IMPERFETTO vs PASSATO PROSSIMO: When are they used? What are the differences?

Imperfetto and passato prossimo are among the first tenses to be studied when studying Italian, along with the present tense verb. Therefore, they may seem beginner topics but, actually, their use can create some difficulties even for the most experienced students, because of their differences which can sometimes be very subtle. For this reason, in the following lesson, we are going to see how to use these two tenses properly and their differences. In addition, in the video related to this article, you’ll find a useful exercise to verify what you’ll learn!

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Imperfetto and Passato Prossimo: uses and differences

Let’s start by saying that both of these tenses are used to talk about the past, by two different prospects:

– the passato prossimo tense refers to time-bounds events, namely they have a beginning and an end

– the imperfetto tense refers to regular events of which we know neither the beginning nor the end

 

Let’s see more in detail these two tenses

The passato prossimo tense is used:

  • to indicate an action that’s occurred, one or more times, in a certain moment in the past (yesterday, two months ago, last year, in that moment, ecc.).

Examples: “Ieri ho mangiato la pizza ai 4 formaggi” (the moment in which the action occurs is clear to everybody: it’s yesterday) (Yesterday I ate the four cheese pizza)

Sono andata allo stadio soltanto 3 volte l’anno scorso”  (the action occurred last year) (I went to the stadium only 3 times last year)

Quando ho guardato il Re Leone, ho pianto” (the action occurred when I watched the Lion King) (I cried when I watched the Lion King)

WATCH OUT!! In some texts or speeches it may happen that the moment in which the action occurs is not expressed; in those cases the tense in which the action has occurred has been previously defined or it’s already clear to everybody, thus there’s no need to repeat it

Example: “– Cosa hai fatto l’altro ieri? – Sono andato a correre!” (-What did you do the day before yesterday? -I went running)

In the clause  “sono andato a correre” there’s a passato prossimo tense, although in the sentence the defined moment in which the action occurs is not expressed.
That happens because in the previous clause the interlocutor had already made it clear that the tense in question was l’altro ieri (the day before yesterday)

 

  • to talk about an action with a defined duration, of which we know with certainty the beginning and the end

Examples: “Ho vissuto a Roma per 5 anni” (the time frame in which the action has occurred is 5 years long) (I’ve lived in Rome for 5 years)

Ci siamo rilassati durante l’estate” (the time frame is defined, since we know when summer begins and when it ends) (During summer, we relaxed)

Gli studenti hanno chiacchierato tra loro per tutta la lezione” (in this case we refer to a well-defined duration, namely the entire lesson) (The students have been chatting with each other throughout the lesson)

 

The imperfetto tense is used:

  • to indicate a habitual action, occurring in an indefinite time frame, in the past, of which
    we don’t know the beginning, the end or the duration (every day, every summer, always, as a child, usually…)

Examples: “Da bambina, mangiavo la pizza con i würstel” (it was a habit in a not well-defined stage of life, since we don’t know from what age to what age) (When I was a child I used to eat würstel pizza)

Prima di vivere a Roma, non prendevo mai la metropolitana” (it was a habit during a period of which we don’t know the starting and the ending dates) (Before living in Rome, I never took the metro)

Di solito, andava allo stadio per vedere la sua squadra del cuore” (We don’t know when exactly) (He usually went to the stadium to see his favorite team paying)

Quando ero adolescente, guardavo solo film romantici” (When I was a teenager, I used to watch only romantic movies) (in this case we refer to a stage of life of which we know neither the beginning nor the end)

 

WATCH OUT!

– if the tense is indefinite, but the action has occurred only once or a given number of times, we’ll use the passato prossimo tense

Examples: “Da bambina, ho assaggiato la pizza con i würstel” (As a child I tasted the würstel pizza)

Quando ero adolescente, ho guardato film romantici un paio di volte“. (When I was a teenager, I watched romantic movies a couple of times)

With the adverb sempre (always/al the time):

– if we refer to an action that occurred continuously in the past, but that doesn’t occur in the present anymore, we’ll use the imperfetto tense

Da piccoli, io e mio fratello litigavamo sempre” (as adults, that doesn’t occur anymore) (When we were kids we used to fight all the time)

– if we want to indicate an action that has always occurred in the past and that still continues to this day, then we’ll use the passato prossimo tense once again

Ho sempre amato il colore blu!” (and it’s still loved in the present) (I’ve always loved the color blue)

 

In addition, the passato prossimo tense is used:

  • to talk about consecutive actions, of which the duration or the moment in which they have occurred are not relevant

Example: “Nella sua vita, Stefania ha studiato, ha frequentato un anno di università negli Stati Uniti,
ha lavorato come dirigente, è diventata mamma, ha vissuto in Giappone e ora è in pensione” (In her life, Stefania studied, spending a year at a University in the USA, then she worked as a manager, became a mother, lived in Japan for a while and now she’s retired)

