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Imperfetto vs Passato Prossimo (pt.2)

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

The Italian language offers a wide variety of tenses, aspects, and 'modi', but sometimes you have to deal with two past tense forms at the same time! In this article, we are going to talk about how to integrate the 'passato prossimo' with the use of the 'imperfetto'.

In the previous article, we looked at the functions of the 'imperfetto' starting from this short story :

C'era una volta un ragazzo italiano che passeggiava su una spiaggia inglese. Il tempo era abbastanza brutto e lui era un tipo freddoloso, ma nonostante tutto ha deciso di comprare un cono gelato. Mentre era in fila ha incontrato un suo vecchio amico. I due andavano insieme a scuola in Italia e adesso vivono entrambi in Inghilterra.


Once upon a time, an Italian guy was walking on a beach in England. The weather was quite bad, and generally he was a person sensitive to cold, but even though he decided to buy a cone of ice cream. While he was queuing, he met an old friend. The two used to be schoolmates in Italy, and now they both live in England. [Eng.]

The end.

Looking at the story, it is clear that the verbs 'decidere' and 'incontrare' are used in their 'passato prossimo' form, while the main tense used is the 'imperfetto'. The story is about an event in the past so it makes sense to use past tense forms but how?

The 'passato prossimo' is a tense used to describe actions or events that happened in the past, concluded at the time of speaking.

This general description is overall clear but, in this case, it doesn't help us to distinguish it from the 'imperfetto'. From what we know, even the events described with the imperfetto are concluded at the time of speaking.

From a syntactic standpoint, both 'ha deciso' and 'ha incontrato' share the same subject 'lui' / 'il ragazzo italiano', and are presented along the 'imperfetto' in the same sentence. The difference between the two verbs regards what in English we consider as the 'aspect'. The length of the action described. As we already saw, the 'imperfetto' describe an ongoing action, still in progress, while the 'passato prossimo' captures a single moment. To avoid a purely technical explanation let's try to use a couple of examples.

A photography I love photography, and I still use film cameras! One nice aspect of it is that once you take a picture you can't go back. Using the 'passato prossimo' is like taking a picture of a moment. If I tell you a story using the imperfetto, I'm describing a situation as if it was alive but if a drop in a verb in its 'passato prossimo' form I will frame a still moment.

e.g. Era la festa di compleanno di Giovanni, lui ha tagliato la torta. The 'ha tagliato la torta' describes a well defined moment within the story, while the 'festa' was ideally still going on!

Another way to understand better that function, is with the example of 'the stone in the puddle' :

Imagine you throw a stone into a quiet puddle. You will get waves moving from the stone to the sides of the puddle. The imperfetto works just like that. You tell a story (you start the waves) and the events progress smoothly in the past. But if you use a verb in its 'passato prossimo' form you will stop that flow and 'create' like an obstacle in the puddle.

When we use the passato prossimo in a story to describe a still moment, something that interrupts the flow of the story, perhaps a turning point! e.g. Mentre era in fila ha incontrato un suo vecchio amico.

I hope this article helped you to understand how to use the imperfetto and the passato prossimo together! If you want to learn more follow us on Instagram at 'Next Stop Italian'

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