When to Use Passato Prossimo vs Imperfetto in Italian
Passato prossimo vs imperfetto: when to use them? Which past tense should you use?
Passato remoto is only 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.
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
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
In the above examples, the tense indicates a quality or feature about something or something you/someone used to do in the past.
When to use passato prossimo vs imperfetto together?
Examples of passato prossimo and imperfetto together
Passato prossimo vs imperfetto: they can also be used together.
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
A tricky example
Now two tricky sentences with passato prossimo vs imperfetto.
Can you see the difference between the next two sentences?
- Da piccola avevo i capelli biondi. – When I was little I used to have blonde hair.
- Da piccola ho avuto i capelli biondi. – When I was little I had blonde hair.
Avevo refers to a continuous state throughout the childhood.
Ho avuto refers to a specific period, which is part of the 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.
I like one example that was given to me:
- 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.