Knowing when to use imperfetto or passato prossimo is one of the most difficult aspects of the Italian language, in my opinion.
I have seen many students struggle with this topic. In some cases, they were even advanced students who could use the congiuntivo quite confidently, for example, but would still stumble upon the choice of when to use imperfetto or passato prossimo.
And I totally understand them. Advanced grammar topics, like the above-mentioned congiuntivo for example, are difficult in terms of having to learn the conjugations but they work in a very structured and mechanical way.
You may have a hard time learning all the conjugations by heart but, once you know them and you have learned when to use the congiuntivo, there are hardly any exceptions. But you cannot say the same with imperfetto and passato prossimo.
The use of these two tenses is so nuanced that it really takes a while to learn it and use it confidently. But it is also very important because, while even many Italians do not use the congiuntivo, for example, every native speaker perfectly knows when to use imperfetto or passato prossimo.
Therefore, if a mistake with congiuntivo is totally understandable, if you confuse imperfetto and passato prossimo, the mistake really sticks out as something weird, if you see what I mean. Moreover, it is way more common to use these two tenses than congiuntivo in standard conversation, this is why I am literally torturing my students with exercises on the use of imperfetto and passato prossimo – sorry, y’all!
Since I strongly believe it is a very important topic, I have decided to write a blog post about the use of imperfetto and passato prossimo. As I always do with posts about the Italian language, I have created a downloadable pdf file for you to keep for future reference. You will find it in Your Italian Toolbox, the private page on my site where I upload all language learning materials, under the section Grammar. I hope you will find it interesting!
Before delving into the difference between imperfetto and passato prossimo and trying to understand when to use which one, let’s first focus on these two tenses separately, so that we have a better introduction to the topic.
When to use passato prossimo
Passato prossimo is a tense used to:
1) express past finished events and actions that still have some relevance in the present
Dove sei stato ieri? (Where have you been yesterday?)
Che cosa hai mangiato oggi a pranzo? (What have you eaten for lunch today?)
Sono stato a Parigi molte volte, ma ho sempre voglia di tornarci (I have been to Paris many times but I always want to go back)
2) describe an action that has started and ended in the past (something happening only once)
La scorsa settimana ho visto un film bellissimo (I have seen a wonderful movie last week)
Ieri sono andato a Milano per lavoro (I went to Milan for work yesterday)
Mi sono sposata lo scorso luglio (I got married last July)
3) tell a series of actions that happened in the past
Ho visto Marina, l’ho salutata e le ho chiesto come sta (I have seen Marina, I have greeted her and I have asked her how she is)
Ho incontrato Giovanni e siamo andati a mangiare insieme (I have met Giovanni and we ate together)
Mia sorella ha preso la macchina ed è andata a lavorare (My sister took the car and went to work)
When to use imperfetto
Imperfetto is a tense used to:
1) describe a situation, an event, a place that took place in the past
Ieri era una bellissima giornata, c’era un sole meraviglioso e faceva caldo (Yesterday was a beautiful day, the sun was lovely and it was warm)
La casa era gialla e aveva un bellissimo giardino (The house was yellow and had a lovely garden)
Il teatro era pieno di gente e molte persone erano in piedi perché non c’erano posti sufficienti (The theatre was full of people, many of them were standing because there weren’t enough seats)
2) describe a person, a feeling, a status
Quando era giovane, mia mamma era bellissima (My mom was gorgeous when she was young)
Giovanna era molto triste e si sentiva sola (Giovanna was really sad and she was feeling lonely)
Il bambino era felice perché era insieme a tutti i suoi amichetti (The kid was happy because he was with all his little friends)
3) describe a habit or a repeated action in the past
D’estate andavo sempre al mare (I would always go to the beach in the summer)
Quando ero giovane, leggevo molti libri (I used to read a lot of books when I was young)
Quando andavo a scuola, tornavo sempre a casa a piedi (When I was in school, I would always walk back home)
