One of the most frequent problems English speakers have when studying Italian is choosing between Passato Prossimo vs Imperfetto.
Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto are Italian Past Tenses used to talk about something that happened in the past, but they have different uses and purposes. Passato prossimo is made by the verb avere or essere in the present tense plus the past participle and it is used to indicate past events that happened once, but still have effects on the present. Imperfetto is formed dropping the -re of the infinitive and adding -vo, -vi, -va, -vamo, -vate, -vano and it is used to talk about past habits or repetitive actions that are no longer happening.
As you can see it is not very difficult to understand. In this article, we will focus on the main differences existing between these two tenses and when to use them in the right context. In particular we will see:
- One time vs Habit
- Description of the conditions and states
- Duration of the past actions
- Parallel Actions
- Interrupted Actions
- Time Expressions
But, first, let’s quickly refresh the forms of these two tenses:
-are → -ato,
-ere → -uto,
-ire → -ito.
Remember that when you use the auxiliary essere, you need to change the final endings according to the subject.
Ho mangiato una torta buonissima.
I ate a very good cake.
Siamo andati in palestra.
We went to the gym.
Imperfetto is easy in its formation. You drop -re of the infinitive and simply add -vo, -vi, -va, -vamo, -vate, -vano.
Da piccola mangiavo tante caramelle.
When I was little, I used to eat a lot of candy.
Non dormiva mai quando la bambina piangeva.
She never slept when the baby cried.
Passato Prossimo Vs Imperfetto – Common Uses
In order to understand the main differences between the Passato Prossimo and the Imperfetto, I’m going to show you some of the most common uses of the two tenses in everyday life, compared to each other and explained through various examples.
Before proceeding, I also suggest you some useful books you can use to repeat Italian Grammar and Italian Tenses:
1. Passato Prossimo Vs Imperfetto – One time vs habit
We use the Imperfetto to talk about past habits or repetitive actions that are no longer happening. On the contrary, the Passato Prossimo is required when you want to indicate past events that happened once, but still have effects on the present. Look at the following examples.
|Da bambina andavo in piscina due volte a settimana.|
When I was a child, I used to go to the swimming pool twice a week.
|La scorsa settimana sono andata in piscina.|
Last week I went to the swimming pool.
|Dopo ogni viaggio gli portava sempre un souvenir.|
After each trip he always used to bring him a gift.
|Antonio mi ha portato un souvenir dal Canada. |
Antonio brought me a gift from Canada.
|Mangiava tanto perché si annoiava.|
He was eating a lot because he was getting bored.
|L’altro giorno ha mangiato tanto e si è sentito male.|
The other day he ate a lot and he got sick.
As you can see, it’s not very complicated! Let’s see other examples:
|Mio padre mi portava con sé in ufficio ogni volta che poteva.|
My father used to take me with him to his office every time he could.
|Ieri mattina mio padre mi ha portato con sé in ufficio.|
Yesterday morning my father took me with him to his office.
|Da piccolo io e i miei parenti ci riunivamo a Natale.|
When I was young, my relatives and I used to meet on Christmas.
|Un anno fa io e i miei parenti ci siamo riuniti a Natale. |
One year ago my relatives and I met on Christmas.
|A volte tornava dalla Sicilia con un vassoio di cannoli. |
Sometimes, he used to come back from Sicily with a tray of cannoli.
|Il mese scorso è tornato dalla Sicilia con un vassoio di cannoli.|
Last month he came back from Sicily with a tray of cannoli.
2. Passato Prossimo Vs Imperfetto – Description of conditions and states
Also, we need to look at the typology of the description you provide when speaking about past conditions and states. Specifically, we employ the Imperfetto to describe the weather and physical or emotional states in the past. On the contrary, we apply the Passato Prossimo to point out physical and mental changes happened in a specific moment in the past, as events.
|Era una giornata fredda e nuvolosa.|
It was a cold and cloudy day.
|Oggi ha piovuto e non sono potuto andare al parco.|
Today it rained so I didn’t manage to go to the park.
|Dopo la caduta sentiva dolore alla caviglia.|
After falling down, he felt pain in his ankle.
|Ha sentito dolore quando si è fatto male alla caviglia.|
He was in pain when he hurt his ankle.
|Mi innervosiva il suo atteggiamento sfacciato.|
His brush attitude made me nervous.
|Mi ha davvero innervosito il suo modo di fare.|
His way of acting really made me nervous.
3. Passato Prossimo Vs Imperfetto – Duration of past actions
In the third place, we focus on the duration of past actions . According to this principle, we resort to the Imperfetto when we relate to past actions or events whose start and end are basically unclear. Otherwise, we need the Passato Prossimo in case of past facts that started and ended at a specific point in time.
|Andava in Europa, più precisamente in Portogallo.|
He was flying to Europe, more precisely to Portugal.
|Sei anni fa sono andato in Europa, più precisamente in Portogallo. |
Six years ago, I flew to Europe, more precisely to Portugal.
|Beveva con gli amici in un locale vicino la stazione.|
He was drinking with his friends in a pub next to the station.
|Ieri sera è andato a bere con gli amici.|
Yesterday evening he went out for a drink with his friends.
|Il fratello di Andrea veniva a trovarmi ogni volta che poteva.|
Andrea’s brother used to come to visit me every time he could.
|L’altro ieri mi è venuto a trovare il fratello di Andrea.|
The day before yesterday, Andrea’s brother came to visit me.
