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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 or –ivo 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.
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Adesso ho finito!