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

trapassato prossimo

The Italian past perfect (trapassato prossimo) may sound incredibly scary at first – but there’s good news. We use it in a similar way to when you would use the past perfect in English.

In this lesson, we will show you how to use the trapassato prossimo in Italian. Once you get the hang of it, you will easily master this tense.

Using the trapassato prossimo

In Italian, the past perfect (trapassato prossimo), or more properly said pluperfect or plusquamperfect, is a past tense used to talk about what had happened at a point in the past.

It is used to:

  • talk about past occurrences that took place before something else happened.

Quando siamo arrivati in aeroporto, l’aereo era già decollato – When we arrived at the airport, the airplane had already taken off (the plane took off before we arrived)

Sara non è andata a teatro perchè aveva già visto lo spettacolo – Sara didn’t go to the theater because she had already seen the show

Riccardo mi ha restituito i soldi che gli avevo prestato due mesi fa – Riccardo gave me back the money I had lent him two months ago
  • refer to something that at a past time had already been started:

Aveva già piovuto per due settimane quando è arrivata l’alluvione – It had already been raining for two weeks when the flood came

  • create suspense in narrative/storytelling:

Sofia quel giorno si era alzata come tutte le mattine – That day, Sofia got up/had got up just like every other morning (this looks just like a regular day in Sofia’s life, but you would expect something unusual to happen on that specific day)

How to construct the trapassato prossimo

As you might have noticed, the trapassato prossimo is a compound tense, which means that it is formed by more than one word.

In Italian, the trapassato prossimo, also called piuccheperfetto, is formed with:
  • the imperfect indicative form of the appropriate auxiliary verb (avere or essere);
  • the past participle of the main verb.

We will be using avere (to have) and essere (to be) as auxiliary verbs like with the passato prossimo. The only difference is that we will be conjugating them in the imperfect tense. Their conjugations are as follow:

Avere

Io avevo I had
Tu aveviYou had
Lui/lei avevaHe/She/It had
Noi avevamoWe had
Voi avevateY’all had
Loro avevanoThey had

Essere

Io eroI was
Tu eriYou were
Lui/lei eraHe/She/It was
Noi eravamoWe were
Voi eravateY’all were
Loro eranoThey were

To make the past participle of regular verbs, you just have to remove the infinitive ending -are, -ere or -ire and replace it with the past participle ending as shown below:

  •  verbs ending in -are use -ato: parlare>parlato, realizzare>realizzato, sognare>sognato;
  • verbs ending in -ere use -uto: credere>creduto, ricevere>ricevuto, possedere>posseduto;
  • verbs ending in -ire use -ito: dormire>dormito, agire>agito, diminuire>diminuito.

There are some irregular verbs in the past participle. We recommend committing them to memory:

Aprire (to open)aperto
Bere (to drink)bevuto
Chiedere (to ask)
chiesto
Chiudere (to close)chiuso
Dire (to say, to tell)detto
Fare (to do, to make)fatto
Prendere (to take)preso
Scrivere (to write)scritto
Tradurre (to translate)tradotto
Vedere (to see)visto
Vivere (to live)vissuto

How to choose the auxiliary verb?

That’s a complex question. The answer depends on the verb expressing the meaning of the sentence. In order to choose which helping/auxiliary verb is to be used, the same rules used in passato prossimo apply.

Using auxiliary verb avere

The Italian verb “avere” is used as the auxiliary for most transitive verbs. What is a transitive verb, you ask?

A transitive verb expresses an action that carries over from the subject to an object. Without a direct object to affect, transitive verbs like dire (to say), portare (to bring), leggere (to read), dimenticare (to forget) and comprare (to buy) cannot function.

Solo il 42% degli intervistati aveva letto un libro negli ultimi 6 mesi – Only 62 per cent of the adults surveyed had read a book in the past 6 months

As you might have noticed, the past participle is invariable when the trapassato prossimo is constructed with “avere”.

BEWARE: though intransitive, viaggiare (to travel), rispondere (to answer), vivere (to live) and dormire (to sleep) take “avere” as their auxiliary verb.

Using auxiliary verb essere

While “to have” acts as an auxiliary for a myriad of Italian verbs, there is a group of verbs that conjugate with “to be”. You often have to learn whether to use the auxiliary verb “essere” on a case-by-case basis, but there are some general guidelines that are well worth following.

You have to use the auxiliary verb “essere” with:

  • all reflexive verbs:

Mi ero già svegliato quando è suonata la sveglia – I had already woken up when the alarm clock sounded

  • most intransitive verbs, especially those expressing motion, like andare (to go), arrivare (to arrive), partire (to leave), tornare (to come back, to return) and uscire (to go out);
  • verbs that express lack of movement, like restare (to stay, to remain) and stare (to stay, to be);
  • verbs that express state of being, like essere (to be), or processes of change, like nascere (to be born) and morire (to die);
  • verbs like succedere (to happen) and accadere (to occur), which do not have a subject as such.

When you use a verb in the trapassato prossimo with “essere,” the past participle must agree with the subject of the sentence in number (singular or plural) and gender (masculine or feminine). Therefore, it can have four endings:

  • -o for masculine singular;
  • -a for feminine singular;
  •  -i for masculine plural;
  • -e for feminine plural.

In Italian, the verb “essere” can be conjugated with itself as the auxiliary verb.

