Italian Language Blog

Passato Prossimo e Imperfetto Posted by on Feb 4, 2009 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

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Adesso ho finito!

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  1. Maddie Johnson:

    This article helped me understand the Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto so much more!! Grazie. Go ITALIA!

  2. Chris Pirro:

    This has been very useful in using both imperfetto and passato prossimo! I have been struggling for a while! Thank you greatly!

  3. Isabella Vuoso:

    This really helped me understand the differences between imperfetto and passato prossimo and when to use them in the appropriate setenences

  4. Giulia:

    Grazie!! Your blog was very helpful for me as I am working on a project where I have to describe 5 photos using the imperfetto and passato prossimo!!!!!

  5. Oriana:

    This helped because it had simple facts but I knew majority or the information

  6. Sean:

    This really helped me differentiate between imerfetto and passato Prossimo and when to use them.

  7. Gill:

    Ciao Serena, I always find an answer somewhere in your blog when I’m stuck on a grammar point. This really helped, but I struggle with understanding when an action has been completed with verbs such as liked, thought, realised, etc. For example, I would guess that “I read that book on holiday and liked it” would be “ho letto quel libro in vacanza e mi piaceva” – the liking it wasn’t a finished action because there’s no defined end point I might still like it today, but I see “mi è piaciuto” used for this. Another example I have is for “none of them realised that it was her” should it be pp or imperfetto? Grazie in anticipo, Gill

    • Serena:

      @Gill Salve Gill!
      I don’t have a technical explanation for this question. However, with verbs such piacere, capire, accorgersi we tend to use the pp rather than the imperfetto.
      I’ll try to analize this particular point in future post.
      Saluti da Serena

  8. Kelly Westfall:

    This is the closest description which seems to help with a subtlety I’m finding lacking in most Italian/English translations. In English, there is a big difference in meaning between “I have lived in New York for 5 years” (implying that I am still living there) and “I lived in NY for 5 years” (lived there in the past and I now live somewhere else). When translating the passato prossimo into English, it seems the authors do not understand this nuance and use the different phrasing interchangeably. Yet it’s extremely important. From what I can find, it seems that the usage in Italian may be the opposite of how we would say this in English. Meaning that in Italian, we should use the Imperfect to communicate what is meant by the English “I have lived here for years (and still am)”. Is this correct? Even though, by literal translation, this is expressed by the Passato Prossimo. So it’s very confusing. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Serena:

      @Kelly Westfall Salve Kelly!
      When an action is still going on now, in Italian we use the present tense. Therefore the sentence “I have lived here for years (and still am)” in Italian would be “Vivo qui da anni”.
      I believe it’s time to revise this topic.
      A presto!

  9. Richard de Vries:

    A diificult one for many learning the language. I still make mistakes on occasion….

    Useful references/ resouces for those interested in learning Italian (

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