Present Perfect Tense VS Imperfect in Italian
I’m Dalila, Italian L2 / LS teacher in ELLCI Milan. Italian is my passion since the first grade when my dear teacher Francesca taught me the beauty of words in all its forms.
Today we will talk about the difference between the present perfect tense Italian and imperfect tense in Italian, which, as stated at a specialised conference by Roberto Tartaglione, a well-known trainer, is perhaps the most difficult topic to teach. And to learn, I would add.
Other than contrast, as we often call it in grammar … it’s a real war! The rules are there and they are also well established, but on many occasions, a pinch of feeling and intuition must also be included to make the right choice.
Yes, because as we know, Italian is not an exact science, and sometimes we also have to rely on the context in which we use it to decide which expression or time to use.
I can say “ieri pioveva”/yesterday it was raining or “ieri ha piovuto”/yesterday it rained, or “ti volevo bene”/I used to love you and “ti ho voluto bene”/I loved you”.
When do I use the imperfect and when the near past? Eh! It depends. 😊
Let’s first brush up on the rules. But always keep this in mind: studying grammar is not enough!
Italian, like all the wonderful languages of the world, must be put into practice by listening, reading, talking, exercising and a little heart.
To master a language you have to listen a lot. Only in this way will you find yourself speaking well without thinking too much!
And now, to us. In general, we must use the passato prossimo – present perfect tense in Italian if our action has started and ended in the past and therefore no longer has ties to the present. Warning: in this case, the action must have taken place only once. For example:
- Ieri sono andata al parco con mia sorella./ Yesterday I went to the park with my sister.
- Ho mangiato tutta la cioccolata, scusa!/ I ate all the chocolate, sorry!
- Marco e Gioia mi hanno regalato un libro per il mio compleanno./· Marco and Gioia gave me a book for my birthday.
All these actions have happened once. See what happens with the same examples and small-time variations:
- Andavo sempre al parco con mia sorella./ I always went to the park with my sister.
- Durante la quarantena mangiavo cioccolata tutti i giorni. / During the quarantine, I ate chocolate every day.
- Marco e Gioia mi regalavano un libro a ogni compleanno./ Marco and Gioia gave me a book on every birthday.
In the last three sentences, I used the imperfect because the actions were repeated out of habit. More than once and continuously!
The present perfect also stands out for its use in the lists of actions, that is, for precise actions that occur in sequence one after the other, in this way:
- Stamattina mi sono svegliata, ho fatto la doccia, ho preparato la colazione, poi ho lavato le tazze, mi sono vestita, mi sono truccata e sono uscita. In ritardo come al solito!/ I woke up this morning, took a shower, prepared breakfast, then washed the cups, got dressed, put on make-up and went out. Late as usual!
- Prima siamo andati al supermercato, abbiamo fatto la coda, abbiamo chiacchierato con la signora vicino a noi. Dopo siamo entrati, abbiamo comprato la frutta e il pane, quindi abbiamo pagato e siamo usciti. La signora era ancora lì! / Before we went to the supermarket, we queued, we chatted with the lady near us. After we entered, we bought fruit and bread, so we paid and went out. The lady was still there!
In addition to past experiences carried out frequently, we must also use the Italian imperfect tense to express two continuous and parallel actions, which occur simultaneously in the past:
- Mentre Biagio guardava un programma alla Tv, io mi arrabbiavo perché non chiacchierava con me./ While Biagio was watching a TV program, I got angry because he wasn’t chatting with me.
- Ieri pomeriggio, mentre Veronica lavorava, Valerio preparava la torta./ · Yesterday afternoon, while Veronica worked, Valerio prepared the cake.
- Quando noi pulivamo la casa, tu leggevi un libro e non ci aiutavi./ When we cleaned the house, you read a book and didn’t help us.
⚠ Note: “durante”/ during introduces a temporal proposition, similar to “mentre” / while.. Be careful though: it should only be used with nouns. We say: “mentre leggevo (verb)” while I was reading but “durante la lettura (noun)” /while reading.
