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The past perfect: Italian grammar lesson 149

The Past Perfect in Italian: Explained

When it comes to verb tenses, the Italian language is very rich and interesting! To talk about something that happened before another event already in the past, we use the Past Perfect, trapassato prossimo in Italian. Much as its equivalent in English, this tense is basically used to describe a completed action that happened before another completed action. Which is, in short, talking about the past in the past!

Prima di venire in Italia avevi già studiato l’italiano?
Before coming to Italy had you already studied Italian?

Quando sono arrivata, erano già partiti.
When I arrived they had already left.

trapassato prossimo italiano

Trapassato prossimo: Rules

To form the trapassato prossimo, we simply use the imperfetto (imperfect) of avere / essere + the past participle of the conjugated verb.

Have a look at the tables below to see some examples:

Mangiare (with avere)

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to eat

Partire (with essere)

to leave

Io avevo mangiato Io ero partito/a*
Tu avevi mangiato Tu eri partito/a
Lui aveva mangiato Lui/Lei era partito/a
Noi avevamo mangiato Noi eravamo partiti/e
Voi avevate mangiato Voi eravate partiti/e
Loro avevano mangiato Loro erano partiti/e

*Have you noticed? When we use the verb essere as an auxiliary, the past participle of the conjugated verb agrees in number and gender with the subject performing the action.

Remember, regular past participles are super easy to form! Just get rid of the ending of the infinitive form and add the past participle ending:

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Verbs ending in ARE use ATO: mangi + are à mangi + ato = mangiato (to eat – eaten)
Verbs ending in ERE use UTO: cred + ere à cred + uto = creduto (to believe – believed)
Verbs ending in IRE use ITO: fin + ire à fin + ito = finito (to finish – finished)

the past perfect in Italian

Trapassato prossimo: Essere or avere?

In order to choose when to use essere or avere, the same rules used in passato prossimo apply. As you probably already know, the auxiliary we use is determined by the type of verb we want to conjugate. Usually, the rule to follow is that transitive verbs take avere, and intransitive verbs take essere.

  • Transitive (verbs that take a direct object)

Avevi mai praticato yoga prima della lezione di oggi?
Had you ever practiced yoga before today’s lesson?

  • Intransitive (verbs that do not take a direct object)

Quando siamo partiti loro erano già arrivati.
When we left they had already arrived.

past perfect italian

Some verbs can be used both as transitive or intransitive. This means that they can take both essere and avere as an auxiliary, depending on the context. Let’s take finire (to end/finish) as an example:

  • Transitive (finire + object)

Avevi già finito il discorso quando sono arrivata.
You had already finished your speech when I arrived.

  • Intransitive (finire with no object)

Il film era già finito quando sono arrivata.
The film had already ended when I arrived.

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