The crucial difference and use of the passato prossimo and the imperfetto
In Italian there are three different tenses that can be used to describe past events: passato remoto, passato prossimo and imperfetto.
Passato remoto is mostly used in narratives (e.g. novels) and nowadays it is not very common to have it used in normal conversations; this tense is actually slowly disappearing in the spoken Italian, even though is still commonly used in the south of Italy.
Both the imperfetto and passato prossimo refer to something that happened in the past, however there is a substantial difference between the two tenses and when to use one or another. While the passato prossimo is used to describe an action that is completely finished in the past, happened once and has a time reference, the imperfetto – as the name itself suggests – is ‘non-perfect/not-exact’ and describes an action that lasted for an indefinite time in the past (for which we don’t know its start or end moment), or an action that was a habit, or something repeatedly happening in the past.
To better understand this difference between the two past tenses and learn how and when correctly use them, let’s have a closer look at the grammar rules that regulate the passato prossimo and the imperfetto.
The passato prossimo
The passato prossimo, usually called the ‘present perfect’ or ‘perfect’ in English grammar, can be defined as a ‘near past’ tense and is the main tense used in Italian to describe an action which has been completed in the past. This can translate both the English present perfect and simple past.
The passato prossimo is formed by the auxiliary verbs avere (to have) or essere (to be), followed by the participio passato (past participle): avere is used with transitive verbs and essere with intransitive verbs.
Ho già letto il tuo libro. // I already read your book.
Ho mangiato una pizza. // I ate a pizza.
Hai ricevuto la mia lettera? // Have you received my letter?
Hai guardato quel documentario? // Have you watched that documentary?
Marco è arrivato alle 9. // Marco arrived at 9am.
Mia mamma è arrivata alle 10. // My mum arrived at 10am.
I bambini sono arrivati alle 11. // The children arrived at 11am.
When the verb is accompanied by the verb essere (to be), the participle has to agree with the subject: arrivato becomes arrivata, because the subject is mamma (mum – feminine noun) and arrivati, because the subject is i bambini (the children – plural noun).
When to use the passato prossimo
As already mentioned, the passato prossimo is used to describe actions with a precise time reference. The action you are describing is not a repeated action as it happened at a specific time and you know when it started and ended.
Passato prossimo is used to:
- Express events and actionsthat finished in the past but still have some relevance in the present
Dove sei stato ieri? // Where have you been yesterday?
Sono stato a New York molte volte, ma ho sempre voglia di tornarci. // I have been to New York many times, but I always want to go back.
- Describe an action that has started and ended in the past(just once)
Sabato scorso ho visitato una bellissima galleria d’arte. // Last Saturday I visited a beautiful art gallery.
Ieri sono andata al cinema con Roberta. // Yesterday I went to the cinema with Roberta.
- Tell a series of actionsthat happened in the past
Ho incontrato Alessandro e siamo andati a prendere un caffè insieme. // I have met Alessandro and we went to have a coffee together.
Il mio fidanzato ha preso la macchina ed è andato al supermercato. // My fiancé took the car and went to the supermarket.
Typical time expressions used with the passato prossimo
– Ieri, ieri sera // yesterday, yesterday night
– X anni fa // X years ago
– L’anno scorso, il mese scorso, la settimana scorsa // Last year, last month, last week
The imperfetto (imperfect) is the second most used past tense in Italian after the passato prossimo and is characterised by the sounds -avo (for the verbs ending in -are), -evo (for the verbs ending in -ere), or -ivo (for the verbs ending in -ire), with the exception of the verb essere (to be), which is irregular: io ero, tu eri, egli era, noi eravamo, voi eravate, essi erano.
Studiavo // I studied /I was studying
Avevo // I had/was having
Dormivo // I slept/was sleeping
As already mentioned, imperfetto means ‘not perfect/not exact’, so you cannot use this tense when you talk about an action that happened in the past at an exact moment in time, instead you use it to talk about events that happened at some point in the past without any mention of the exact time.
Sometimes the Italian imperfetto is similar to the English past simple: for example, when you use the past simple of to be, in Italian they generally use the imperfetto of essere (e.g. I was at school // Io ero a scuola). However, the imperfetto is mainly used to express a continued, prolonged or repeated action that happened in the past, or a habit in the past. For this reason it can be translated in English using the forms: I used to / I would / I was -ing / I -ed. For example, ‘Io lavoravo’ can be translated as:
- I used to work.
- I would work (in the past).
- I was working
- I worked.
The use of imperfetto
The are three main uses of the imperfetto in Italian:
- When talking about on-going actionsin the past without a time reference
Quando ero piccola studiavo pianoforte. // When I was young I used to study piano.
- To compare how things used to be and how they are now
Prima le persone passavano ore a parlare al telefono, ora preferiscono mandare messaggi. // Before people used to spend hours talking on the phone, now they prefer to send text messages.
- To describe people, objects, situations, or places in the past
Marco era un bambino felice. Viveva in una piccola casa di campagna ed amava giocare con gli animali. // Marco was a happy child. He used to live in little house in the countryside and loved to play with the animals.
In Italian, the imperfetto is also used to express a physical or emotional state that occurred in the past and is now over, as well as to describe past weather conditions, time, or a person’s age.
Common time expressions using the imperfetto
Some time expressions indicate that an action repeats itself regularly when talk in the past, for example:
– Ogni mattina, ogni settimana, ogni mese // Every morning, every week, every month
– Regolarmente, solitamente, di solito // Regularly, usually
– Quando avevo X anni // When I was X years old
– Sempre // Always
– Tutti i giorni, tutti i mesi, tutti gli anni // Everyday, every month, every year
When the passato prossimo and the Imperfetto are used in the same sentence
In Italian you can find both the imperfetto and the passato prossimo in the same sentence when describing an on-going action that gets interrupted.
Mentre studiavo, ho ricevuto un messaggio della mia amica Elisa. // While I was studying, I received a message of my friend Elisa.
How to choose between imperfetto or passato prossimo
– The passato prossimo is used to talk about finished events, with the focus on the actual facts, while the imperfetto is used to talk about unfinished events and with the focus is on the action itself.
– The imperfetto is used to describe habit while the passato prossimo is used to tell about finished actions that took place in a defined time.
– The imperfetto is used for repeated actions in the past; instead the passato prossimo is used to state the number of times the action has been repeated.
– The imperfetto is used to describe multiple on-going actions in the past happening at the exact same time, while the passato prossimo is used to talk about a sequence of actions.
– The imperfetto is used to describe something in the past, while the passato prossimo is used to tell a story.
– The imperfetto is used to describe a state or condition in the past, without a specific time, while the passato prossimo describes a state or condition in a specific time frame.
I am sure you found this article very helpful, the difference between passato prossimo and imperfetto is a common difficulty which native English speakers encounter. However, learning how to use them and with the right guidance you will totally grasp it. I am here to help, if you have questions please get in touch for a free consultation by clicking here or send an email to email@example.com
You can also find me on my YouTube channel with many video lessons for beginner and elementary levels and more levels coming up.
Languages Alive YouTube channel
Please share this article if you have found it useful.