Italian Phrases We Use EVERY Day! – Speaking About the Past: Imperfetto or Passato Prossimo?

Kathryn for learntravelitalian.com
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Learn Travel Italian.com

Do you want to speak Italian more easily and confidently in 2022?

Why not set a goal to learn Italian, starting today, for the year 2022? I will try to help you with this goal by posting a new blog every month in the series “Italian Phrases We Use EVERY Day!” With these blogs, I discuss how Italians use their language on a daily basis and in so doing help you to “think in Italian.” 

If we learn how to incorporate “commonly used phrases”  in the past tense with the  imperfetto and the passato prossimo   in our conversations, we will be able to speak about an event in the past in Italian, just as we do in our native language!

Previous blogs in this series have discussed the basics of how to conjugate and use the imperfetto  and the passato prossimo to speak about the recent past.* As we’ve mentioned before, the conjugation of these verb forms is fairly straightforward; the tricky part is knowing which past tense to choose to describe a particular event.   

To make matters more complex, a compound sentence can be created using only the imperfetto, only the passato prossimo, or a combination of both. And in many situations, the same event can be described in Italian using either the imperfetto or the passato prossimo! Given this complexity, how is a non-native speaker to know how to create Italian sentences to describe what has happened the past?

As a general rule, the circumstances surrounding the event will determine which past tense to use. Luckily, imbedded in many Italian sentences about past events are certain words and phrases that will  indicate whether the imperfetto or the passato prossimo are necessary.  The intent of the speaker will be signaled by these phrases, which will then trigger use of the correct Italian past tense.

This post is the 59th in a series of Italian phrases we have been trying out in our Conversational Italian! Facebook group.  If you’d like to read the earlier posts in the series, “Italian Phrases We Use EVERY Day!” just click HERE

Many “commonly used phrases” in Italian

signal the intent of the speaker to use

the imperfetto or the  passato prossimo.

See below for how this works.

As we all master these phrases, so will you. Try my method and let me know how it works. What sentences will you create with these phrases?

Please reply. I’d love to hear from you! Or join our Conversational Italian! group discussion on Facebook.

The basics of the Italian language are introduced in the Conversational Italian for Travelers textbook and reference books Just the Verbs and Just the Grammar  

                       found on amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com.

The rights to purchase the Conversational Italian for Travelers books in PDF format on two electronic devices can also be obtained at Learn Travel Italian.com.

*The imperfetto is not used only with the passato prossimo. In fact, the imperfetto is the only past tense form that can be used in combination with every other Italian past tense — whether speaking about the recent past or the remote past.

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 Imperfetto
Adverbs and Phrases of Frequency

In a previous blog in this series, “Italian Phrases We Use EVERY Day! – Past Tense Imperfetto, we discussed that to make general statements about the past in Italian, or to describe a general state of being, one needs to master the imperfetto past tense. If you need a refresher on how to conjugate the imperfetto past tense, please visit the prior blog.  In this section, we will focus on phrases that trigger the use of the imperfetto past tense.

Italians often use the imperfetto to express an action that was done habitually in the past but is no longer being done.  Can you think of some things that might take place every day? For instance, reading the paper, going to school, going to work, and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner?  If you want to talk about how you’ve done these things in the past, use the imperfetto!

Sentences that use the imperfetto in this way are translated either into the simple present tense or as “used to” and often include an adverb of frequency. Several adverbs of frequency are listed in the following table, with examples to follow:

Italian Adverbs of Frequency

di solito usually/often times
spesso very often
quasi sempre almost always
sempre always

 

Di solito, io finivo la lezione all’una il lunedì.
Usually, I used to finish/finished the class at one o’clock on Mondays.

Quando ero piccolo, andavo a casa di mia nonna molto spesso.
When I was small, I went to my grandmother’s house very often.

Quasi sempre mi sentivo male quando viaggiavo in barca.
I almost always felt sick when I traveled by boat.

In short, if an adverb of frequency is part of an introductory phrase, this gives the sense of repetition  about an event in the past.  Therefore, the speaker is preparing the listener for the imperfetto!  Notice that in the last two examples,  the second verb in the sentence follows the intention of the first, and also uses the imperfetto. To sound like a native Italian, incorporate adverbs of frequency into your sentences with the imperfetto!

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Introductory Phrases for Repetitive Actions

There are, of course, many introductory phrases that give the same idea of repetition as the adverbs of frequency, and Italians make good use of these phrases.  Describe any general time of day, month, or year, and use the imperfetto! 