4) describe two ongoing actions, two actions happening at the same time
Mentre leggevo, mio marito guardava la TV (While I was reading, my husband watched tv)
Mentre tornavo a casa, studiavo per l’esame di storia (While I was returning home, I studied for my history exam)
I ragazzi chiacchieravano mentre il professore faceva lezione (The kids were chatting while the professor was teaching his lesson)
When to use imperfetto and passato prossimo in the same sentence
The two tenses can be used together when:
1) there is a cause/effect relationship, where the imperfetto is used to express the cause, while the passato prossimo is used for the effect
Non sono venuto perché stavo male (I didn’t come because I was feeling ill)
C’era molta gente al ristorante, così abbiamo aspettato (There were a lot of people at the restaurant, so we had to wait)
Ieri pioveva, quindi sono rimasto a casa (It was raining yesterday, so I stayed home)
2) when something happens while something else is ongoing
Mentre stavo tornando a casa, ho incontrato Maria (I met Maria while I was coming home)
Marco è arrivato mentre stavamo facendo colazione (Marco arrived while we were having breakfast)
Mentre leggevo, è andata via la corrente (While I was reading, the power went off)
How to choose imperfetto or passato prossimo
Both tenses are used to speak about the past but from two different perspectives. Passato prossimo is used to talk about finished events and when the focus is on the actual fact, imperfetto is used to talk about unfinished events and when the focus is on the action itself.
We use the imperfetto to describe habits but we use the passato prossimo to tell about finished actions that took place in a defined time:
Quando ero giovane, andavo sempre a correre al parco (When I was young, I would always run in the park)
La scorsa settimana sono andato a correre tutti i giorni (Last week, I ran every day)
We use the imperfetto for repeated actions in the past but we use the passato prossimo to state the number of times the action has been repeated:
Marco giocava sempre a carte alla domenica (Marco would always play cards on Sundays)
Marco ha giocato a carte per tre domeniche di fila (Marco has played cards for three Sundays in a row)
We use the imperfetto to describe multiple ongoing actions in the past (happening at the same time), while we use the passato prossimo to talk about a sequence of actions:
Mentre parlava al telefono, Michela faceva esercizio e ascoltava la musica (While she was on the phone, Michela was exercising and listening to music)
Ieri Michela ha parlato al telefono, poi ha fatto esercizio e ha ascoltato la musica (Yesterday Michela spoke on the phone, then exercised and then listened to music)
We use the imperfetto to describe something in the past, while we use passato prossimo to tell a story:
Ieri faceva molto caldo e c’era tantissima gente alla spiaggia (It was very hot yesterday and there were many people at the beach)
Ieri ha fatto molto caldo e tante persone sono andate alla spiaggia (It was very hot yesterday and many people went to the beach)
We use the imperfetto to describe a state or condition in the past, without a specific time, while we use the passato prossimo to describe a state or condition in a specific time frame:
Marcella aveva i capelli lunghi quando era giovane (Marcella had long hair when she was young)
Marcella ha avuto i capelli lunghi per vent’anni, poi li ha tagliati (Marcella has had long hair for twenty years, then she cut them)
In città faceva molto caldo (It was really hot in the city)
In città ha fatto caldo in agosto (It was hot in the city in August)
I really hope this post helps you understand when to use imperfetto and passato prossimo. If you have questions, just leave a comment here below!
As I always do with posts about the Italian language, I have created a downloadable pdf file for you to keep for future reference. You will find it in Your Italian Toolbox, the private page on my site where I upload all language learning materials, under the section Grammar. If can access the page by simply subscribing to my newsletter.
If you are interested in working on Italian grammar and want to focus on some specific topics, I suggest you check Ti aiuto io, my online Italian language tutoring service.
If you purchase Ti aiuto io, I will work as your private tutor, giving you tasks and homework and spending time over Skype with you to clarify and work together on each topic. If you want to give it a try, you can request a 30-minute free chat, so that we can meet each other and see if you like the service.