When you want to talk about events in the past, there are 2 main tenses you should learn: the Perfect Tense (passato prossimo) and the Imperfect (imperfetto). The perfect tense in Italian is used to talk about single completed events in the past. It is used to say what you’ve done at some point in the past or what you’ve done so far.
Imperfetto is used to talk about habitual ongoing events in the past (I used to…) or descriptions of past situations (physical characteristics, weather conditions, states of mind etc.). The Italian perfect tense is a very important and useful tense, since you need it anytime you want to talk about what you did on the weekend, on your last holiday, last week, last year or even something you’ve just done.
To better explain this, take a look at some sentences where you should use passato prossimo:
- Ieri sono andato al mare. Yesterday I went to the sea.
- Questa mattina ho mangiato una mela. This morning I ate an apple.
- Finora abbiamo visitato tre città. So far, we’ve visited three cities.
- Tre anni fa mi sono sposato. Three years ago I got married.
- Ho visto quel film molte volte. I’ve watched that film many times.
The Italian passato prossimo is formed by:
SUBJECT + AUXILIARY ESSERE or AVERE + PAST PARTICIPLE
IO + HO + MANGIATO (I ate/have eaten)
IO + SONO + ANDATO (I went/have gone)
The past participle is formed by dropping the infinitive ending -are, -ere-, -ire and adding the ending -ato, -uto or -ito.
The majority of verbs uses the auxiliary “avere”, just like in English:
Paola ha dormito a lungo. Paola has slept for a long time.
Mario ha visitato un museo. Mario has visited a museum.
Io e Marco abbiamo pranzato fuori. Marco and I have had lunch out.
I ragazzi hanno mangiato una pizza. The boys have eaten a pizza.
Verbs which use avere as the auxiliary in the passato prossimo past tense normally require no changes in the past participle. However, if the verb is preceded by a direct object pronoun (lo, la, li), the past participle must agree with it.
Ho conosciuto le ragazze. I met the girls.
Le ho conosciute. I met them.
However, sometimes you need to use essere, with:
- verbs of movement (andare, venire, arrivare..)
- changing of state verbs (essere, stare, diventare…)
- reflexive verbs (alzarsi, vestirsi…)
Paola è andata al cinema. Paola has gone to the cinema.
Mario è andato al cinema. Mario has gone to the cinema.
Io e Maria siamo andate al cinema. Maria and I have gone to the cinema.
I ragazzi sono andati a casa. The boys have stayed at home.
(Note that with “essere” the ending of the past participle changes to reflect the gender and singluar/plural of the subject)
Verbs with irregular past particles:
Many common verbs have irregular past participles, here’s some of the most important ones:
- bere (to drink) – bevuto
- decidere (to decide) – deciso
- leggere (to read) – letto
- vedere (to see) – visto
- mettere (to put) – messo
- scrivere (to write) – scritto
- rispondere (to answer) – risposto
- prendere (to take) – preso
- chiedere (to ask) – chiesto
- fare (to do) – fatto
- rimanere (to remain) – rimasto
- morire (to die) – morto
- correre (to run) – corso
- scegliere (to choose) – scelto
- aprire (to open) – aperto
- chiudere (to close) – chiuso
When you want to say since when or how long you’ve been doing something, remember to use the present tense!
- Studio italiano da 2 anni. I’ve been studying Italian for 2 years.
- La conosco da molto tempo. I’ve known her for a long time.