Italian Imperfect and Past Tense: Differences

Level A2-B1

In today's post I will talk about “passato prossimo” and “imperfetto”, i will try to help you understand when to use the first one or the second one, since the alternation of these two forms is very difficult to understand, especially at initial stages.

In Italian, in fact, actions made in the past can have different verbal aspects or temporal dimensions that each speaker attributes to him, since each of them have a specific function.

The “passato prossimo” is a perfective verbal form describing a completed action well delimited in time and accurate where the beginning and the end of the action are known. It is generally used to tell what has been done during the day or during the weekend or to indicate an action that took place at a specific time in the past. For example:

  • Marco è nato il 5 giugno 1992. (Marco was born in 1992).

  • La scorsa settimana ho conosciuto la mia vicina di casa. (Last week I have met my neighbour for the first time).

  • Oggi ho lavorato troppo ed ora ho mal di testa. (today I have worked too much and now i have a headache).

To better understand the examples let’s see the following timeline:

The arrow is the time stream and the X is the exact moment of the actions described above.

On the contrary “imperfetto” is a verbal mode that expresses a sense of imperfection related to an action remained unfinished where it is not known precisely when the action itself starts or when it ends.

Imperfetto is used also to describe a habit or for physical and psychological descriptions; for example:

  • Da bambina ero molto timida e non giocavo molto con gli altri bambini (As a child I was very shy and didn't play much with other children).

  • Tutte le estati io e mio fratello andavamo al mare con i nonni. (All summers my brother and I went to the beach with my grandparents).

  • Nel 2000 studiavo giocavo a tennis e studiavo inglese. (In 2000 I was playing tennis and studying English).

As described before all these actions do not focus on their duration, but on their continuity in the past, they also expresses a past habit or a physical/psychological descriptions: in fact the first example describes the childhood period; the second expresses the continuous repetition of an event and the third one focuses on the continuity of two actions in a certain year (note that this does not represent any time delimitation of that year). In a stream line they could be represented as follows:

Hope this post was useful, for any doubts comment below.

A presto!


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