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So by now you know that you typically use the l’imperfetto (the imperfecttense) in Italian to describe things that habitually happened in the past and you use the passato prossimo (past tense) to describe an action that happened at a specific point in time in the past.
But I bet you’ve gone out and tried to apply those rules and realized that you keep getting corrected to use one tense or the other, which is such a bummer when you thought you knew what you were talking about.
Here’s the good news (or the bad news depending on your perspective):
You might not ever know what you’re talking about.
And that’s okay!
Because we’re not in this game to be right. We’re in this game to have a good time, to experience Italy and to love love love how much pasta we eat.
But, if you do want to be wrong less often (because yes, it’s more comfortable this way), I’ve put together a little guide to help you discern when to use both tenses.
Need to refresh your memory on the imperfect tense? Read this article.
Need to refresh your memory on the past tense? Read this article.
Oh, and to make you feel better, Italians learning English have the same problem with choosing past tenses.
The way of the world, I suppose.
Most obvious differences
— The past tense uses 2 parts – You choose Essere or Avere to connect to the verb you want to express in the past. (Ho mangiato la pasta. – I ate the pasta.)
— The imperfect tense ends in vo’s and the past tense ends in a mixture of to’s and so’s.
— The imperfect tense does not use any helping verbs like Essere or Avere.
— You use the imperfect tense to describe the weather or the time in the past.
— You use the imperfect tense to describe how a person was feeling or thinking in the past
— An action that someone was doing while another action had been completed or was still happening (Eating while she left)
— You use the past tense to talk about an action that happened in the past that has been completed.
Less obvious differences
— Some verbs in Italian change meaning when they’re in the imperfect tense or the past tense.
A tutor on Italki, Maria, said:
“Attenzione ad alcuni verbi che in italiano cambiano significato se sono usati all’imperfetto o al passato prossimo!”
Be careful of some verbs in Italian that change meaning if they’re used in the imperfect or past tense!
Per esempio – Sapere
In the present tense, sapere means to know how to do something, to have knowledge of something, or to be able to do something.
— Abbiamo saputo – We found out, we heard (I imagine this as the gossipy one)
— Sapevamo – We knew
And what’s lovely is that they’re friendly enough to exist together in the same sentence.
— Ho saputo che sapeva la verità. – I found out that she knew the truth.
— Purtroppo, abbiamo saputo che non è andata così fino in fondo. – Unfortunately we found out that it didn’t go that way in the end.
— Sapevo, soprattutto, che non dovevo innamorarmi di un uomo sposato. – I knew, above all, that I should not fall in love with a married man.
— Ho voluto – I wanted
— Volevo – I wanted
— Ho voluto parlarti stamattina. – I wanted to talk to you this morning (but I was not able to)
— Volevo parlarti stamattina. – I wanted to talk to you this morning (and I may have/may have not succeeded)
— Ho avuto la reazione che volevo e lo spirito è stato incredibile. – I got the reaction that I wanted and the spirit/energy was incredible. [source]
— Ma io non ho voluto andarci, mica c’era qualcosa da chiarire. – But I did’t want to go there as there was not anything at all to clarify. [source]
This one gets kind of confusing, so pay extra close attention.
Hanno potuto – They could [in the past without referencing a specific period of time]
Potevano – They could [in the past referencing a specific period of time]
Italians prefer using the passato prossimo with potere when using a negative context, like you weren’t able to do something and the consequences of that are still affecting you in the present.
You would use l’imperfetto with potere in a negative or positive context and gives the connotation that whatever you were/weren’t able to do in the past wasn’t a matter of ability but of choice AND the consequences that came from those choices stayed in the past and no longer affect you.
HOWEVER, within certain contexts this could surely change.
— Potevo fare di meglio – I could do it better (and I made the choice not to do it better) [source]
— Non ho potuto fare di meglio – I couldn’t do it better (I tried to make it better, but I couldn’t succeed) [source]
— E quando mi è arrivata la proposta non ho potuto dire di no. – And when I received the proposal, I couldn’t say no.
— Potevano però continuare a guardare il paesaggio fuori dalla finestra. – They could, however, continue to look at the view from the window.
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