How to Use Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto in Italian

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

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

For practical purposes, we will focus on passato prossimo and imperfetto, and how they differ from one another.

So, you already know that imperfetto and passato prossimo refer to an even in the past:

  • Imperfetto expresses an action in the imperfect tense
  • Passato prossimo is the present perfect tense of an action that has occurred a while ago but which has its effect on the present

Specifically, passato prossimo is used for a past event with a start and end date while imperfetto is used when talking about a past event with an undetermined start and end date.

Let’s look at examples of passato prossimo:

  • Ho parlato con Maya – I spoke to Maya
  • 5 anni fa sono andato in Parigi – Five years ago, I went to Paris
  • Sono andato a trovare mia nonna la settimana scorsa – I visited my grandmother last week

Expressions commonly used with passato prossimo:

  • ieri – yesterday
  • il mese scorso – last month
  • stamattina – this morning
  • leri sera – last night
  • l’altro giorno – the other day

Examples of passato prossimo and imperfetto

Now consider the usage of imperfetto:

  • La mia prima bicicletta – My first bike was white
  • Da piccolo ho avuto I capelli castani – When I was little, I had brown hair
  • Mia sorella mi faceva sempre la pasta – My mother would always make pasta

In the above examples, the tense indicates a quality or feature about something or something you/someone used to do in the past.

Now, consider this example:

  • Leri facevo la torta quando ha telefonato Miguel – Yesterday, I was making cake when Miguel called

Imperfetto is applicable when framing a sentence about what you were doing when something occurred.

Here’s another example:

  • Leri sera ho fatto una prenotazione online mentre lui leggeva un libro – Last night, I was making a reservation online while he was reading a book

Imperfetto is also used when indicating when another event was occurring.

Additionally, note that the imperfect is used to describe: someone’s appearance or state of mind in the past; weather in the past; the introduction/scene setting when telling a story; someone’s age at a point in the past; and when suggesting the frequency of an action, such as:

  • Tutti i giorni – everyday
  • Sempre – always
  • Continuamente – continually
  • Mentre – while

Audio lessons to practice passato prossimo, imperfetto

To practice passato prossimo vs imperfetto, take Lesson 104 of the Italian audio course “Ripeti con me!“.

For a printable version, register or login.

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