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How to use the tenses in Italian

When learning Italian, dealing with the tenses is tricky. In this post I will give some advice on how to use the right tense in your sentences. The Italian language, also because of the Latin language from which it derives, has many tenses. Just to make an example, the Indicativo, the basic “modo”, has eight tenses, of which one present tense, five (!) past tenses and two future tenses.

First of all, what is a modo? A “modo” tells you about the reality and certainty of the action expressed by the verb itself; in a few words: how sure it is to happen. Indicativo is the basic “modo”, used for what happens in reality or with certainty, while Congiuntivo is the “modo” used to express opinions or doubts or for what is not absolutely sure or certain. More “modi” (plural for “modo”) are the Condizionale, used mostly for kind requests or to give advice or sometimes also to express doubt, and the Imperativo, used to give orders.

Actually almost every one of these “modi” has tenses, but in this blog I will talk about on how to use the tenses found in the Indicativo, because it is the basic mode, the first one you learn and the most used in everyday life. Furthermore, the use of the tenses in Indicativo works in a different way than with the tenses in the other “modi”.

But as a general rule let’s specify that in Italian, when it comes to choosing the right tense, it is important to consider the succession of the actions expressed by the verbs, namely how these actions follow each other, which one happens first and which one happens next. It usually helps if you imagine a timeline going from the past to the future and on it you put the actions in their orders, setting them in relation also to the present (i.e. the time when you, the speaker, are saying the sentence).

Here’s a practical and very simple example: with the sentence (using future tenses) “Domani visiterò il museο e poi mangerò al ristorante” (“Tomorrow I’ll visit the museum and then I’ll eat at the restaurant”), you can make your timeline with a dot for the present, then after this dot (going towards the “Future” end of the line) you will put first the first verb (visiterò) and then the second verb (manger). It becomes something like this:

Timeline 1

In this example you don’t really see it, but this comes in handy when you have to use the different types of past or future tenses, because the position of the verb on the line will tell you which tense you should actually use.

Going to the tenses of the Indicativo, let’s start with Passato prossimo, and its difference with Passato remoto. As a rule, you should use Passato prossimo for something happened in the recent past, and Passato remoto for something happened long ago. This means that, on the timeline, Passato remoto will go more towards the “Past” end of the line, while Passato prossimo will go between the Passato remoto and the present.

Example: Ieri ho visto La grande bellezza, nello stesso cinema dove dieci anni fa vidi Mulan (“Yesterday I’ve watched La grande bellezza”, at the same cinema where ten years ago I watched Mulan”). If we were to put the sentence on the line, it would be like this:

Timeline 2

Actually nowadays, in everyday language, Passato remoto is not much used and is often replaced by Passato prossimo. On the contrary, and curiously enough, Passato remoto often replace Passato prossimo in dialects of southern Italy.

Imperfetto is another past tense. It’s quite tricky to use, and actually many people learning Italian have a initially a hard time to master when to use Imperfetto and when to use Passato prossimo, which are both learnt at quite an early stage when studying Italian. I will elaborate on this in another article, for now let’s say that generally Passato prossimo represent a dot on the timeline, the action lasted a specific (shorter or longer) moment in the past and ended, while Imperfetto specifies that the action lasted longer or was repeated often in the past, is more of a segment on the line. It can actually happen before or at the same time of the Passato prossimo, so on the timeline it can go either at the same spot with the Passato prossimo (but it lasts longer) or earlier (more towards the “Past” end of the line).

Example 1: La settimana scorsa sono tornata a Positano, il villaggio dove andavo spesso in vacanza con la mia famiglia (“Last week I’ve gone back to Positano, the village where I often went on holydays with my family”). On the line it would be like this:

Timeline 3

Example 2: Stamattina mentre facevo colazione ho letto il giornale. (“This morning while I was having breakfast I read the newspaper”). On the line, it would look like this:

Timeline 4

Trapassato prossimo is another past tense, used for an action that happened and finished before one of the past tense seen above, namely before the Passato prossimo, the Passato remoto or the Imperfetto. This means that on the timeline what is in Trapassato prossimo goes earlier, more towards the “Past” end of the line, while what is in Passato remoto or Passato prossimo or Imperfetto goes more towards the present, between this latter and the Trapassato prossimo.

Example 1: Sapevamo già che Marco si era sposato (“We already knew that Marco had gotten married”). Putting this on the line, it would be:

Timeline 5

Example 2: Ci incontrammo dopo che mi ero trasferito a Napoli (“We met after I had moved to Naples”). On the line it would be:

Timeline 6

Example 3: Il mese scorso mi ha portato dei fiori perchè aveva sentito del mio compleanno (“Last month he brought me flowers because I had heard about my birthday”). On the line it would look like this:

Timeline 7

Trapassato remoto is used for an action before the Passato remoto. Actually this is not used very often in everyday language, and is mostly used in subordinate clauses. On the timeline what is in Trapassato remoto goes earlier, more towards the “Past” end of the line, while what is in Passato remoto goes between the Trapassato remoto and the present.

Example: Non appena ebbi fatto ritorno dal viaggio, andai a casa dei miei genitori (“As soon as I came back, I went to my parents’place”). It looks like this on the timeline:

Timeline 8

Futuro semplice is the basic future tense, usually used for something that will happen after the present. Sometimes it is used in combination with the other future tense, Futuro anteriore. This latter is used mostly in subordinate clauses, for actions that will happen in the future, but before the Futuro semplice. On the timeline, what is in Futuro semplice goes later, more towards the “”Future” end of the line, while what is in Futuro anteriore goes more towards the present, between this latter and the Futuro semplice.

Example: Quando avrò deciso la facoltà, mi iscriverò all’università (“ When I decide on the faculty, I’ll register at the university”). Putting it on the timeline, we obtain this:

Timeline 9

I hope you find this useful, and to see you soon on this blog. Ciao ciao!


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