Navigating Past Tenses in Italian: When to Use Imperfetto and Passato Prossimo

Are you struggling with choosing between passato prossimo and imperfetto in Italian? Don’t worry. You’re not alone. It can be frustrating to navigate these two past tenses, especially if your native language doesn’t make a clear distinction. Let’s shed some light on this topic.

When you learn Italian, understanding the difference between passato prossimo and imperfetto is crucial for effectively conveying a range of past events. Mastering these tenses enhances your language skills and storytelling abilities by accurately expressing the nuances of past actions and situations. By learning to distinguish between them, you can ensure your Italian narratives are not only grammatically correct but also rich in detail and context. 

In our upcoming blog post, we will explain the key difference between imperfetto and passato prossimo, so that you can more easily understand when to use one tense or the other. We’ll provide real life examples of the difference between the two, and practical tips. Get prepared to discover how to effectively express past events in the Italian language.

A beginner’s guide to passato prossimo vs imperfetto. What is the difference?

Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto (or imperfect tense) are two past tenses in Italian that can sometimes be tricky to differentiate. If your first language is English, this aspect of Italian grammar can be particularly frustrating. Let’s break it down for you:

Passato Prossimo is used to talk about completed actions that started and ended at a specific time in the past. For example, “Ho mangiato una pizza” (I ate a pizza). It is formed by combining an auxiliary verb (either “avere” or “essere”) with the past participle of the main verb. For example, “Sono andato” (I went).

Imperfetto, on the other hand, is used to describe ongoing or repeated actions in the past, to set the scene or background of a story, or to talk about a state of being or feeling in the past, sometimes without a specific time frame. An example of imperfetto could be “Quando ero piccola, facevo lunghe passeggiate in campagna ogni giorno” (When I was little, I used to have long walks in the countryside every day”.

To conjugate regular verbs in the imperfetto, you typically drop the -are, -ere, or -ire endings and add specific endings depending on the subject pronoun. For example, for the verb “parlare” (to speak), the imperfetto conjugation for “io” (I) would be “parlavo” (I was speaking/I used to speak). Similarly, for “scrivere” (to write), the imperfetto conjugation for “tu” (you) would be “scrivevi” (you were writing/you used to write).

In a nutshell, understanding when to use each tense depends on the nature of the action – passato prossimo for a definite event and imperfetto for background or continuous actions. This distinction can be particularly tricky for English speakers, and we’ll dig deeper into the reasons below. Keep reading to find out more!

Why Are Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto So Confusing for English Speakers?

English speakers often find it challenging to differentiate between the passato prossimo and imperfetto in Italian, because the English language doesn’t always distinguish between these two tenses.

Whilst in Italian, passato prossimo and imperfetto serve two distinct purposes in terms of expressing the quality or modality of an action, English tends to rely more on the present perfect for various situations.

We’ll demonstrate this with a few examples.

Take the following story using the simple past tense in English: “yesterday I saw the black cat in the garden, so I walked across the lawn and gave him some food”.

Since these tenses all reflect actions that are completed and happened at a specific point in the past, they are all rendered in the passato prossimo in Italian: “Ieri ho visto il gatto nero nel giardino, all’ora ho attraversato il prato e gli ho dato del cibo”.

In these examples, we see that the simple past tense in English maps straight onto the passato prossimo in Italian. However, take the phrase in English “when I was little, I walked to school each day”.

Although this uses the simple past tense in English, it would be rendered into Italian with imperfetto, not passato prossimo, because it talks about an action that used to happen repeatedly in the past, in other words, routine: “Quando ero piccola andavo a scuola a piedi tutti i giorni”.

So, when trying to differentiate between the Italian verb tenses “imperfetto” and “passato prossimo,” relying solely on English verb tenses can be misleading and lead to mistakes. Instead, it’s more effective to understand the specific qualities that each tense conveys about an action.

When trying to differentiate between the Italian verb tenses imperfetto and passato prossimo, relying solely on English verb tenses can be misleading and lead to mistakes. Instead, it’s more effective to understand the specific qualities that each tense conveys about an action.