If one had a particular habit during the morning, he or she could say, “Di mattina…” Similarly, if a habitual action was done at night, the phrase, “Di notte…” can be used. Other repetitive actions might happen, “Tutte le mattine…”  or Tutte le notti…” for every morning” and every night.” Or perhaps, according to the season: d’ inverno, in primavera, d’estate, in autunno.

“Negli anni Settanta…” means, “In the seventies…”  or any nonspecific period of time during the years between 1970 and 1979. If one uses introductory phrases of this type, it is his or her intention to state that something was done habitually but during a nonspecific period of time. Of course, the word “habit” is left out of both the Italian sentence and the usual English translation but is be translated using “used to,” as noted above for the adverbs of frequency, to give this idea. The intention of the speaker is understood by his or her use of the imperfetto! 

For example:

Di mattina/Tutte le mattine… aiutavo mia mamma a preparare la prima colazione.
In the mornings/Every morning…   I helped/used to help my mother prepare breakfast.

Di notte/ Tutte le notti… facevo la doccia.
At night/Every night… I took/used to take a shower.

Or, perhaps one previously went to church every week.  Introduce this fact with, “La domenica…” Remember that when Italians place a definite article before any day of the week, it is their way of describing a recurring event on that day. “On Sundays…” means every week on Sunday.  You can even add an adverb of frequency for additional emphasis.

La domenica, andavo in chiesa spesso.
On Sundays, I used to go to church often.

Two often used introductory phrases, “Quando ero piccolo…”  and “C’era una volta…”  serve as a reminder that the imperfetto is the past tense of choice for description and narration.

“Quando ero piccolo…”  “When I was young…” was used in the first group of example sentences in this blog.  This phrase is usually followed by another verb in the imperfetto, as already noted, to follow the circumstances surrounding the event have been set up initially. This phrase also reinforces the idea that the imperfetto is used to describe a general state of being.

“C’era una volta…” translates as the nonspecific, “Once upon a time…” This phrase is a good way to remember the function of the imperfetto to recount imaginary tales, whether codified as a fairy tale or fable, a “tall tale” one has made up to impress others,  or a dream one has had at night. Since they are imaginary, of course these happenings don’t have a specific time frame in which to occur!

You will notice a common thread in the reasoning behind when to use the imperfetto:
use the imperfetto when making generalizations about the past.


 Passato Prossimo
Specific Periods of Time

The passato prossimo is used to describe past events that have been completed  within a specific time frame, including multiple events in succession. For multiple completed actions in succession, the most remote event is listed first, and then the events that follow are stated according to the time line in which they occurred.

Helpful words or phrases that introduce the passato prossimo often emphasize a specific time frame by giving the actual time period using dalle… alle… (from… to…) or implying an action of short duration, such as subito (right away), subito dopo (right after), or al improvviso (suddenly).

Certain verbs that describe actions of short duration, usually with a precise starting and ending point, are more commonly used with the passato prossimo than the imperfetto. Below is a list of several commonly used verbs of this type.

  1. Verbs of movement from one place to another:  andare (to go),  venire (to come), entrare (to enter), partire (to leave), etc.
  2. Verbs of beginning and ending: cominciare/iniziare (to start), finire (to finish), etc.
  3. Verbs that describe actions known to usually be of short duration: bussare (to knock, such as on the door), chiamare (to call), etc.
  4. Verbs of communication: chiedere/domandare (to ask), rispondere (to answer), etc.
  5. Changing emotions from one state to another: arrabbiarsi (to get angry), etc.

Let’s create a compound sentence using these verbs in the passato prossimo to describe a series of completed events in a sequence.

Marco è andato alla festa con Maria, dove loro hanno bevuto birra e mangiato una pizza, e dopo hanno ballato la loro canzone preferita.

Mark went to the party with Maria, where they drank beer and ate a pizza and after danced to their favorite song.

Note, however, that the list of verbs above is a general list and all of the verbs in this list can also be used with the imperfetto, depending on the circumstances and the intention of the speaker!  Take bussare, for instance.  Most times, a person would knock on the door once and wait for the door to be opened. This one time event, started and completed in a short time, would be described with the passato prossimo. For instance, we can imagine what happened in our last example when Mark went to pick up Mary prior to the party: 

Marco ha bussato alla porta e Maria è venuta subito ad aprire.
Mark knocked on the door and Mary came quickly to open (it).

Let’s create different circumstances for our story with Mark and Mary. Perhaps instead of having fun, Mark and Mary had an argument at the party and Mary left early. Mark decided to apologize and comes to Mary’s house and knocks continuously on the door to get her to open it. In this situation, remember the translation of the imperfetto as “was/were-ing” to describe and action that started in the past and continued for a nonspecific amount of time.