Gianluca era stato a casa da solo tutto il fine settimana – Gianluca had been home alone the whole weekend

Here is a list of the most common verbs that form compound tenses with “essere”:

Andare (to go): Pietro ed Elisa erano andati al museo – Pietro and Elisa had gone to the museum

Arrivare (to arrive): Marina è andata via quanto Barbara era già arrivata – Marina left when Barbara had already arrived

Cadere (to fall, to drop): Un albero gigantesco era caduto durante la notte – A giant tree had fallen over during the night

Costare (to cost): Il suo nuovo abito era costato una fortuna – Her new outfit had cost an arm and a leg

Crescere (to grow): I capelli di Elisabetta erano talmente cresciuti da arrivarle quasi alla vita – Elisabetta’s hair had grown so long it nearly reached her waist

Diventare (to become): I Nirvana erano rapidamente diventati una delle rock band più influential mondo –  Nirvana had quickly become one of the most influential rock bands in the world

Durare (to last, to continue): Anche dopo la riconciliazione, i litigi erano continuati – Even after their reconciliation, the arguments had continued

Entrare (to enter): Linda è arrivata dopo che tutte le sue amiche erano già entrate nel locale – Linda arrived after all of her friends had already entered the club

Morire (to die): Era già morto quando è arrivata l’ambulanza – He had already died by the time the ambulance arrived

Nascere (to be born): Nel 2005 mia figlia era già nata – My daughter was already born in 2005

Partire (to leave, to depart): La moto che era partita per prima è arrivata ultima – The motorbike that started first arrived last

Restare (to stay, to remain): Mentre i prezzi erano rimasti stabili, le tasse continuavano ad aumentare – While prices had remained stable, the taxes continued to increase 

Stare (to stay, to be): Eravate già stati a Napoli prima dell’estate scorsa? – Had you already been to Naples before last summer?

Tornare (to come back, to return): Non appena eravamo tornati a casa, ha iniziato a piovere – Right after we had returned home, it started raining

Uscire (to go out, to exit): Il professore ci ha informato che Dario era uscito da scuola senza permesso – The teacher informed us that Dario had gone out of school without permission

Venire (to come): Era mezzanotte quando gli agenti erano venuti a bussare alla nostra porta – It was midnight when the officers had come to knock at our door

How do passato prossimo and trapassato prossimo work together?

As we mentioned earlier, we use the trapassato prossimo whenever we want to talk about something that happened before something else in the past.

The trapassato prossimo and the passato prossimo are often used together in the same sentence. In this type of construction, the action expressed by the trapassato prossimo happened before the event you are referring to with the passato prossimo.

Chiara è partita in ritardo perché aveva dimenticato il passaporto a casa – Chiara left late because she had forgotten her passport at home

Alessandro non ha salutato subito Serena perché non l’aveva riconosciuta Alessandro didn’t greet Serena right away because he had not recognized her

The trapassato prossimo makes it clear that the event it describes is placed earlier in the past than the action expressed by the passato prossimo.

Grammatically, the difference between them is like this:

Passato prossimo

Io ho parlatoI spoke or have spoken
Tu hai parlatoYou spoke or have spoken
Lui/lei ha parlatoHe/She/It spoke or has spoken
Noi abbiamo parlatoWe spoke or have spoken
Voi avete parlatoY’all spoke or have spoken
Loro hanno parlatoThey spoke or have spoken

Trapassato prossimo

Io avevo parlatoI had spoken
Tu avevi parlatoYou had spoken
Lui/lei aveva parlatoHe/She/It had spoken
Noi avevamo parlatoWe had spoken
Voi avevate parlatoY’all had spoken
Loro avevano parlatoThey had spoken

How to translate the trapassato prossimo into English

The trapassato prossimo is the natural equivalent of the past perfect in English and is mostly used for the same purposes. In this rare case, the similarity in the way the two tenses are used in Italian and English is striking.

Quando ho sentito il telefono squillare ero già uscita di casa – When I heard the phone ringing, I had already got out of the house

Avevo fame perché non avevo mangiato nulla tutto il giorno – I was hungry because I had not eaten anything all day

The actions expressed by the trapassato prossimo and past perfect had finished before another event took place in the past.

Prima di trasferirti a Milano avevi già studiato l’italiano? – Had you already studied Italian before you moved to Milan?

Giuliano aveva prenotato il volo cinque giorni prima di partire – Giuliano had booked the flight three days before leaving

La mia vita era stata infelice fino a quando ho conosciuto Samuele – My life had been unhappy until I met Samuele  

In the last example you might well say “was” instead of “had been” in English, but note that Italian is more steadfast in its use of the trapassato prossimo in past-before-the-past situations.

To sum up...

  • In Italian, the trapassato prossimo is to be used to talk about what had already happened in the past.

Dopo solo due ore, avevamo già finito gli argomenti di conversazione – After just a couple of hours, we had already run out of things to say

  • It is to be used to talk about something that happened in the past before another event you are usually referring to with passato prossimo or imperfetto.

Quando Vincenzo iniziò a parlare, avevo già capito cosa aveva in mente – When Vincenzo started talking, I had already understood what he had in mind

  • In English, the past perfect tense acts in the same way.

Avevamo deciso di andare a fare una passeggiata al parco, ma poi ha cominciato a piovere – We had decided to go for a walk in the park, but then it started raining

  • It is made with the imperfect of the auxiliary verb “avere” or “essere” and the past participle.

Practice as much as you can until you get the hang of it. A presto!

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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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