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Passato prossimo vs imperfetto in the same sentence: Italian grammar 104

Passato Prossimo vs Imperfetto: Explained

The passato prossimo and imperfetto are the two most commonly used past tenses in Italian. However, understanding the differences between passato prossimo and imperfetto can be tricky for Italian learners, especially because sometimes they are used together in the same sentence.

The main difference between these two tenses is that passato prossimo is used for past events or actions which happened during a delimited time, meaning that they started and ended at a specific point in time.

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Imperfetto is instead used when talking about a past event which started and ended during an undetermined (and presumably longer) period of time.

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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: How to use in the same sentence + Examples

Passato prossimo and imperfetto are often used together when describing two past actions happening at the same time. In this case, 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, the imperfetto is often introduced by mentre (=while).

Let’s take a look at some examples of sentences where passato prossimo and  imperfetto are used together:

  • Mentre camminavo lungo il fiume, ho sentito un rumore improvviso.
    I was walking along the river when I heard a sudden noise.
  • Mentre andavo in ufficio, ho incontrato Claudia.
    I met Claudia on my way to the office.
  • Quando David viveva in Italia, ha visitato sia Roma sia Firenze.
    During the time David lived in Italy, he visited both Rome and Florence.
  • Studiavamo quando improvvisamente ha squillato il telefono.
    We were studying when suddenly the telephone rang.
  • Mentre Luca scriveva una e-mail, il computer ha smesso di funzionare.
    While Luca was writing an e-mail, the computer stopped working.
  • Mi sono addormentata mentre leggevo.
    I fell asleep while I was reading.
  • 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.
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