How else do we use the imperfect tense? There are at least two more cases to remember:
In descriptions of environments, situations, feelings, emotions, psychology and physical appearance of people. Let’s read for example this small excerpt of the song Guardia ’82 by Brunori SAS, where the author describes an experience of his childhood:
La spiaggia di Guardia rovente
Era piena di gente
Si parlava di sport
Di Pertini e Bearzot
Io ignaro di questo, ignaro di tutto
Fabbricavo castelli di sabbia
Con paletta e secchiello
Ed in testa un cappello
E lei, stava senza mutande
Ma io non la guardavo neanche
M’infilavo i braccioli e poi dritto nel mare
Non sapevo neanche cosa fosse l’amore
Dieci anni più tardi la vidi (l’ho vista), vicino a un falò
E bruciava la carne e bruciavano canne
Io stavo seduto da solo a suonar la chitarra
A cantare canzoni, a cercare attenzioni
Ma lei non mi guardava neanche
Ed io facevo finta di niente
Ingollavo Peroni e iniziavo ad urlare
Delle pene che solo ti sa dare l’amore
The red-hot Guardia beach
It was full of people
There was talk of sport
By Pertini and Bearzot
I unaware of this, unaware of everything
I made sandcastles
With scoop and bucket
And a hat on my head
And she was without underwear
But I wasn’t even looking at her
I slipped on the armrests and then straight into the sea
I didn’t even know what love was
Ten years later I saw her (I saw her), near a bonfire
And the meat burned and joints burned
I was sitting alone playing the guitar
To sing songs, to seek attention
But she didn’t even look at me
And I pretended nothing
I gulped Peroni and started screaming
Of the pains that only love can give you
When telling about dreams:
Stanotte ho sognato che tu mi volevi lasciare, poi facevi le valigie e scappavi con la tua amante. Mi sentivo triste e così decidevo di andare a mangiare un gelato. Adesso (e non è più un sogno) sono furiosa! Ma il gelato era buono./ Tonight I dreamed that you wanted to leave me, then you packed your bags and ran away with your lover. I felt sad and so I decided to go eat ice cream. Now (and it’s no longer a dream) I’m furious! But the ice cream was good.
We find present perfect and imperfect in the same sentence when instead we have a CAUSE / EFFECT relationship, in which the cause is expressed with the imperfect and the effect (the consequence) with the present perfect.
The conjunctions perché/ why and “siccome/ since help us a lot in this case:
- Non sono andato al lavoro (conseguenza) perché avevo la febbre (causa). / I didn’t go to work (consequence) because I had a fever (cause).
- Il pub era pieno di gente (causa), per questo siamo andati da un’altra parte (conseguenza). / The pub was full of people (cause), that’s why we went somewhere else (consequence).
- Siccome non funzionava il computer (causa), non ho finito il report (conseguenza). / Since the computer was not working (cause), I did not finish the report (consequence).
Lastly, we use the two tenses in the same sentence when we have the encounter of a precise action (near past) with a continuous (imperfect) action. Or as I like to explain better, when a continuous action is suddenly interrupted by another action, and therefore one arrives after the other has already started:
- L’altro giorno mentre bevevo un tè (situazione), mi ha chiamato Diletta (fatto)./ The other day while I was drinking tea (situation), he called me Diletta (action).
- Siete arrivati (fatto) proprio mentre mangiavamo il dolce (situazione). /· You arrived (action) just as we ate the dessert (situation).
- Andavamo in barca (situazione) e abbiamo avvistato la pinna di uno squalo (fatto). /· We were sailing (situation) when we spotted a shark’s fin (action).
- Pioveva (situazione) e ho preso l’ombrello (fatto). / It was raining (situation) so I took the umbrella (action).
Is it going a little better? Our online courses are available to solve your doubts! And now, three exercises to help you strengthen your knowledge and not forget.
Present Perfect Tense and Imperfect: Italian exercises in pdf