Imperfetto (imperfect) and passato prossimo (perfect tense) are the most common tenses to talk about past events in Italian. But when to use one and when the other? You normally use passato prossimo to talk about specific events and imperfetto to give contextual information. There are more nuances to it, of course, so without further ado, let’s get started!
Table of Contents
First, let’s review the main uses of each tense.
Uses of imperfetto
The Italian imperfetto has four main uses:
uses of imperfetto
to talk about recurrent or habitual actions in the past
Andavamo al mare tutti i pomeriggi.
We went to the sea every afternoon.
to talk about ongoing actions in the past with no specific beginning or end
Prima delle e-mail, ci scrivevamo lunghe lettere.
Before emails, we used to write each other long letters.
to state age, time, date, and weather in the past
Era il 4 gennaio e pioveva.
It was January 4th and it rained.
to make descriptions in the past
Lo spazio era piccolo ma ben organizzato.
The space was small but well organized.
Uses of passato prossimo
The Italian passato prossimo has two main uses:
uses of passato prossimo
to talk about completed events in a specific moment in the past
Mio figlio è nato a Firenze nel 2015.
My son was born in Florence in 2015.
to talk about a past action whose effects continue in the present
Ho appena sfornato il pane.
I just took the bread out of the oven.
As you see, the passato prossimo refers to events and actions that are completed in a specific moment in the past, while the imperfetto is more a descriptive tense. This should be your polar star when figuring out which one to use, but — just in case — there are some extra tricks. First up, time markers.
Time markers for imperfetto & passato prossimo
There are a number of time expressions that tell you which past tense you need to use. Scorso (last), for instance, triggers the passato prossimo, while ogni (every) calls for imperfetto. Compare:
L’estate scorsa siamo andati al mare. Andavamo al mare ogni estate.
Last summer we went to the sea. We went to the sea every summer.
Check out these lists with time markers for the imperfetto and the passato prossimo.
Interaction of imperfetto and passato prossimo
In many cases you will use imperfetto or passato prossimo independently, according to the events or actions you are talking about. However, the two tenses often interact with each other. Ready to find out how the two mates get along? Keep reading!
To talk about ongoing actions (imperfetto) and interrupting actions (passato prossimo)
One common case of imperfetto and passato prossimo cohabitation is: something happened while something else was going on. In this case, use the imperfetto to define what was happening and the passato prossimo for the interruption.
Mentre preparavo la cena, ho sentito un forte rumore al piano di sopra.
While I was cooking dinner, I heard a loud noise from upstairs.
When talking about ongoing actions (so, the cooking dinner in the example above) Italians might use an alternative to the imperfetto: the passato progressivo, formed by
imperfetto of stare + the gerund of the verb
⤷ take the infinitive of the verb, drop the ending
and add –ando to -are verbs or –endo to -ere
and -ire verbs
Mentre stavo preparando la cena, ho sentito un forte rumore al piano di sopra.
While I was cooking dinner, I heard a loud noise from upstairs.
Notice that the English translation doesn’t change. It’s mostly a matter of nuances in Italian. Using the passato progressivo you’re stressing that the action was, indeed, in progress.
To talk about specific past events (passato prossimo) and the circumstances around them (imperfetto)
Imperfetto and passato prossimo are often found together when telling stories or describing situations and events that happened at the same time: imperfetto sets the stage (giving details,) while passato prossimo explains what happened.
Mentre mio papà preparava la cena, io ho finito i compiti.
While my dad was making dinner, I completed my homework.
Ho rivisto Milena al parco, due anni fa. Era una gloriosa mattina di primavera. Erano le dieci e io ero in ritardo. Ma l’ho vista lì, su una panchina. Scriveva qualcosa su un quaderno, o forse disegnava. Ha alzato gli occhi e ci siamo riconosciuti subito.
I met Milena again at the park, two years ago. It was a glorious spring morning. It was ten a.m. and I was late. But I saw her there, on a bench. She was writing something on a notebook, or maybe she was drawing. She looked up and we immediately recognized each other.
Remember our previous note on using passato progressivo to stress that an action is in progress? In our story, this would transform:
Scriveva qualcosa su un quaderno, o forse disegnava.
Stava scrivendo qualcosa su un quaderno, o forse stava disegnando.
Verbs with different meanings in the imperfetto and the passato prossimo
Dovere, potere, and volere
When used in the imperfetto, dovere (must, to have to) and volere (to want) denote intention and/or uncertainty, while potere (can, to be able to) indicate what someone was able/allowed to do in the past. The same verbs in the passato prossimo indicate that an action/event has occurred or not.
Natalia doveva andare in biblioteca.
Natalia was supposed to go to the library.
Natalia è dovuta andare in biblioteca.
Natalia had to go to the library.
Simone voleva comprare il pesce, ma poi ha cambiato idea.
Simone wanted to buy fish, but then he changed his mind.
Simone ha voluto comprare il pesce e poi l’ha cucinato per cena.
Simone wanted to buy fish and then he cooked it for dinner.
Di solito non potevo uscire la sera.
I usually couldn’t go out at night.
Quella sera non sono potuta uscire.
That night I could not go out.
Conoscere and sapere
Used in the imperfetto, conoscere means “to have been familiar with someone or something,” whereas in the passato prossimo it expresses “to have met someone for the first time:”
Lo conoscevo da dieci anni. L’ho conosciuto al matrimonio di Gianna.
I have known him for ten year. I met him at Gianna’s wedding.
Sapere, on the other hand, means “to have known a fact” in the imperfetto and “to find out something” in the passato prossimo.
Sapevo perché Anna si comportava così. Ho saputo perché Anna si comportava così.
I knew why Anna behaved like that. I found out why Anna behaved like that.
To sum up
We have just learned the uses of imperfetto and passato prossimo. To wrap it up: imperfetto describes ongoing situations, while passato prossimo refers to completed, specific actions in the past. You can further review and practice on this website. Happy learning!