Passato prossimo and imperfetto: Italian grammar lesson 104

Stefano

Italian language tutor, course author. MEng, MBA. Member of the International Association of Hyperpolyglots (HYPIA). After learning 12 languages, I can tell you that we all master languages by listening and mimicking. I couldn't find an app to recommend to my students, so I made my own one. With my method, you'll be speaking Italian from Lesson 1.

Summary

Get ready to master the Italian past tenses! This guide will help you differentiate between passato prossimo and imperfetto, giving you the keys to unlock the mysteries of talking about the past in Italian like a pro. 🇮🇹🕒

  • Passato Prossimo is your go-to for completed actions with present relevance or specific time frames. Think of it as the snapshot of your Italian past tense album. 📸
  • Use Imperfetto for setting the scene with ongoing past actions, habitual events, or descriptions. It’s like the background music to your Italian storytelling. 🎶
  • Spot the difference with time expressions: ieri (yesterday) screams passato prossimo, while sempre (always) cozies up with imperfetto. ⏳
  • Mix it up! Combine passato prossimo and imperfetto to describe simultaneous actions. Use imperfetto for the ongoing action and passato prossimo for the interruption. 🔄
  • Remember, imperfetto is the mood setter, painting the past with broad strokes, while passato prossimo is the action hero, driving the story forward with specific deeds. 🎨🦸‍♂️
  • Confused? Think of imperfetto as your childhood backdrop (Da piccolo) and passato prossimo as the standout moments that shaped you. 🧒✨
  • Practice makes perfect. Try crafting sentences with both tenses to get a feel for their unique flavors. It’s like cooking with basil and oregano—each brings its own zest to the dish. 🌿🍝
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How to talk about the past in Italian?

In Italian, past events are indicated by three past tenses: passato prossimo(present perfect), imperfetto (imperfect), and passato remoto(past simple).

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 and how they differ from one another.

Since passato prossimo and imperfetto are used for different purposes and specific contexts it’s important to understand their differences.

What are the differences between passato prossimo and imperfetto?

The main differences between these two tenses are that we use passato prossimo for:

  1. Talking about past events or actions that happened a while ago but still have an effect on the present.
  2. Speaking about past events or actions that happened during a limited time, meaning that they started and ended at a specific point in time.

While we use imperfetto for:

  1. Discussing past events that started and ended during an undetermined, and presumably longer, period of time.
  2. Describing someone’s appearance or state of mind in the past.
  3. Talking about someone’s age at a point in the past.
  4. Describing past habits or habitual actions occurring regularly in the past.
  5. Describing past situations.
  6. Describing the weather in the past.
  7. Describing a scene-setting when telling a story.

passato prossimo vs imperfetto in Italian

When to use passato prossimo or imperfetto?

Don’t worry if you still don’t understand when to use one or the other because is one of the most common mistakes among Italian learners.

This happens because, in English, you tend to use the past simple for almost all past events while in Italian there is a distinction between different events in the past.

It’s pretty normal to get confused but, we’re here to help you understand.

One precious clue is making sure you pay attention to the time expressions used with one or the other.

Passato prossimo: examples

Let’s take a look at some examples:

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.

And 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)

Imperfetto: examples

The following are some examples using 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.

And here is a list of some time expressions commonly used with it:

  • 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 or sometimes)
  • ogni tanto (once in awhile)

imperfetto vs passato prossimo difference

How to use passato prossimo and imperfetto together?

We use  passato prossimo and 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. It’s the ongoing “background” action.

And we use the passato prossimo for the interrupting action happening for a shorter period of time.

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

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.
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Below we have 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 viveva in Italia, ha visitato sia Roma sia Firenze.

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

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

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

Quando lavoravo in quell’azienda, sono andato diverse 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: more examples

Let’s now analyze two tricky sentences with passato prossimo or 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 complete 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 lesson 104

What is "imperfetto"?

It's a verb tense for talking about a past event that started and ended during an undetermined period.

What is "passato prossimo"?

It's a verb tense used for talking about past events or actions that have an effect on the present or for those that happened during a delimited time.

When to use "imperfetto" or "passato prossimo"?

In Italian, the "imperfetto" and "passato prossimo" are both past tenses, but they have different uses. The "imperfetto" is used to describe ongoing or habitual actions in the past, while the "passato prossimo" is used to describe completed actions in the past.

How to use "imperfetto" and "passato prossimo" in the same sentence?

You can use "imperfetto" and "passato prossimo" in one sentence, using the word "mentre", while.

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Example
Finalmente abbiamo finito! Sono proprio contento.
Finally we’re done! I’m really glad.
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2 Responses

  1. It is not clear how to use the flash cards where the sentence needs to be typed on the line. I would like to use the tool but got them all wrong. It seems one must memorize the sentence (from the earlier multiple choice exercise) that relates to the picture. I would appreciate guidance on this! Thank you!

    1. Ciao Denni!

      For using Quizlet in this grammar note you need to conjugate the verb they give you and choose the right sentence for using it.

      For example: pranzavo is the verb you need to insert and you have 4 sentences you can to choose from. One is prendere, the second one is andare, and the third and fourth ones are pranzare. The correct answer is the third or fourth one that uses the verb they give you but you need to see which of them corresponds to the verb tense you have.

      I hope the explanation was clear but if not, please let me know.

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