This is an altered extract from my new language hackers' guide, Why Italian is Easy. Want to hack Italian so you can learn it fast? Find out more at the end of this post.
(Thanks to Transparent Language for the examples used in this post!)
Confused by the past tenses in Italian?
There are two main ways to talk about the past in Italian: the “passato prossimo” (perfect past tense) and the “imperfetto” (imperfect tense). But how do you know which one to use?
The perfect past tense (not to be confused with the “past perfect” tense), is something like saying “I have eaten” in English. It's got that extra “have” (in Italian, it can also have an extra “to be”) and some form of the action word. In Italian, I ate / I have eaten would be “ho mangiato“.
The imperfect tense, on the other hand, is more like “I was eating” and in Italian is just one word, such as “mangiavo“.
Most grammar books explain this in complex ways, but let’s try to see if we can find a shortcut to decide when to use each form!
As a general rule, when in doubt, use the perfect past tense (avere / essere + “participle” of the action word). If you guess wrong, don’t worry – you won’t have Italians scratching their heads in confusion. Because these two forms are essentially like the difference between “I ate” and “I was eating” in English, they are just as understandable as one another. It’s just that one is more grammatically correct than the other. Don't get too intimidated by this – perfectionism is your enemy!
Constructing the Italian Imperfect Past Tense
Constructing the “perfect past” tense in Italian is something I won't get into here (I explore it more depth in my guide, Why Italian is Easy).
But I will show you how to construct the imperfect past tense in a simple way.
For most verbs, just look up the infinitive form in the dictionary, then just remove the -re from the dictionary (infinitive) form and replace it with:
- -vo for “I”
- -vi for “you”
- -va for “he”/ “she” / “it” / “you (polite)”
- -vamo for “we”
- -vate for “you” plural, and
- -vano for “they”
This works with all regular verbs.
That's it! There are a few rare exceptions (the most important is ero, eri… the imperfect past tense of “to be”), but that one explanation will cover most situations for you.
When to Use the Imperfect Past Tense in Italian
The perfect past tense is the “default” to use when in doubt. You should only use the imperfect past tense when:
- Describing the ongoing state of objects, places or people in the past. Examples: da piccola avevo i capelli ricci (“when I was a child I used to have curly hair”), era un uomo coraggioso (“he was a brave man”), or la macchina era arrugginita (“the car was rusty”).
- You could add a “used to” or “would” in English to imply consistency in the past, then it’s more likely you will use the imperfect past tense in Italian. Examples: ogni martedì ci incontravamo al bar (“every Tuesday we used to meet at the bar”), or correva alla porta ogni volta che suonava il campanello (“he would run to the door every time that the bell rang”).
- Describing how a person was feeling or thinking in the past. Examples: aveva sonno (“she was sleepy”), gli faceva male la testa (“he had a headache”), or eravamo tristi (“we were sad”).
- Discussing two things happening at the same time, while an “interrupting” event uses the perfect past
tense, an ongoing event uses the imperfect past tense. Example: mentre guardavo la tv è suonato il telefono (“while I was watching the TV, the phone rang”).
There are other times when you’ll need to use the past tense, but these four points will cover you in most situations.
There's no need to feel intimidated by learning Italian!
This blog post is an extract from my language hacking guide, Why Italian is Easy. Pick up your own copy here.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.