Understanding the Difference Between Imperfetto and Passato Prossimo
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 the Passato Prossimo
The passato prossimo is used to describe past actions with a time reference. The action you are describing is not a repeated action, it happened at a specific time, and you know when it started and ended.
- Due anni fa ho partecipato ad una competizione sciistica – two years ago I participated in a ski competition
- Ieri sera ho guardato un bel film – I watched a good movie last night
- La scorsa estate sono andato in Italia – last summer I went to Italy
- Lo scorso weekend sono stato allo stadio – last weekend I was at the stadium
Common time expressions using the passato prossimo
- Ieri, ieri sera, l’altro ieri
- Due anni fa, 10 anni fa
- L’anno scorso, il mese scorso, la settimana scorsa
When to Use the Imperfetto
The are three main uses of the imperfect tense in Italian
# 1 The Italian imperfetto tense is used to describe actions or states in the past that were continuous or repeated without a specific end point. This can include events from different periods in a person’s life, such as childhood experiences, daily routines, or long-term habits. For example, you might use the imperfect to talk about your experiences growing up, your daily activities during a specific time period, your last job, your hobbies and interests in the past.
- Quando andavo l’università, passavo molto tempo in biblioteca – When I was in school, I spent [I used to spend, I was spending] a lot of time in the library
- Quando avevo vent’anni, vivevo in appartamenti condivisi – In my 20s, I lived [I used to live, I was living] in shared flats.
- Quando ho cominciato a lavorare, non guadagnavo molto – When I started working, I didn’t earn much [I was not earning much]
#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 Netflix – Before, people used to watch movies on TV, now they watch movies on Netflix
- Prima i bambini giocavano fuori in strada, adesso giocano con i videogiochi – Before the children played outside in the street, now they play video game
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 smettere – Before, 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 allegro 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 piccola – Maria 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.
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 mese
- Regolarmente / solitamente / di solito
- Quando avevo “x” anni
- Tutti i giorni / tutti i mesi / tutti gli anni
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 I 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
When the Passato Prossimo and the Imperfetto Are Used in the Same Sentence
It’s common in Italian to encounter the use the passato prossimo and the imperfetto in the same sentence. This is normal in Italian because, both
Imperfetto + passato prossimo
When used in the same sentence, the passato prossimo is used to describe the main event, while the imperfetto is used to describe the background or setting of the main event. In other words, the imperfect tense describes the “ongoing action,” while the passato prossimo describes the main event.Usually these types of sentences are introduced by “mentre = while,” followed by the imperfect tense.
- Mentre lavoravo al computer, ho ricevuto una chiamata dal mio capo – While 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 casa – I 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 setting, while “ha cominciato a piovere” and “sono dovuto ritornare a casa” are the main events.
How to practice the difference between the passato prossimo and imperfetto
Getting a good understanding of how the Imperfetto works in Italian can be a challenge. While learning the theory is one thing, using it correctly in actual Italian conversation is another. In my experience, one of the best ways to grasp the use of the imperfetto and passato prossimo in Italian is by reading stories. These naturally switch between the two tenses, making it easier to understand their use. You can find short stories easily on Amazon or online (I made a list of the some good short stories in Italian here) . If you’re a grammar buff (just like me), you can also consider using this textbook for reference: