Italian Language Blog

Da or Per? Posted by on Dec 20, 2008 in Grammar

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.


Buona fortuna!

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  1. Judith Jenkinson:

    Thank you so much for Passato Prossimo e Imperfetto and Essere o Stare. They have been a real problem to me and are now much clearer.

  2. Denis Sandalov:

    Thank you very much for the nice explanation! Being russian it even harder to me to catch the difference between “da” and “per”. Now this topic is more clear 🙂

  3. shiranui:

    Thank you for the nice explanation ! I’m French but I was also confused with this

    • Serena:

      @shiranui Sono contenta che il mio blog ti sia d’aiuto.
      Saluti da Serena

  4. Danver Allarey:

    i am learning a lot from your blogs. thank you so much!:)))))))

  5. Sabrina Infante:

    Salve, Serena,
    Io sono un’americana che insegna l’italiano qui negli Stati Uniti. I am out and about without my textbooks, and have a question for you….
    The difference between present + da, or past + per is easy enough to explain to my students. But what about in the PAST….. for example they had been married for 5 years (before they got divorced). I recall from my own studies 20 years ago: the imperfetto +da and the trapassato + per. But are they 2 diff. ways of saying the same thing?
    Is the only difference the “aspect”, rather then the tense. Meaning, they had been married up to an including a moment in the past (with CLOSE emotional attachment to the topic) but they HAD BEEN MARRIED FOR 5 YRS used with the trapassato and per translates the same way but implies more DISTANCE?? I hope I am explaining my question well enough. Grazie infinite, Sabrina

    • Serena:

      @Sabrina Infante Salve Sabrina, a prima vista è una domanda molto complessa, ma penso di avere la risposta.
      Presente + DA significa che l’azione è ancora in corso: abito in Italia da 5 anni
      Passato Prossimo + PER significa che l’azione è finita: ho abitato in Italia per 5 anni (ora abito in un’altra nazione)

      Lo stesso concetto vale per il passato:
      imperfetto + DA signica che l’azione non era ancora completata al momento dell’evento principale nel passato: quando ho conosciuto Gianna abitavo in Italia già da 5 anni
      il trapassato prossimo è usato per descrivere un’azione conclusa e precedente ad un evento passato: Quando ha incontrato Gina, Mario era già stato sposato per 5 anni (era stato sposato ed era ormai divorziato).
      Spero di essere stata chiara
      saluti da Serena

  6. Mike:

    This article is great, addressing what’s being implied as well as what’s literally being said. Loved it!

  7. Christine:

    Serena, what would your answer be then:
    “How long have you been in England to include present tense.
    Would it be: Da quanto tempo sei Inghilterra?
    Thank you

    • Serena:

      @Christine Salve Christine!
      Molto brava, ‘Da quanto tempo sei Inghilterra?’ è la frase giusta.
      Saluti da Serena

  8. Mark Bingham:

    Very clear explanation of the different uses!
    Many thanks

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