Below are example sentences from our hypothetical story that use the imperfetto to emphasize that Mark knocked on the door for an unusually long,  but nonspecific period of time. Note the addition of the adverb continuamente in this example sentence to reinforce the idea that the event took longer than usual.

Also the words “subito dopo” alert one to use the passato prossimo in the first phrase. The actions of becoming angry, going home, and opening a door are normally of short duration.

Maria si è arrabbiata con Marco e Maria è andata a casa.
Mary became angry with Mark and Mary went home. 

Subito dopo, Marco è andato a casa di Maria e poiché bussava alla porta
continuamente, Maria ha aperto.

Shortly after, Mark went to Mary’s house and seeing as how he was knocking on the door continuously, Maria opened it.

Now let’s look at the verb chiamare.  If we called someone once, we can use the passato prossimo. But if we called that person habitually, on a certain day or at a certain time, we need to use the imperfetto! Again, circumstances will determine the use of this verb. And by the use of the past tense, we in turn understand the intent of the speaker!

Ho chiamato mia mamma ieri sera.   I called my mother last night.
                                                     – but –
Chiamavo mia mamma ogni sera.     I used to call my mother every night.

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When Tutto Means “the Whole”

Another important point:  Don’t be confused by the use of tutto!

When used with nouns that refer to the days of the week, such as “tutti i giorni”  the meaning of tutti  is usually “every,” which implies repetition, and the imperfetto is the past tense of choice.

But tutto also means “the whole.” When the intent is to say “the whole” of a particular time period, we have given the time period a beginning and an end and then we need to use the passato prossimo!

Again, the circumstances the speaker is describing will determine the type of Italian past tense to use.  Often specific details about a time or place will be given to signal the intent to use tutto to mean “the whole” with the passato prossimo.

Tutte le mattine d’estate, andava al mare per fare il bagno.
Every morning during the summer, I used to go to the sea to swim.

– but –

Ho passato tutto la mattina, dalle nove a mezzogiorno a fare il bagno al mare.
I spent all morning, from 9 AM until noon, swimming at the seashore.

In fact, if we take any of the introductory phrases for repetitive actions given in the first section and change them to refer to a specific period of time, then we will need to use the passato prossimo! Let’s change “negli anni settanta” to make this phrase more specific:

Negli anni settanta portavo i jeans con il “bel bottoms.”
In the 1970s, I wore jeans with “bell bottoms.”

– but –

Per tutti gli anni settanta, ho portato i jeans con il “bel bottoms.”
For all of the 1970s, I wore jeans with “bell bottoms.”

Durante gli anni settanta, dal 1970 al 1974, sono andato all’Università.
During the 1970s, from 1970 to 1974, I went to college.

You will notice a common thread in the reasoning behind when to use the passato prossimo:
use the passato prossimo for a specific, time-limited activity.


Expressions of Time in the Past


The expressions of time in the past listed below add valuable information to a sentence. For instance, the adverb ieri can be used to modify a verb in the imperfetto to give a general reference about when an event occurred. “Sometime yesterday” is implied when the speaker chooses to pair ieri with the imperfetto.

Ieri can also be used with the passato prossimo, but in this case, a specific time of day is usually included in the sentence, given that the passato prossimo requires events to have taken place within a defined period of time. It is possible to use ieri alone with the passato prossimo, with the understanding that the defined period of time is “the entire day.”

The table below lists some common expressions of past time that use ieri (yesterday). Notice that ieri is invariable (the ending does not change) when modifying different times during the day.

Expressions of Time in the Past with Ieri

stamattina this morning
ieri yesterday
l’altro ieri the day before yesterday
ieri mattina
ieri pomeriggio
ieri sera
yesterday morning
yesterday afternoon
yesterday evening

The next table lists some common expressions of past time that use scorso (last). The ending for scorso changes to match the gender and number of the noun it modifies. Remember that the days of the week are not capitalized in Italian.

Expressions of Time in the Past with Scorso

scorso(a) last
la notte scorsa last night
la settimana scorsa last week
il mese scorso last month
l’anno scorso last year
   
lunedì scorso last Monday
martedì scorso last Tuesday
mercoledì scorso last Wednesday
giovedì scorso last Thursday
venerdì scorso last Friday
sabato scorso last Saturday
domenica scorsa last Sunday

Expressions such as “da tempo,” “da un’ora, “da due mesi,” “da un anno,” etc. are used mainly with the imperfetto to indicate the beginning of an ongoing activity that started in the past. The definition of the imperfetto in this case is was/were-ing. The passato prossimo can also be used with these expressions if the intent is to say that the activity has begun and also concluded during that period of time. However, the preposition per is more commonly used with the passato prossimo for an event that has concluded. See the examples below.