To achieve this, it’s best to steer away from leaning too heavily on English and focus on how imperfetto and passato prossimo differently describe the quality of an action. Concrete examples are particularly helpful in mastering this distinction, so stay tuned for more details.

When to use Passato Prossimo? The rules and some examples

In mastering the passato prossimo tense in Italian, grasping its rules is crucial. This knowledge will enhance your comprehension of how this tense functions and gradually improve your ability to employ the passato prossimo accurately. Below, we will outline the principles governing the usage of passato prossimo.

Use the passato prossimo:

1) To express actions that occurred at a definite point in the past and are seen as completed

An example of this could be “La settimana scorsa sono stato a fare la spesa per tutto il mese” (“Last week I went to do the shopping for the whole month”)

2) To express actions that have relevance to the present moment (or are still true to this day)

For example: “Il rosa è stato sempre il colore preferito” (“Pink has always been my favourite colour”)

3) To express actions which happened in succession in the past, without the need to specify an exact length of time or duration.

For example: “Ieri mattina si è alzato, si è fatto la doccia, ha fatto colazione ed è uscito” (“Yesterday morning he got up, had a shower, had breakfast and went out”)

4) With modal verbs (volere, potere and dovere) and also the verb “sapere” when it means “to be able to”, when there is a certain outcome to the action

For example, “Ieri ho dovuto comprare una nuova bottiglia di olio” (“Yesterday I had to buy a new bottle of oil”) or “non sono potuta andare” (“I wasn’t able to go”) or “non hanno saputo gestire la situazione” (“They weren’t able to manage the situation”)

As you can see from the examples below, passato prossimo can correspond to simple past tense or present perfect in English:

  • Ieri sono andata al supermercato – Yesterday I went to the supermarket
  • Hanno parlato al telefono per ore – They spoke on the phone for hours
  • Hai lavato i piatti? – Have you washed the dishes?
  • Dove sei stato? – Where have you been?
  • Penso che ho perso le mie chiavi – I think I’ve lost my keys
  • Mia madre mi ha comprato un vestito – My mum bought me a dress
  • Ha vissuto in Emilia Romagna tutta la vita – He/ she has lived in Emilia Romagna all his/ her life

When to use imperfetto? The rules and some examples

When it comes to using the imperfetto tense in Italian, understanding its rules is important, as it will help you understand the function of this tense and, over time, you’ll become more able to use the imperfetto within the appropriate context.

We’ll detail the rules around the usage of imperfetto below:

1) To describe ongoing or repeated actions in the past, such as things that used to happen or were routine in the past

For example “quando ero piu’ giovane, mangiavo continuamente cose dolci” (“when I was younger, I used to constantly eat sweet things”.

2) To set the scene, or provide background information, for an action that happened at an unspecified (or loosely specified) time in the past.

For example: “quell’estate faceva molto caldo, e quindi la gente rimaneva in casa” (it was very hot that summer, so people stayed at home”.

3) To describe characteristics or mental states of people or things in the past tense

For example: “mia nonna aveva un grande senso dell’umorismo” (“My grandma had a great sense of humor” or “mia madre era molto protettiva” (“My mum was very protective”) or “avevo dieci anni quando ci siamo trasferiti” (I was ten years old when we moved”) This latter use can also be thought of as describing a state of being in the past, or describing how things or people were in the past. As such, the timing of that action is unspecified or irrelevant.

4) For actions which happened at the same time at a specific point in the past, often introduced by time expressions such “mentre” (whilst).

For example: “Ieri sera abbiamo fatto la pasta con le verdure. Mentre io tagliavo le verdure, il mio amico cuoceva la pasta”. (Yesterday evening we made past and vegetables. Whilst I was cutting the vegetables, my friend was cooking the pasta)

5) For an ongoing (or background) action which gets interrupted by an intervening action at one specific point in time

For example, “mentre facevo la doccia, ha suonato il campanello” (“While I was having a shower, the doorbell rang”)

6) In the case of modal verbs (volere, potere, dovere) as well as “sapere” (when it means “to be able to”) when the result of an action is uncertain or “floating”, with an unspecified outcome

For example “ciao, volevo sapere se hai un po’ di tempo stasera dopo il lavoro”(“Hi, I wanted to know if you have some time this evening after work”).

