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How to Talk About the Past in Italian: A Guide to the Passato Prossimo

passato prossimo

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.

Using the passato prossimo

As mentioned previously, the passato prossimo refers to something that happened in the past. It is used in the following situations:

  • an action which occurred in the recent past:

Sono andata dal parrucchiere ieri pomeriggio – I went to the hairdresser yesterday afternoon (the action took place a short time ago)

  • an action which is clearly defined in time:

Ho lavorato dalle 8:00 alle 19:00, sono esausto – I worked from 8am to 7pm, I’m exhausted

  • an action which occurred some time ago and the results of the action can still be felt in the present day:

Nel 2002 è entrato in vigore l’Euro – Euro was introduced in 2002 (the effects of the action are still felt in the present)

  • an experience in your life:

Ho frequentato un corso di italiano all’università - I attended an Italian course at university

  • an action which was concluded but the time period (for example, today, this week) hasn’t finished yet:

Quest’anno siamo andati in vacanza insieme – This year we went on holiday together (this year hasn’t finished yet)

  • an unusual action which happened in the past:

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.

How to form the passato prossimo

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:

  • the present form of auxiliary verbs “essere” or “avere”;
  • the past participle (participio passato) of the verb expressing the meaning.

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:

  • the past participle of verbs ending in -are is -ato: lavorare>lavorato, mangiare>mangiato, preparare>preparato;
  • the past participle of verbs ending in -ere is uto: conoscere>conosciuto, temere>temuto, piovere>piovuto;
  • the past participle of verbs ending in -ire is ito: partire>partito, gestire>gestito, stupire>stupito.

Parlare

Ho parlato

I spoke or have spoken

Hai parlato

You spoke or have spoken

Ha parlato

He/She/It spoke or has spoken

Abbiamo parlato

We spoke or have spoken

Avete parlato

Y’all spoke or have spoken

Hanno parlato

They spoke or have spoken 

Credere

Ho creduto

I believed or have believed

Hai creduto

You believed or have believed

Ha creduto

He/She/It believed or has believed

Abbiamo creduto

We believed or have believed

Avete creduto

Y’all believed or have believed

Hanno creduto

They believed or have believedEnter your text here...

Sentire

Ho sentito

I heard or have heard

Hai sentito

You heard or have heard

Ha sentito 

He/She/It heard or has heard

Abbiamo sentito

We heard or have heard

Avete sentito

Y’all heard or have heard

Hanno sentito

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)

fatto

dire (to say/tell)

detto

prendere (to take)

preso

aprire (to open)

aperto

bere (to drink)

bevuto

chiedere (to ask)

chiesto

chiudere (to close)

chiuso

scrivere (to write)

scritto

tradurre (to translate)

tradotto

vivere (to live)

vissuto

vedere (to see)

visto

How to choose the auxiliary verb?

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:

  • all reflexive verbs:

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

  • most intransitive verbs: verbs that do not require an object to act upon;
  • verbs that express movement, like andare (to go), venire (to come), uscire (to go out), partire (to leave), tornare (to come back), arrivare (to arrive):

Sono andato in Italia l’anno scorso

I went to Italy last year

  • verbs that express lack of movement, like stare (to stay) and rimanere (to remain);
  • verbs that express state of being, physical or mental state, or processes of change, like essere (to be), nascere (to be born), morire (to die);
  • verbs which do not have a subject as such (succedere, accadere).

Here are some things to remember:

  • though intransitive, dormire (to sleep), rispondere (to answer), viaggiare (to travel) and vivere (to live) require the auxiliary “avere”;
  • the verb piacere (to like) requires the auxiliary “essere”;
  • hen you use a verb in the passato prossimo with the auxiliary verb to be, the past participle must agree with the subject in gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural).

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 mom

Piacere: Le foto sono piaciute a tutti – Everyone liked the photos

When to use the imperfect tense instead of the passato prossimo?

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:

Stamattina

this morning

Ieri

yesterday

Ieri pomeriggio

yesterday afternoonEnter your text here...

Ieri sera

last night

L’altro giorno

the other day

Tre giorni fa

three days ago

Il mese scorso

last month

What’s the difference between passato remoto and passato prossimo?

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.

To sum up...

  • The passato prossimo is used to say what you have done at some time in the recent past.

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

  • You need to use the present tense of either the auxiliary verb “essere” or “avere” and the past participle of the verb expressing the action.
  • Unlike in English, the Italian passato prossimo is used to say when exactly something happened and what you did at some particular time in the recent past.

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!

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About the Author Jessica Maggi

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.

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