Talking about the past in Italian
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.
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 difference between these two tenses is that we use the passato prossimo for past events or actions which happened a while ago but still have an effect on the present.
Also, we use the passato prossimo 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, instead, when talking about a past event that started and ended during an undetermined (and presumably longer) period of time.
Additionally, the imperfetto is also used to describe someone’s appearance or state of mind in the past, someone’s age at a point in the past, past habits or habitual actions occurring regularly in the past, descriptions of situations in the past, descriptions of weather in the past, and scene-setting when telling a story.
Passato prossimo vs. imperfetto: when to use them?
Which past tense should you use?
It’ll be easier for you to understand if we have a look at some 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 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
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 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
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).
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.
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 or imperfetto?
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.