Note from Cher: This article is MUCH more detailed than the types of articles we usually publish, and that’s on purpose. The topic that Kevin covers here is really complex, and it causes a lot of students grief. That’s why I like having an alternative perspective explain it and while it might not work for everyone, it may help a more analytical, detail-oriented student finally have his ‘a-ha’ moment.
If you’ve started digging into tenses in Italian, you may have been surprised to hear that there’s more than one past tense that you have to know how to conjugate for and use properly.
Two of these past tenses, known as the passato prossimo and the imperfetto, are extremely common in everyday conversation. Perhaps even worse, these tenses frequently appear alongside each other—often in the exact same sentence!
This means that to speak Italian well, you can’t just limit yourself to learning how each works individually. You’ll also have to learn which tense to use when, and how to make them play nice with one another.
Comunque, non vi preoccupate!
Today, I bring you a simple mental and visual metaphor that will help you conceptualize the roles that the passato prossimo and imperfetto can play in past-tense sentences in Italian.
Put Everything You’ve Done In a Box
Okay, so let’s start simple, with a short sentence in the present tense:
“Io mangio una mela.”
Word for word, that means ‘I eat an apple’.
It means that you, (whoever you are) are in the act of consuming a certain delicious red, green, or yellow fruit. You’re eating an apple, and you’re doing it right NOW.
Let’s say you finish your apple. Assuming the fruit in your possession wasn’t bite-sized, the entire action of consuming the apple probably took you at least a few minutes.
For argument’s sake, let’s say it took you five minutes to get the whole thing done and over with. If you were to record what you were doing every minute of those five, your notes would read something like this:
- Monday, 12:00 PM – I begin eating an apple.
- Monday, 12:01 PM – I am eating the apple.
- Monday, 12:02 PM – I am eating the apple.
- Monday, 12:03 PM – I am eating the apple (and also the phone just rang)
- Monday, 12:04 PM – I am eating the apple.
- Monday, 12:05 PM – I finish eating the apple.
These notes represent your minute-by-minute memory of a single event (eating an apple).
Now that you’re done eating the apple (as evidenced by your last note), you can put your notes away, so that you can refer to them later from memory.
So you take the notes and throw them in a box. This box represents the entire, completed event that happened on that Monday from 12:00-12:05 PM.
Completed Boxes Get Passato Prossimo Labels
But now you need a label for it, so you know what it contains. You grab a big marker, and think about what you should write.
Since the entire event is now in the past, you can’t write “Io mangio una mela” anymore. That’s present tense, and won’t be appropriate here.
So, you follow the steps for forming the passato prossimo, and you label the box with: “Io ho mangiato una mela”
Now that the event is complete, and neatly labeled with a box, we can store it somewhere in a dusty corner of your memory. If you ever need to refer back to it (say, in the middle of a culinary conversation with your friends with Firenze), you can just dust it off, and read the label on the box (“Io ho mangiato una mela”)
Just by using the passato prossimo, you convey that:
- You’re talking about an event.
- The event is completed.
- You’re not concerned with the anything that happened during the event (the notes inside the box), just the event as a whole (the box itself).
And this works. The passato prossimo is a great way to slap a big, unifying label on an event (or series of events) without having to worry about things that occured during those events, or at the same time.
Inside the Box, Use the Imperfetto
But what if you don’t want to be general? What if you want to talk about that time you ate your apple, but specifically want to talk about something else that happened while you were eating it (perhaps at 12:03)?
In that case, we have to make use of another tense, called the imperfect, or imperfetto.
The imperfetto is the tense that is used when you:
- Describe a past event while it was still ongoing (before it was put in a box)
- When I was young… (Quando ero giovane…)
- Describe a past event that occurred one or more times within another past event (smaller boxes inside a bigger box).
- I often went to the park on Mondays (Andavo spesso al parco Il lunedì)
- Describe a past event that was never resolved (notes that never got a box)
- I wanted to go there, but I didn’t manage it (Volevo andarci, ma non sono riuscito)
Back to our apple example, if you talk about something that happened at 12:03, you’d have to open up the box and jump inside.
Once inside the box, we can no longer refer to our apple-eating using the passato prossimo (the outside label). This is because inside the box, if we look at the events of 12:03, you’re still eating the apple, and have not yet finished it.
Here, you must describe the event using the imperfetto, resulting in:
“Mangiavo una mela” (I was eating an apple).
Nesting Boxes Inside of Boxes
But we can’t stop there,not in this case. If you look at the original notes for 12:03, you see what while you were eating the apple, another event occured: the phone rang!
The phone ringing at 12:03, as far as we’re concerned, is a completed event. It wasn’t ringing at 12:02, and likewise was not at 12:04. It started, finished, and ended within sixty seconds.
What does that mean? The phone-ringing event gets its very own closed box, complete with a passato prossimo label:
“È suonato il telefono”
Since the closed box of phone-ringing exists inside the open-box of apple-eating, we can connect the two, even though we’re using completely different tenses. In English, this happens with the word “while”, in Italian, the word is “mentre.”
Mentre mangiavo una mela, è suonato il telefono. – While I was eating an apple, the phone rang.
The purpose of this “box model” is show you how it is possible to use both the passato prossimo and the imperfetto to refer to the same past events in different ways.
The passato prossimo, again, is always used to label “closed boxes,” or events that have had a beginning, middle, and end.
- I walked to school yesterday. – Ieri ho camminato a scuola.
- Last year, I wrote a book. – L’anno scorso ho scritto un libro.
When you open up a closed-box event, and want to talk about smaller events that happened within that time period, the larger event uses the imperfetto, while the smaller events retain closed-box status.
- When I was walking to school yesterday, I saw a big dog. – Ieri, mentre camminavo a scuola, ho visto un grosso cane.
- While I was writing my book, my computer broke. – Mentre scrivevo il mio libro, il mio computer si è rotto.
When using the past tense in Italian, just remember that:
- Completed events in the past are like “boxes” that can contain other boxes.
- If you’re referring to a single event without looking inside it’s “box”, use the passato prossimo.
- If you’re opening that event’s “box” to look at the other events/boxes inside, use the imperfetto for the larger, open box, and the passato prossimo for the smaller, closed boxes inside.
If you can do all that, then you’ll quickly get used to handling the complex dance of past tenses that can often occur when speaking Italian.