L’insegnante parlava da due ore e gli studenti erano stanchi.
The teacher was speaking for two hours and the students were tired.

L’insegnante ha parlato per due ore e finalmente ha permesso agli studenti di andare via.
The teacher spoke for two hours and finally let the students leave.


Era or È Stato?

Students of Italian commonly have difficulty deciding when to use the imperfetto and passato prossimo forms of essere. However, this is really not very complicated; the rule for choosing the correct form of essere is the same as for any other Italian verb! If the state of being described is not qualified with a specific time frame, use the imperfetto; if a specific time frame is referred to in the phrase, use the passato prossimo.

The imperfetto conjugation is: ero, eri, era, eravamo, eravate, erano. 

The passato prossimo conjugation is sono stato(a), sei stato(a), è stato(a), siamo stati(e), siete stati(e) and sono stati(e).

Some examples are below.

In the first example below, it is the intention of the speaker only to describe a state of happiness in the past — not when or for how long. This calls for the imperfetto form of essere. In the second example a time-limited reason is given, which is the speaker’s birthday, and the exact date is even listed. Of course, the specific date requires the speaker to use the passato prossimo.

Ero molto contento.
I was very happy.

– but –

Sono stato molto contento per il mio compleanno il 25 maggio scorso.
I was very happy on my birthday last May 25th.

Let’s look at two more similar situations rendered in two different ways in Italian with the imperfetto and the passato prossimo. In the first example below, the imperfetto is used to mean that generally, sometime during the day, the weather was nice. Perhaps the speaker was just trying to relay some general information. Or possibly,  the conversation would continue after giving this setting with the imperfetto and the speaker would describe a particular event or how the day made him or her feel. In the second example, it is understood that the speaker is talking about a fixed time that occurred during the day while he or she was attending a party. And, during that period of time, the speaker really enjoyed him/herself, as stated with the passato prossimo!

Era un bel giorno.
It was a beautiful day.

– but –

È stata una bella festa; mi sono molto divertito.
It was a wonderful party; I really enjoyed myself.


 

Imperfetto and Passato Prossimo
Combined

In the first two sections of this bog, we discussed phrases that signal when to use the imperfetto and when to use the passato prossimo.  We’ve also learned the rules to create a compound sentence with each past tense individually . Finally, it should also be noted that situations will arise that  require the use of both the imperfetto and the passato prossimo in one sentence. But don’t worry, there are general rules to follow to build these Italian sentences and the phrases themselves will also contain clues as to how to do this!

Below is a summary of this concept,
which will be discussed in more detail in the next blog in this series.

As a general rule, when creating a compound sentence in Italian, use the imperfetto to describe the setting. Start the imperfetto phrase with mentre (while) if you like, or just refer to the general time or the weather, or to an action without giving a specific time frame. This is often, but not always, the first phrase.

Then, describe the completed action with the passato prossimo. See the second section of this blog for a short list of verbs often used to describe completed actions. If mentre is not used in the introductory phrase, use quando (when) with the phrase in the passato prossimo. This is often, but not always, the second phrase.

Important note:

  Mentre is always used with the imperfetto!

Therefore, when you start a phrase with mentre, you must use the imperfetto for the verb in that phrase! 

Quando can be used with either the imperfetto or the passato prossimo phrase.  Quando often introduces the passato prossimo phrase in a compound sentence when mentre is omitted.

Three examples that combine the imperfetto and passato prossimo in one sentence are below.

Mentre io ero in vacanza in Italia,
il mio capo di lavoro mi ha telefonato per parlare di un problema importante.

While I was on vacation in Italy, 
my boss telephoned to talk about an important problem.

Mentre guardavo il mio programma preferito in TV, mia mamma ha finito di prepare la cena.
While I was watching my favorite program on TV, my mother finished preparing dinner.

C’era sole quando Maria è venuta a trovarci a Roma.
It was sunny when Mary came to visit us in Rome.

As a final note: we have already combined the imperfetto and passato prossimo in several examples in the first two sections. Can you find these examples?

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Remember how to talk about the past using
the
Italian imperfetto and the passato prossimo
and I guarantee
you will use the Italian past tense every day!

Conversational Italian for Travelers “Just the Verbs”

   Available on amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com

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