On the contrary, the imperfetto tense is used:

  • to talk about simultaneous events that were contemporary in the past, namely those events that occurred at the same time/ period in the past

Examples: “Mentre io parlavo al telefono, i miei figli facevano i compiti” (we were doing different things at the same time) (While I was on the phone, my children were doing their homework)

Ai tempi dell’università, Mario studiava, lavorava nel negozio di famiglia, andava al tirocinio
e frequentava i suoi amici: non so come riuscisse a fare tutto!” (the actions didn’t occur simultaneously since it was physically impossible, but they happened at the same time anyway)

 

In the narrative (namely in books or when we tell a story) we use both the passato prossimo tense and the imperfetto tense, but in different cases:

The passato prossimo tense is used:

  • to let the story proceed in time, in order to advance the course of events

Example: “La festa è stata un successo! Tutti gli ospiti sono rimasti soddisfatti e hanno fatto i
complimenti agli organizzatori, poi sono tornati a casa con un sorriso stampato sulle labbra” (The party was a success! All the guests were satisfied and did the best congratulations to the organizers, then they returned home with a smile on their lips)

The imperfetto tense is used:

  • to describe the setting and the context in which the event takes place

Example: “Faceva un caldo pazzesco, il sole splendeva nel cielo e le nuvole erano quasi inesistenti,
l’acqua del mare era caldissima e la gente si divertiva facendo battute sciocche, i bambini facevano il bagno, gli adulti giocavano a ping-pong o a tennis” (It was crazy hot, the sun was shining in the sky and the clouds were almost nonexistent, the sea water was very hot and people were enjoying making silly jokes, children were swimming in the sea and adults were playing ping-pong or tennis)

NOTE: You may find both of these tenses in a single sentence, but only when the imperfetto tense, preceded by “mentre” (while), expresses an action in progress that somehow is interrupted by another action expressed in the passato prossimo.

Example: “Mentre facevamo colazione, abbiamo ricevuto una chiamata dal nostro avvocato” (While we were having breakfast, we received a phone call from our attorney)

 

Now let’s see the use of the passato prossimo tense and the imperfetto tense with modal verbs, that  might be very confusing when we speak or write.
With the verbs dovere, potere, sapere, volere (must, can, will ecc.) you can use both the imperfetto tense and the passato prossimo tense, depending on what  you want to communicate.

The passato prossimo tense of modal verbs when the result of the action is certain.

Examples: “Ieri ho dovuto accompagnare mio fratello all’aeroporto” (I needed to do that, so I drove him) (Yesterday I had to drive my brother to the airport)

Gli ospiti hanno voluto assaggiare il mio limoncello” (The guests have wanted to taste my limoncello) (They desired to do that, so they tasted it)

Hanno potuto ricevere un rimborso per il biglietto aereo” (They had the possibility to do that, so they received it) (They could receive a refund for the plane ticket)

Ho saputo gestire la situazione senza problemi” (I could do that so I dealt with it) (I was able to handle the situation without any problems)

In these cases those who are listening or reading are aware that the action is occurred

 

On the other hand, we use the imperfetto tense when the result of the action is uncertain.

Examples: “Ieri dovevo accompagnare mio fratello all’aeroporto” (We don’t know if I drove him to the airport)

Gli ospiti volevano assaggiare il mio limoncello” (We don’t know if they tasted it)

Potevano ricevere un rimborso per il biglietto aereo” (We don’t know if they received it)

Sapevo gestire la situazione senza problemi” (We don’t know if I was able to handle it)

 

Usually, in these cases, some information is added to clarify if the action has occurred and in which circumstances:

Ieri dovevo accompagnare mio fratello all’aeroporto, ma la mia auto non aveva la benzina” (Yesterday I was supposed to drive my brother to the airport, but my car was out of gas)

Gli ospiti volevano assaggiare il mio limoncello, però poi hanno scelto la grappa” (The guests wanted to taste the limoncello, but then they chose to taste the grappa)

Potevano ricevere un rimborso per il biglietto aereo e ne hanno approfittato” (They could receive a refund for the plane ticket, so they took advantage of it)

Sapevo gestire la situazione senza problemi, eppure hanno chiesto i rinforzi” (I was able to handle the situation without any problems still, they called for backup)

 

Good, we hope you may find this lesson useful to clarify any doubts! In addition, we remind you that we made a video on another rather complex topic, namely the prepositions that go with Italian verbs. At last, if you want to improve your Italian in general, don’t miss our course Italiano in Contesto and our book Italiano Colloquiale: they’ll be very helpful!

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