Passato prossimo, imperfetto, passato remoto… Unlike in English, there are many different past tenses in Italian and the difference between them can be tricky. The passato prossimo is the main tense used in Italian to describe an action which has been completed in the near past.
In this lesson, we will show you how to use it and will give you some tips to help you with the use of these three past tenses.
As mentioned previously, the passato prossimo refers to something that happened in the past. It is used in the following situations:
Sono andata dal parrucchiere ieri pomeriggio – I went to the hairdresser yesterday afternoon (the action took place a short time ago)
Ho lavorato dalle 8:00 alle 19:00, sono esausto – I worked from 8am to 7pm, I’m exhausted
Nel 2002 è entrato in vigore l’Euro – Euro was introduced in 2002 (the effects of the action are still felt in the present)
Ho frequentato un corso di italiano all’università - I attended an Italian course at university
Quest’anno siamo andati in vacanza insieme – This year we went on holiday together (this year hasn’t finished yet)
Due anni fa siamo andati a Torino – We went to Turin two years ago
The closeness of a past action to the present can be either based on time or on feelings.
As you might have noticed, the passato prossimo is a compound tense, which means that it has more than one word in its construction.
The passato prossimo is formed by using two verbs:
To make the past participle of regular verbs you just have to take off the infinitive ending -are, -ere or -ire and add the correct ending. Just follow this simple rule:
I spoke or have spoken
You spoke or have spoken
He/She/It spoke or has spoken
We spoke or have spoken
Y’all spoke or have spoken
They spoke or have spoken
I believed or have believed
You believed or have believed
He/She/It believed or has believed
We believed or have believed
Y’all believed or have believed
They believed or have believedEnter your text here...
I heard or have heard
You heard or have heard
He/She/It heard or has heard
We heard or have heard
Y’all heard or have heard
They heard or have heard
There are many irregular verbs in the past participle, so check them out. Some of the common irregular past participle are:
fare (to do/make)
dire (to say/tell)
prendere (to take)
aprire (to open)
bere (to drink)
chiedere (to ask)
chiudere (to close)
scrivere (to write)
tradurre (to translate)
vivere (to live)
vedere (to see)
Does the verb you want to use need the auxiliary verb to be or to have? The majority of verbs take “avere” as their auxiliary verb.Transitive verbs always use the auxiliary “avere”. What is a transitive verb? A transitive verb only makes sense if it exerts its action on an object. Without an object to affect, a transitive verb cannot function and the sentence that it inhabits will not seem complete. A transitive verb typically answers the question “Who/What”.
Ho scritto una lettera di reclamo
I wrote a complaint letter
Ieri ho mangiato i ravioli con ricotta e spinaci
Yesterday I had ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach
You have to use “essere” with:
Mi sono svegliato presto
I woke up early
A che ora ti sei alzato?
What time did you get up?
Ci siamo innamorati cinque anni fa
We fell in love five years ago
Sono andato in Italia l’anno scorso
I went to Italy last year
Here are some things to remember:
Hai visto Lorenzo? Sì, l’ho visto
Have you seen Lorenzo? Yes, I’ve seen him
Hai visto Gabriella? Non l’ho vista
Have you seen Gabriella? No, I haven’t seen her
I ragazzi sono andati a sciare
The guys went skiing
Le tue amiche sono arrivate
Your friends have arrived
Here is a list of verbs that take “essere” as their auxiliary verb:
Andare: Dove sei andato stamattina? Sono andato in banca – Where did you go this morning? I went to the bank
Venire: Paola e Simone sono venuti a trovarci domenica scorsa – Paola and Simone came to see us last Sunday
Partire: Patrizia è partita ieri – Patrizia left yesterday
Uscire: Questa mattina sono uscito presto – This morning I left early
Tornare: Nadia è tornata a Edimburgo la scorsa settimana – Nadia came back to Edinburgh last week
Arrivare: Monica e Antonella sono arrivate - Monica and Antonella have arrived
Stare: Sei mai stata a Palermo, Elena? – Have you ever been to Palermo, Elena?
