One of the most difficult Italian topics for English speakers is understanding the difference between imperfetto and passato prossimo.
These two tenses are very different compared to how English speakers use simple past and present perfect, so at the beginning, imperfetto and passato prossimo are usually felt as very confusing topics.
So, today I’m going to explain all the main differences between the Italian imperfetto and passato prossimo.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN IMPERFETTO AND PASSATO PROSSIMO
Imperfetto is used to talk about past habits or past repetitive actions.
Quando ero bambino il sabato andavo sempre a catechismo
When I was a child I always went to catechism on saturdays
So, going to catechism was a repetitive action I did every Saturday.
Passato prossimo, instead, is used to talk about a past temporary action that usually has still effects on the present.
Ieri sono andata in piscina
I went to the swimming pool yesterday
It’s not a habit for me to go to the swimming pool, I just went there only yesterday. So, it’s a temporary action.
Imperfetto is used to describe conditions or states – emotional, physical or metereological.
Ieri ero molto triste
I was very sad yesterday
So, in the example above I’m describing an emotional state.
Passato prossimo, instead, is used to talk about a physical, emotional or mental change.
Dopo aver dato l’esame mi sono sentita molto più rilassata
After having taken the exam I felt much more relaxed
Before taking the exam I was worried, and after having taken it I was relaxed. So, there was a physical and mental change.
In descriptions after words such as così, allora, dunque, e quindi, generally comes passato prossimo
Ieri faceva troppo caldo, così sono andata al mare
It was too hot yesterday, so I went to the sea
IMPERFETTO AND PASSATO PROSSIMO
Imperfetto and passato prossimo can also be used to describe two actions that happened at the same time in the past.
IMPERFETTO + IMPERFETTO
They usually indicate two actions of a medium or long duration
Mentre leggevo un libro, mio marito faceva ginnastica
While I was reading a book, my husband was working out
PASSATO PROSSIMO + PASSATO PROSSIMO
They usually indicate two actions of brief duration
Quando Luca è atterrato, siamo andati a prenderlo all’aereoporto
When Luca landed we went to fetch him at the airport
IMPERFETTO + PASSATO PROSSIMO
They usually indicate an action of a medium or long duration that happened at the same time of an action of a brief duration
Mentre passeggiavo, ho visto Marta
While I was having a stroll, I saw Marta
Mentre leggevo, è squillato il telefono
While I was reading, the phone rang
I hope I helped you to understand the difference between imperfetto and passato prossimo. If you need to master or revise basic Italian grammar, have a look at my book Sos Italian grammar A1-A2.
Original image by ROverhate