Italian language: How to deal with the past ... in future conversations

Oct 20, 2018 141

Today we are going to talk about one of the most confusing verb topics for English speakers. Ok, no it’s not the congiuntivo yet, so maybe the second most confusing: the past! In this article, we are going to mainly talk about two main tenses: passato prossimo and imperfetto. 

Let’s see how we form them. Passato prossimo is a compound tense which means that is made up of an auxiliary ­– if you don’t remember which ones they are in Italian and how to use them (hint: avere and essere), you can go back to the April 2018 issue of the magazine and read about the topic! – and the past participle of the verb, for example ho mangiato, è andato, and abbiamo cantato are “to eat,” “to go,” and “to sing” at passato prossimo

Imperfetto is a simple tense, and you simply have to learn the conjugation. As you might know already, verbs in Italian are divided by endings. We have verbs that end in –are, –ere, and –ire. The imperfetto verbs that end in –are have the following endings: -avo, -avi, -ava, -avamo, -avate, -avano. So for example, parlare – to speak – becomes: io parlavo, tu parlavi, lui parlava, noi parlavamo, voi parlavate, loro parlavano. Verbs that end in –ere go like this: -evo, -evi, -eva, -evamo, -evate, -evano. And verbs that end in –ire like this: -ivo, -ivi, -iva, -ivamo, -ivate, -ivano. So for example, parlare, vendere, and dormire become: parlavo, vendevo, dormivo. The so-called thematic value keeps showing up, and thats how I suggest you remember the endings: the imperfetto -are always wants and “a,” -ere always wants and “e,” and -ire always wants and “i.” 

Ok, let’s leave all this boring stuff behind and let’s look at the real confusing aspect: when to use one or the other. I’ll give you first the book definition and use, then what I found out works 90% of the times – and it will probably make most language teachers cringe. Let’s start with passato prossimo. This past is used when speaking about something in the past that probably happened only once, which means when you tell me what happened yesterday, last month, or last year. It’s tricky because in English you mostly use both past simple and past perfect, but that’s the trick and it makes it easier when you think that it mostly corresponds to those two tenses in English. Did you finish all your homework yesterday? Hai finito tutti i compiti ieri? Have you finished your homework? Hai finito i compiti? In Italian it is the exact same tense, we don’t differentiate. Passato prossimo is used for specific past actions, something that didn’t last long, something that you usually just tell as something that happened as I said before. “Yesterday I ran a bit” becomes Ieri ho corso un pochino and “I ate a delicious pizza at that restaurant” becomes Ho mangiato una pizza buonissima in quel ristorante. 

Imperfetto has a bit more diverse uses. The most common is for habits in the past. Basically when in English people use “used to.” Andavo a mangiare dalla nonna tutte le domeniche translates to “I used to go to Granny’s for lunch every Sunday.” Yup, that’s it. If you say “used to” in English, use imperfetto in Italian. Then, kind of on the same line, it is used for something that repeats in the past: faceva delle torte buonissime translates to “she made delicious cakes over and over.” I don’t know what you would personally use in English to say the same thing, but you could use “used to” here as well. So rule number one still applies. And then for something that happened maybe once in the past but for a long time, you really want to stress the fact that it lasted for a long while: ieri faceva freddo means that yesterday it was cold, but it stresses the fact that it was for the entire day or at least most of it. 

But how to use them together? Well, if you ask my high school teacher she would respond that imperfetto is for background actions and passato prossimo for punctual actions, which simply means that one is used for portraying what was happening before what I really want to tell you happens. Imagine a movie where you have a narrator describing what was going on like in a flashback: it was a beautiful day in the park, the birds were singing, and the old man was feeding the cats. Or simply the camera focusing on all those things happening at the same time. That’s when you use imperfetto! That’s why ­– at least in my mindset – it is called background tense, because it describes the background actions like in a movie. When finally, the main character appeared and did things: when Jack met Sally and they talked for the first time. That’s when you use passato prossimo! That’s what we really want to tell about the story. Now, do you notice anything? Yes! For narrations, when in Italian we use imperfetto you are most likely to find past continuous in English and when we use passato prossimo you are most likely to find a simple past. If you understand this, you’ll rock storytelling in Italian. 

Two actions, one interrupts the other, the classic “I was cooking when the phone rang” becomes stavo cucinando/cucinavo quando è suonato il telefono. One thing to notice is that in those cases Italians really like to use the form stare + gerundio instead of the proper imperfetto form of the tense, but you still have to put the verb stare into the imperfetto! Two actions happening at the same time: “Matt was cooking while I was studying” is Matteo stava cucinando/cucinanva mentre io stavo studiando/studiavo. A list of things you did? “I cleaned, I studied, and I ran” or ho pulito, ho studiato e ho corso. Easy peasy. Simple past? Passato prossimo. Past continuous? Imperfetto

There are two main differences between Italian and English: in Italian the imperfetto is also used for states of being of the past. For example, if you are describing your childhood and saying “I had blond hair and I was a little chubby” in Italian you would use imperfetto: avevo i capelli biondi/ero biondo ed ero un po’ grassottello. You can say ho avuto i capelli biondi instead of avevo I capelli biondi but it means that you simply had blond hair for a short time, like a month or so, and most likely because you dyed it or due to the sun or something similar. It does not mean that from when you were born to when you were ten years old you were blond. 

The other difference, I believe, exists just to confuse non-native speakers. In fact, Italians sometimes use imperfetto when narrating. For all the actions types. Not caring at all if it’s a background action or not. Why? I told you, just to confuse you, and for sure not to make it more simple for you. Anyway, you’ll find it mostly in books as a narrative tool primarily. So don’t confuse yourself by trying to use it. It is best to learn the difference between imperfetto and passato prossimo and the two tenses at their regular form because you won’t get away with thinking “I’ll always use the imperfetto and it will be fine” – unfortunately for you. 

So, avevi i capelli biondi quando eri piccolo? Or hai avuto i capelli biondi? Well, fortunately I had neither things, so the problem is solved for me!

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