4. Passato Prossimo Vs Imperfetto – Parallel Actions
Generally, we use the Imperfetto to mention concurrent events, meaning facts that happened in the same moment or period of time in the past.
Instead, we apply the Passato Prossimo in case of actions in succession whose duration or moment of occurance in the past are not so relevant.
|Mentre pranzava, mio madre guardava “Un posto al sole”. |
While having lunch, my mother was watching “Un posto al sole”.
|Mia madre ha pranzato e poi ha guardato “Un posto al sole”. |
My mother had lunch and then watched “Un posto al sole”.
|All’università studiava e lavorava in un ristorante per pagarsi gli studi. |
When she was at university, she used to study and work in a restaurant to pay her istruction.
|Dopo l’università, si è laureata e in seguito ha trovato lavoro in uno studio medico.|
After university, she graduated and later found a job in a doctor’s office.
|Lidia ascoltava “Resta in ascolto” di Laura Pausini, mentre pelava le patate.|
Lidia was listening to “Resta in ascolto” by Laura Pausini, while peeling potatoes.
|Lidia ha pelato prima le patate e poi dopo ha ascoltato “Resta in ascolto” di Laura Pausini. |
Firstly, Lidia peeled potatoes; after that she listened to “Resta in ascolto” by Laura Pausini.
5. Passato Prossimo Vs Imperfetto – Interrupted actions
There are some occasions where we require both the Imperfetto and the Passato Prossimo in a sentence built in the past. For this reason, we make reference to actions interrupted by others, namely reporting what we were doing when something occurred and interrupted what we were doing. In this specific case, you can find the presence of quando (when) and mentre (while).
Facevamo i compiti quando improvvisamente sono ritornati i nostri genitori.
We were doing our homework when suddenly our parents came back home.
Mentre mi preparavo per la scuola, mi ha chiamato Paolo.
While I was getting ready for school, Paolo called me.
Quando Maria viveva in Spagna, ha visitato sia Barcellona sia Madrid.
When Maria lived in Spain, she visited both Barcelona and Madrid.
6. Passato Prossimo Vs Imperfetto – Storytelling
Finally, we find the last difference regarding the act of reporting something in a consequential way. Actually, you are asked to employ the Imperfetto to give information about the background, like the location or the context where the event takes place. On the contrary, you make use of Passato Prossimo to let the story proceed onwards.
|I bambini facevano il bagno in piscina e i genitori prendevano il sole.|
Kids were taking a swim in the pool, while their parents were sunbathing.
|Stamattina in spiaggia i bambini hanno fatto il bagno in piscina e i genitori hanno preso il sole.|
This morning kids have taken a swim in the pool, while their parents have sunbathed.
|Continuamente mi diceva che gli avrebbe parlato di quella faccenda quanto prima.|
He was continually telling me he would talk to him about that matter as soon as possible.
|Mi ha detto che gli avrebbe parlato di quella faccenda quanto prima.|
He told me he would talk to him about that matter as soon as possible.
|Nel bosco di solito si imbatteva in cerbiatti e conigli.|
In the woods he usually used to bump into fawns and rabbits.
|Andando nel bosco, si è imbattuto in cerbiatti e conigli. |
Going into the woods, he bumped into fawns and rabbits.
7. Passato Prossimo Vs Imperfetto – Time expressions
Another way to distinguish cases where the Imperfetto is employed from situations where the Passato Prossimo is applied is by looking at time expressions. These ones are normally used to give more information about the type of action existing in the sentence in order to provide help when you are asked to choose between the two tenses.
Time expressions used with the Imperfetto
|da piccolo / giovane (when I was a child / young )|
|tutti i giorni / ogni giorno (every day)|
|a volte (sometimes)|
|ogni volta che (every time that)|
|ogni tanto (once in a while)|
Time expressions used with the Passato Prossimo
|ieri mattina / ieri pomeriggio / ieri sera (yesterday morning) / (yesterday afternoon) / (last night)|
|l’altro ieri (the day before yesterday)|
|due giorni fa (two days ago)|
|una settimana fa (one week ago)|
|mercoledì scorso (last Wednesday)|
|un anno fa (one year ago)|
|Il mese scorso (last month)|
|l’anno scorso (last year)|
|un’ora fa / alcuni giorni fa (one hour ago) / (some days ago)|
|Da piccolo giocava a scacchi con gli amici della chiesa.|
When he was a child, he used to play chess with his friends from the church.
|L’anno scorso ha giocato a scacchi con gli amici della parrocchia.|
Last year he played chess with his friends from the church.
|Normalmente usciva nel weekend, non in settimana.|
He normally used to go out on the weekend, not during the week.
|Mercoledì scorso è uscito nel weekend, non in settimana. |
Last Wednesday he went out on the weekend, not during the week.
|Tutti i giorni le regalava un cioccolatino per dimostrarle il suo affetto.|
Every day he used to give her a chocolate as a present to prove that he was fond of her.
|Alcuni giorni fa le ha regalato un cioccolatino per dimostrarle il suo affetto. |
Some days ago he gave her a chocolate as a present to prove that he was fond of her.
After reading this article until the end, you should be able to understand when to use the Imperfetto or the Passato Prossimo according to the cases and tricks mentioned above. What you are suggested to do first is to look for time expressions in the Italian sentence you are about to translate. These indicators make you understand which tense is required in that specific context or situation.
Second, you can analyse the type of event that occured in the past, mostly focusing on the certainty or uncertainty related to the time of action.
Now that you have this further information, start speaking about events in the past in Italian and do not forget to make the best choice!