Rimanere: Giulia è rimasta a casa tutto il giorno – Giulia stayed at home all day
Nascere: Tommaso è nato a luglio – Tommaso was born in July
Morire: È morto il famoso scrittore Andrea Camilleri – The renowned writer Andrea Camilleri died
Diventare: Federica è diventata mamma – Federica has become a momPiacere: Le foto sono piaciute a tutti – Everyone liked the photos
It may be difficult to correctly choose between the passato prossimo and the imperfect tense (imperfetto) when you try and talk about the past in Italian. Here are some tips which we hope will help you with the use of these two tenses.In Italian the passato prossimo refers to one-off actions that happened in the past – maybe just one time – and are not repeated through time. If the action is seen as a completed/finished event in the recent past, then you use the passato prossimo in Italian.
Tre anni fa sono andata a Treviso
I went to Treviso three years ago
Sono andata in Toscana l’anno scorso
I went to Tuscany last year
In other words, I didn’t keep on going to Treviso or Tuscany. I went and the event was concluded. If you are describing events that happened regularly in the past, then you have to use the imperfetto, which corresponds to “used to…”.
Ogni anno andavamo in Toscana
Every year we used to go to Tuscany
If you want to talk about events that happened repeatedly in the past or describe something that happened over a period of time, like, for instance, going to your Italian lesson every Wednesday, you will need to use the imperfetto.
When describing the way a place, person or thing was, you use the imperfetto in Italian.
Da piccola avevo i capelli biondi
When I was little I used to have blonde hair
Faceva troppo caldo
It was too hot
If you are describing something in the past that happened at the same time as something else, then you use both. The imperfetto is used to describe an action that was taking place when something else happened.
Mentre andavo al supermercato ho visto Davide
While I was going to the supermarket I saw Davide
Mentre guardavo la televisione è suonato il telefono
While I was watching TV the phone rang
Which phrases are typically used with the passato prossimo? Here is a list of expressions that are usually used with the present perfect tense in Italian:
yesterday afternoonEnter your text here...
the other day
Tre giorni fa
three days ago
Il mese scorso
The remote past tense (passato remoto) refers to events far in the past, while the passato prossimo refers to recent ones. We use the passato remoto to describe actions that are concluded and that we consider far away from us.
Cristoforo Colombo scoprì l’America nel 1492
Columbus discovered America in 1492
Michelangelo nacque nel 1475
Michelangelo was born in 1475
We use the passato prossimo to talk about something that still has an impact on the present.
Siamo sposati da 11 anni
We have been married for 11 years (we are still married)
We know that passato prossimo is not so easy to understand. In English, you do not distinguish at all between a remote or recent past event, because there is no separate past tense.
Used to translate both the English perfect and the simple past, the passato prossimo is much more used than the remote past tense in Italy. Northern Italians tend to use almost exclusively the passato prossimo, whereas further South, especially in Sicily, Campania, Basilicata, Apulia and Calabria, the remote past tense is often used to describe fairly recent events.
Ieri sera ho cucinato per i miei amici
Last night I cooked for my friends
Mi sono iscritto all’università due anni fa
I entered University two years ago
Ho visto quel film giovedì scorso
I saw that film last Thursday
Roberta gli ha parlato ieri sera
Roberta spoke to him last night
Remember that English and Italian have different tense forms and most of the time you can’t make an exact correspondence between Italian and English tenses. The choice of an English tense to translate Italian depends more on conveying the meaning than trying to use a corresponding tense form.
BEWARE: the Italian passato prossimo is used to translate both the English present perfect and the simple past, and many students find it hard to understand when to use it. The best way for English speakers to understand this tense is to be found in the action described by the main verb. It is an action that has been completed/finished/concluded in the recent past.
Practice as much as you can until you get the hang of it. Till next time!
A FUN AND EFFECTIVE WAY TO LEARN ITALIAN
Jessica is a native Italian speaker, a passionate linguist and a proud Grammar nerd. She has a lifelong passion for English and studied Linguistic and Cultural Mediation at the University of Milan. She currently works as a freelance translator and copywriter.