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Yesterday, while teaching English to a private student here in Italy, I came across an interesting example in my English grammar book; it said: “John and Ann have been married for 20 years”. My student translated this sentence into Italian word by word as: “John e Ann sono stati sposati per 20 anni”. This is a wonderful example of the difference in use of the past tense in English and Italian. The literal translation made by my student means that John and Ann were married for 20 years, but are not married anymore. How confusing!
In Italian, when we want to express an action that started in the past and is still going on now in the present, we use the simple present tense: John e Ann sono sposati da 20 anni, which translates literally as: John and Ann are married since 20 years, but in reality means that they have been married for 20 years.
The passato prossimo (present perfect) is used to express an action that is finished, e.g. Mauro e Giulia sono stati fidanzati per 3 anni, which translate word by word as “Mauro and Julia have been engaged for 3 years”, but with the English meaning of “they were engaged for 3 years”. Adesso Mauro e Giulia sono sposati da 5 anni literally translates as “now Mauro and Julia are married since 5 years”, but it means that “they have been married for 5 years”.
The other important thing to notice are the prepositions used to express the period of time: per and da. Per, which is normally translated as for, is used to express a period of time that is now concluded: Mauro and Giulia sono stati fidanzati per 3 anni.
Da, meaning literally since or from, is used to express a period of time that includes the present, in other words it still continues: Mauro e Giulia sono sposati da 5 anni. However you need to be careful if da is followed by a or al. In this case da or dal and a or al are equivalent to the English from and to, e.g. Mauro e Giulia sono stati fidanzati dal 2000 al 2003. “Mauro and Julia were engaged from 2000 to 2003”.
Are you getting a headache? Well, I still get confused sometimes in English, even though I have been speaking it for many years, parlo inglese da molti anni (literally, I speak English since many years), yet another example of this confusing difference!
I remember when I was first in England somebody asked me: “How long have you been in England?” My first thought was: “Why is he asking me a question in the past tense if I’m here, now?” because “have you been” implied to me as an Italian that I had been in England but I wasn’t there anymore, even though I was standing in front of him. Luckily my aunt, who has lived in England for almost 50 years, came to my rescue and answered for me.