with the Present Perfect, but in Italian, the auxiliary (essere and avere) is used for the Passato Prossimo - so the opposite. There are some differences though, as "used to" is a separate function in English. I appreciate all your information on when to use Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto. Hope my little bit of information of English also helped anyone who's reading and confused :)

    • Geoff:

      @John Salve John, If you had taken the trouble to read through all the other comments posted on this blog you would have noticed that everyone found it very clear and helpful. We're glad that you found the blog useful, but we don't think your 'explanation' is going to help any of our readers. Furthermore, if you are an English teacher then you should know better than to write the following: "Hope my little bit of information of English". Really? "little bit of information of English", what is that?

  29. George:

    Salve Serena, above you wrote: Giovanni e’ vissuto in Inghilterra dal 2002 al 2007 and mentre guardavo la televisione e’ suonato il telefono. Why with e' vissuto and e' suonato in the passato prossimo are you using the verb essere instead of avere. Are those just two of the verbs that are conjugated with essere. Can you clarify please. Thanks.

    • Serena:

      @George Salve George, Benvenuto! I'm going to reply to your question with a couple of articles, because a revision of the passato prossimo and the auxiliary verbs is always welcome by most readers. I'll publish the first one tomorrow. Stay tuned :-) Serena

  30. Onésimo:

    Muito obrigado pela ajudo, na verdade a minha maior surpresa foi descobrir que o passato prossimo correspondia o "passado" porque pensava que a junção do "sono" + "stato" seria por exemplo "Tenho estado a ...". Quanto ao imperfeto não me deu lá muitos trabalhos porque acho que era meio óbvio que tinha que ser como ele é mesmo. Ainda tenho dúvidas no tempos "Trapassato Prossimo, Passato Remoto e Trapassato Remoto". Grazie Mille.

    • Geoff:

      @Onésimo Salve Onésimo, siccome questo è un Italian Blog potresti scrivere il tuo commento o in Inglese o in Italiano per favore. Grazie, Geoff P.S. trent'anni fa parlavo il Portoghese, ma adesso purtroppo non me lo ricordo più molto bene.

  31. Rebecca:

    Hi, I teach Italian and my students were asking which was more correct when describing on a past holiday: e' stato una pessima vacanza era una pessima vacanza I told them that both were correct but the second is more descriptive. They were still unsure. Next lesson I am teaching the weather on a past holiday and I don't know whether to teach ha fatto caldo or faceva caldo I know that c'era il sole sounds better than c'e' stato il sole. Che confusione! Mi potrebbe aiutare per favore?!

    • Serena:

      @Rebecca Salve Rebecca! E' sempre difficile dire con assoluta certezza quale tempo è meglio usare, perché molto dipende dall'immagine che stiamo cercando di descrivere nel momento in cui parliamo o scriviamo. Nel primo caso direi che 'è stata una pessima vacanza' è preferibile perché diamo un giudizio netto e conclusivo. Per quanto riguarda il tempo, tutti e due i tempi vanno bene, soprattutto con faceva caldo/ha fatto caldo. Hai ragione: c'era il sole suona meglio che non c'è stato il sole, ma vanno bene tutti e due. Personalmente ritengo che ci sia una sfumatura di differenza fra i due tempi storici quando descriviamo il clima: il passato prossimo ti allontana, ti distacca. L'imperfetto ti immerge nel ricordo: faceva un caldooo!!! Spero di averti aiutata! Saluti da Serena

  32. Lau:

    Very helpful! Thank you!

  33. Magdalena:

    Thank you so much! Your explanations are very clear and concise and have greatly helped me!

  34. Franklin Pierce:

    Most of what I read about the imperfetto states that it is used with weather, time, physical appearance, age, and feelings. However, with concepts like physical appearance, feelings, and weather, is the imperfetto always used, or still only when a time frame is not specified? Because if l'imperfetto is used with time ("Erano le sette di sera"), that certainly specifies a specific time, yet l''imperfetto is still used. That said, would you ever use passato prossimo in these instances: "Ieri, ha piovuto" or "Lui 'e apparaso lunedi" or is the imperfetto always used in these circumstances?

  35. Sue:

    Im still finding it very confusing......for all you more advanced speakers,is it a question of learning it all by heart ? Its the memorising I have trouble with and there are so many grammatical rules, they get muddled in my head. I'm seriously thinking i wil never get it. This makes me feel very dumb

    • Serena:

      @Sue Salve Sue, this is always a very confusing topic for non Italian speakers, and I'm going to revise it soon. However, I think that rather than simply memorising the rules, you should carefully read through Italian texts, and try to understand when and why imperfetto and/or passato prossimo are used. Here's another post on this topic that might help you: http://blogs.transparent.com/italian/imperfetto-e-passato-prossimo-quale-devo-usare/ Saluti da Serena

  36. Blake:

    Ciao Serena! I was looking around online and came across a website on this topic. After reading a little bit, I started to notice that it sounded very familiar. I then realized that an entire portion of this person's e-book (of which the webpage was an excerpt of) was a copy of your example sentences. Check it out: http://www.fluentin3months.com/italian-imperfect-tense/ It's under the "When to Use the Imperfect Tense in Italian" header.

    • Geoff:

      @Blake Grazie Blake, I'm also contacting our manager at Transparent Language to warn them, as they are officially the owners of our articles. Grazie di nuovo, e se hai bisogno di un aiuto, non esitare a contattarci, okay? :-)

    • Transparent Language:

      @Blake Hi Blake! Thank you so much for your vigilance. We've been in touch with Benny who was more than happy to cite our original article, so everything is squared away now. :)

  37. Andrew:

    Excellent explanation, unfortunately as others have pointed out it's not that simple. There are many occasions when the rules here are broken. I think the sense over when to use which is instinctive and probably impossible to teach. What I notice after years in Italy is that the imperfetto is used MUCH more often than the passato prossimo. Probably because most actions are never really "finished". There's ALWAYS some sense of uncertainty as to when and if a thing had ended, so I would always say you can get by learning imperfetto as your primary past tense.

  38. giuseppina abrar:

    I started learning German. After the second topic I could not advance any farther because there was no translation of German words. Please help. I would be delighted to continue the course if you allow me . Thanks.

  39. trikd:

    like your blog!

  40. mona:

    ciao sarena grazie


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