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Today we’re going to continue exploring the complex topic of using the past tense in Italian.
In Using The Passato Prossimo In Italian – Part 1 and Part 2 we looked at how to construct the present perfect tense using the auxiliary verbs essere and avere followed by a past participle. Whereas the passato prossimo describes an event which has been completed in the past, the imperfetto (imperfect) describes past actions that are incomplete, or that took place over a period of time.
You can recognise the imperfetto by its characteristic endings -evo, -avo or –ivo.
Here, for example, is the verb avere (to have) in the imperfetto:
io avevo – I had
tu avevi – you had
lui/lei aveva – he/she/it had
noi avevamo – we had
voi avevate – you (plural) had
loro avevano – they had
The exception to this pattern is the irregular verb essere (to be).
io ero – I was
tu eri – you were
lui/lei era – he/she/it was
noi eravamo – we were
voi eravate – you (plural) were
loro erano – they were
Now, the million dollar question is: ‘How do I know when to use the passato prossimo and when to use the imperfetto?’ Well, that’s what we’re here to clarify, so let’s get to it!
We use the imperfetto to:
1) describe the way that people, objects or places were in the past.
da piccola avevo i capelli ricci = when I was a child I had curly hair
era un uomo buffo = he was a humorous man
la strada era fangosa = the road was muddy
2) describe situations and factual conditions (used a lot in literature)
la città era deserta, non si vedeva un’anima = the town was empty, there was not a soul to be seen
era buio e la pioggia cadeva gentilmente = it was dark and a light rain was falling
3) describe states of mind or health
avevo sonno = I was sleepy
gli faceva male la testa = he had a headache
erano tristi = they were sad
4) describe what used to happen, such as habits or actions that repeated themselves
da ragazzi, ci incontravamo al cinema ogni sabato mattina = when we we’re kids we met up at the cinema every Saturday morning
d’estate andavo sempre a Montorio con la mia famiglia = I always used to go to Montorio with my family in the summer
il cane correva alla porta ogni volta che suonava il campanello = the dog would run to the door whenever the doorbell rang
Sometimes you’ll find both the imperfetto and the passato prossimo in the same sentence.
mentre guardavo la televisione è suonato il telefono = while I was watching television the phone rang
dov’eri quando è 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 we use the passato prossimo
Giovanni è vissuto in Inghilterra dal 2002 al 2007 = Giovanni lived in England from 2002 to 2007
ha studiato l’inglese per cinque anni = he studied English for five years
Yet if we want to talk about the things that Giovanni did regularly or habitually during the period of time that he was in England we would use the imperfetto:
question: cosa faceva Giovanni in Inghilterra? = what did Giovanni do whilst he was in England
answer: studiava l’inglese, visitava musei, andava a concerti, faceva amicizie … = he studied English, visited museums, went to concerts, made friends …
If you have any questions don’t hesitate to leave a comment. A presto.