Imperfetto vs. Passato Prossimo: A Simple Guide.

Both the imperfetto and passato prossimo are used to describe past events. However, they are used in different situations. The passato prossimo is used when the action is completed, happened once, and has a definite starting and ending point. The imperfetto, on the other hand, is used to describe an ongoing or repeated action in the past that lasted for an indefinite period of time without a definite start or end. It emphasizes the continuity or repetition of the action.

When to Use Passato Prossimo 

Passato prossimo is used to describe past actions with a time reference. The action you’re describing is not a repeated action, but it happened at a specific time, and you know when it started and ended. 

For example:

Due anni fa ho partecipato ad una competizione sciisticaTwo years ago I participated in a ski competition
Ieri sera ho guardato un bel filmI watched a good movie last night
La scorsa estate sono andato in ItaliaLast summer I went to Italy
Lo scorso weekend sono stato al mareLast weekend I was at the beach

Common time expressions used with ‘passato prossimo

Ieri, ieri sera, l’altro ieriYesterday, last night, the day before yesterday
Due anni fa, 10 anni faTwo years ago, 10 years ago
L’anno scorso, il mese scorso, la settimana scorsaLast year, last month, last week

When to Use Imperfetto 

The are three main uses of the imperfect tense in Italian 

1.

The Italian imperfetto is used to describe actions or states in the past that were continuous or repeated without a specific end point. This includes events from different periods in a person’s life (such as childhood experiences, school experiences) daily routines, or more generally long-term habits (e.g. what you used to be or to do when you were in your thirties).

Quando andavo l’università*, passavo molto tempo in bibliotecaWhen I was in school, I spent a lot of time in the library
Quando avevo vent’anni*, vivevo in appartamenti condivisiIn my 20s, I lived in shared flats
Quando ho cominciato a lavorare, non guadagnavo molto* [I was not earning much]When I started working, I didn’t earn much
in all these phrases you’re describing what your life ‘used to be’ or what you ‘used to do’


2.

The Imperfetto is also used to contrast past and present states or actions. In these cases, it is often introduced by the adverb “prima” which means “before.”

Prima, le persone guardavano i film in TV, adesso guardano i film su NetflixBefore, people used to watch movies on TV, now they watch movies on Netflix
Prima, i bambini giocavano fuori in strada, adesso giocano con i videogiochiBefore, children used to play outside in the street, now they play video games

You might also use the imperfetto to describe how things were in the past and then use the passato prossimo to describe a specific event that happened and changed things, creating a contrast between past and present.

Prima, giocavo a calcio ogni pomeriggio. Poi, ho rotto la gamba e ho dovuto smettereBefore, I used to play soccer every afternoon. Then, I broke my leg and had to stop.

3.

The imperfect tense is also used to describe people, objects, situations, or places in the past.

Maria era una bambina allegra e vivace. Viveva in una casa piccola con i suoi genitori, che erano entrambi medici all’ospedale centrale di Roma. Aveva un piccolo criceto come animale, perché la sua casa era molto piccolaMaria was a cheerful and lively little girl. She lived [she used to live, she was living] in a small house with her parents, who were both doctors at the central hospital in Rome. She had [used to have] a small hamster as a pet, because her house was very small.

Note that ‘she/he/it was’ and ‘they were’ are almost always translated respectively to ‘era’ and ‘erano’.

Common time expressions used with imperfetto:

Some time expressions indicate that an action was regularly repeated in the past, and therefore we tend to use them with the imperfetto.

Ogni mattina / ogni settimana / ogni meseEvery morning / every week / every month
Regolarmente / solitamente / di solitoRegularly / usually / typically
Quando avevo “x” anniWhen I was “x” years old
SempreAlways
Tutti i giorni / tutti i mesi / tutti gli anniEvery day / every month / every year

How to Translate the Imperfetto in English 

In English grammar, it can be translated as the past continuous tense, used to describe a past action that was ongoing or repeated at a specific time in the past. For example, “I was studying” or “I used to live” or “I would go” (when used in the the past).

So, for example, “vivevo”can be translated into English, like:

  • I used to live…
  • I would live…(in the past)
  • I was living  

Use of Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto in the same sentence

It’s common in Italian to encounter the use of the passato prossimo and the imperfetto in the same sentence. This is normal in Italian because, both 

Imperfetto + passato prossimo 

“When both the passato prossimo and the imperfetto are employed within a single sentence, the passato prossimo typically portrays the primary event, while the imperfetto sets the background or context for that event. In essence, the imperfect tense conveys the ‘ongoing action,’ while the passato prossimo narrates the main event. Such sentences are commonly introduced by ‘mentre,’ which translates to ‘while,’ followed by the use of the imperfect tense.

For example:

Mentre lavoravo al computer, ho ricevuto una chiamata dal mio capoWhile working on the computer, I received a call from my boss.

In the above sentence “mentre lavoravo” is the background or setting of the main event which is “il mio capo ha chiamato”.  

Stavo andando al mercato a piedi, quando ha cominciato a piovere e sono dovuto ritornare a casaI was walking to the market when it started to rain, and I had to go home.

In the above sentence “stavo andando al mercato” is the setting, while “ha cominciato a piovere” and “sono dovuto ritornare a casa” are the main events. 

About the Author

Serena Capilli

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

Learn Italian
the smart way!

Sign up and receive the best exercises that have already helped my private clients to finally speak italiano + weekly doses of Italian!

Ciao, I'm Serena!

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

7 Romance Short Stories for Italian Language Learners