Passato Prossimo e Imperfetto

Posted on 04. Feb, 2009 by 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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55 Responses to “Passato Prossimo e Imperfetto”

  1. Serena 14 April 2015 at 1:02 pm #

    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

  2. Blake 21 April 2015 at 10:06 pm #

    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.

  3. Geoff 21 April 2015 at 11:57 pm #

    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? :-)

  4. Transparent Language 23 April 2015 at 2:57 pm #

    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. :)

  5. Andrew 19 August 2015 at 12:10 am #

    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.


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