Passato prossimo and imperfetto: Italian grammar 104

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what is the difference between passato prossimo vs imperfetto in Italian
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Talking about the past in Italian

In Italian, past events are indicated by three past tenses: passato prossimo, imperfetto and passato remoto.

Passato remoto is mainly used in Tuscany and areas in the south of Italy.

Thus, for practical purposes, we will focus on passato prossimo and imperfetto (imperfect tense), and how they differ from one another.

It is important to understand the difference between passato prossimo and imperfetto since they’re used for different purposes and in specific contexts.

This is why we prepared this lesson for you.

Passato prossimo vs. imperfetto explained

The main differences between these two tenses are the following:

We use the passato prossimo

  • For past events or actions which happened a while ago but still have an effect on the present;
  • For past events or actions that happened during a delimited time, meaning that they started and ended at a specific point in time.

We use the imperfetto

  • To talk about a past event that started and ended during an undetermined (and presumably longer) period of time;
  • To describe someone’s appearance or state of mind in the past;
  • To talk about someone’s age at a point in the past;
  • To describe past habits or habitual actions occurring regularly in the past;
  • To describe situations in the past;
  • To describe the weather in the past;
  • To describe a scene setting when telling a story.

passato prossimo vs imperfetto in Italian

Passato prossimo or imperfetto?

Don’t worry if you still don’t understand when to use one or the other.

Using one instead of the other is one of the most common mistakes among Italian learners.

There’s a reason for this: in English, you tend to use the past simple for almost all past events.

Italian makes a distinction between different events, as you could see above.

So, it’s pretty normal to get confused. But, we’re here to help you understand.

It’ll be easier for you to understand if we have a look at some examples.

Also, make sure you pay attention to the time expressions used with one or the other. Sometimes, these can give you a precious clue.

So, let’s go!

When to use the passato prossimo: examples

Here are some examples of passato prossimo:

Ho parlato con Maya ieri.

I spoke to Maya yesterday.

Sono andato a Parigi l’anno scorso.

I went to Paris last year.

Sono andato a trovare mia nonna la settimana scorsa.

I visited my grandmother last week.

Here are some time expressions commonly used with the passato prossimo:

stamattina

this morning

ieri

yesterday

ieri sera

last night

l’altro giorno

the other day

la settimana scorsa

last week

il mese scorso

last month

l’anno scorso

last year

appena

just

When to use the imperfetto: examples

Now consider the usage of imperfetto:

La mia prima bicicletta era bianca.

My first bike was white.

Da piccolo, avevo i capelli castani.

When I was little, I had brown hair.

Mia mamma mi faceva sempre la pasta.

My mother would always make pasta.

Here are some time expressions commonly used with the imperfetto:

sempre

always

mai

never

spesso

often

mentre

while

tutti i giorni

every day

ogni giorno

each day

da piccolo

when I was little

a volte

at times, sometimes

ogni tanto

once in awhile

imperfetto vs passato prossimo difference

When to use passato prossimo and imperfetto together?

We use the passato prossimo and the imperfetto to describe two past actions happening at the same time in the past.

In other words, we use the imperfetto to talk about what we were doing when something occurred and interrupted what we were doing. 

We use the imperfetto for the ongoing “background” action, and we use the passato prossimo for the “interrupting” action which happened for a shorter period of time.

In this situation, we often introduce the imperfetto with mentre (while).

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Have a look at the example below:

Mentre andavo in ufficio, ho incontrato Marco.

While I was on my way to the office, I met Marco.

imperfetto vs passato prossimo difference in Italian

I like this metaphor I was once given to explain the difference between the imperfetto and the passato prossimo:

  • In a book, imperfetto would be the behind-the-scenes: setting, character descriptions, weather, time period, anything that will set the tone.
  • Passato prossimo is the actual plot of the book. They did this, they went there, they met so and so.

Examples of passato prossimo and imperfetto together

Let’s consider some examples of these two tenses used in the same sentence:

Ieri facevo la torta quando ha telefonato Miguel.

Yesterday, I was making a cake when Miguel called.

Ho fatto una prenotazione online mentre lui leggeva un libro.

I made a reservation online while he was reading a book.

Studiavamo quando improvvisamente ha squillato il telefono.

We were studying when suddenly the telephone rang.

Mentre camminavolungo il fiume, ho sentito un rumore improvviso.

I was walking along the river when I heard a sudden noise.

Quando David vivevain Italia, ha visitato sia Roma sia Firenze.

During the time David lived in Italy, he visited both Rome and Florence.

Mentre Luca scrivevauna e-mail, il computer ha smesso di funzionare.

While Luca was writing an e-mail, the computer stopped working.

Quando lavoravoin quell’azienda, sono andatodiverse volte in viaggio d’affari.

When I worked for that company, I went on several business trips.

Mi sono addormentata mentre leggevo.

I fell asleep while I was reading.

passato prossimo vs imperfetto difference in Italian

Practice with Quizlet

Here's a set of flashcards and quizzes to practice this grammar topic.

Passato prossimo or imperfetto: example

Let’s now analyze two tricky sentences with passato prossimo vs. imperfetto.

Can you see the difference between the following two sentences?

Da piccola avevo i capelli biondi.

When I was little I used to have blond hair.

Da piccola ho avuto i capelli biondi.

When I was little I had blond hair.

Avevo refers to a continuous state throughout childhood.

Ho avuto refers to a specific period, which is part of childhood, in which the speaker’s hair was blonde.

Both are completed facts because the speaker is no longer young.

However, the first example covers a long and continuous period, while the second example refers to an instance, maybe long or maybe short, but not the whole period of childhood.

passato prossimo vs imperfetto in Italian difference

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FAQs on Passato prossimo and imperfetto: Italian grammar 104

What is imperfetto tense in Italian?

The imperfect tense is an Italian verb tense. We use imperfetto to discuss previous activities that occurred habitually, to outline the setting of prior actions or situations, and for several other purposes.

How do you know when to use imperfetto or passato prossimo?

The imperfecto is used to describe the action that we were taking when something interfered with it. The passato prossimo describes the shorter-term “interrupting” action, while the imperfetto describes the ongoing “background” action.

What is the difference between imperfetto and passato remoto?

The imperfetto is used to express past events that the speaker is currently affected by. The passato remoto describes events that occurred in a time period that is now closed, whether those events occurred once or repeatedly over time. The duration must be explicitly stated, and the event cannot continue into the present.

Stefano

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