Sometimes, if we use imperfetto in this way, we can add extra information to clarify whether the outcome did happen or not. For example “Ieri c’è stato un incidente e non sapevo come gestire la situazione” (there was an accident yesterday, and I didn’t know how to manage the situation” or “ieri mattina volevamo andare in spiaggia ma dopo ha piovuto e allora non siamo piu’ andati” (yesteday morning we wanted to go to the beach, but it rained, and so we didn’t go in the end”).

It’s worth noting that the imperfetto used in this way reflects a “state of being” or “mindset” in the past, “I wanted to know…” can be read as “I was in a state of wanting to know”, or “I didn’t know how to manage” (I was in a state of un-knowing”).

In general, actions in the imperfetto come across as more indefinite or “floating” in time, which is why they often reflect feelings, intentions, states of being, states of mind and habits.

As we said earlier, examples are crucial for your understanding of how the imperfetto and passato prossimo are used in Italian. Let’s look at a table of examples around the usage of the imperfetto tense, with translations and details of which rules they fall under:

ItalianEnglishGrammar rule
Quando ero giovane giocavo a Tennis I played tennis when I was youngOngoing or repeated action in the past
Mentre era una studentessa, lavorava come camerierawhilst she was a student she worked as a waitressOngoing or repeated action in the past
Quando eri piccolo/a, andavi in chiesa?Did you go to church as a child?Ongoing or repeated action in the past
Mentre ero nella doccia, il telefono ha suonatoWhilst I was in the shower, the phone rangBackground action interrupted by an intervening action
Mia mamma era una ballerinaMy mum used to be a ballerinaDescribe characteristics, or mental states, of people or things in the past tense
Mi dispiace, non volevosorry, I didn’t mean toDescribe characteristics, or mental states, of people or things in the past tense
Era una bellissima giornata, e il sole splendevait was a lovely day, and the sun was shiningSet the scene/ provide background information
Quando non c’erano i cellulari, le persone usavano le lettere per comunicareWhen mobile phones didn’t exist, people used letters to communicateSet the scene/ provide background information
Table containing Italian phrases which use the imperfetto, their translation into English and grammar rules for use of imperfetto in Italian.

As you can see from these examples, imperfetto can correspond to simple past tense or present perfect in English, as well as expressions like “used to” and past continuous, such as “I was having a shower”, in the case when it portrays an ongoing action which gets interrupted by an intervening action).

How do you mix passato prossimo and imperfetto when speaking Italian?

The imperfetto and passato prossimo tenses can work hand in hand to add depth and nuance to describing actions in the past.

Imperfetto sets the stage, and is used to describe actions that were unfolding or habits that characterized a certain period. On the other hand, passato prossimo steps in to pinpoint singular, finished actions. Mastering these two past tenses allows you to craft vivid and accurate accounts of the past in Italian, and to convey different qualities and aspects of an action in the past.

Consider this brief story which uses both passato prossimo and imperfetto. Reflect on each tense. Why was it used in each particular case?

Domenica scorsa era una giornata bellissima. Volevo tanto andare in spiaggia ma invece ho deciso di rimanere a casa e studiare perche’ mancavano solo pochi giorni per l’esame. Dopo circa due ore, mentre studiavo, è squillato il telefono. Era la mia amica, che mi ha chiesto se volevo uscire per fare una passeggiata. Ho deciso di andare e abbiamo passato il pomeriggio al parco, quindi alla fine non ho studiato comunque!

Last Sunday was a beautiful day. I really wanted to go to the beach but, instead, I decided to stay at home and study, because the exam was only a few days away. After about two hours, whilst I was studying, the phone rang. It was my friend, who asked me if I wanted to go out for a walk. I decided to go, and we spent the afternoon in the park, so in the end I didn’t study anyway!


Mastering the intricacies of Italian past tenses, particularly the distinction between passato prossimo and imperfetto, is essential for fluently narrating past events.

Passato prossimo highlights specific completed actions, akin to snapshots of the past, while imperfetto paints a broader canvas of ongoing or habitual actions, setting the stage for storytelling.

By understanding when to use each tense, you can accurately convey the timeline and nuances of past events in Italian conversations or writing.