How to choose between PRESENTE, FUTURO, PASSATO PROSSIMO and IMPERFETTO [Ep. 19]

By Manu Venditti | Advanced

Oct 04

Phil asks:
How do I choose between PRESENTE, FUTURO, PASSATO PROSSIMO & IMPERFETTO?

OR... How do I know which tense to use?

Italian has a bunch of tenses, divided into various "verbal moods". It's a mess. Scary and always clear! 
At the bottom of this page you will find a supplemental video explaining how to interpret a verb conjugator (whether a book or an online tool)

The Present Tense: IL PRESENTE

The Italian Present Tense is used to render the following scenarios:

Generic statement: I speak
Continuous action in the present: I am speaking
Future action: I will speak
Intentional action: I am going to speak

In all these cases we would simply say:
IO PARLO

Some examples

PARLO ITALIANO
I speak Italian / I am speaking Italian / I will speak Italian / I am going to speak Italian

DOMANI PARLO ITALIANO CON TE
Tomorrow I will speak Italian with you / Tomorrow I am going to speak Italian with you

CHE FAI? PARLO ITALIANO!
What are you doing? I am speaking Italian!

The Future Tense: IL FUTURO

The Italian Future Tense is rarely used to speak about the future. We use the Present Tense for that, right?

The Italian Future Tense is mainly used for suppositions. When we are guessing something. In English we use the verb MUST to accomplish the same.

Some examples

CHE ORE SONO?
NON LO SO. SARANNO LE 7.

What’s the time?
I don’t know. It must be 7.

Literally we are saying “they will be” (SARANNO in the future of ESSERE)

SAI QUANTO COSTA?
COSTERÀ 20 EURO?

Do you know how much that costs?
It must cost 20 euro?

Literally: “il will cost”.

The Italian Future Tense is used for things in the future, but when there is DOUBT about their coming to fruition. Basically, we use the future when we are not sure about that thing actually happening.

Some examples

UN GIORNO VINCERÒ LA LOTTERIA
One day I’ll win the lottery

SONO SICURO CHE AVRAI FIGLI
I am sure you will have kids

These are different from us saying that:
– “in 2 years we’ll go to Japan
FRA DUE ANNI ANDIAMO IN GIAPPONE
with the Present Tense

Because in this latter case, when we say that we’re going to Japan, we believe that it will happen. We are certain about it. Sure, it might not happen, but our intention in saying it is that it WILL definitely happen.

The Perfect Past Tense: IL PASSATO PROSSIMO

The Italian Passato Prossimo is used to express anything that HAPPENED (took place) in the past (regardless of its proximity to now). An action that has a beginning and an end.

Some examples

IERI HO VISTO UN BEL FILM
Yesterday I watched a good movie

10 ANNI FA SONO ANDATO A NEW YORK
10 years ago I went to New York

STAMATTINA HO GIÀ PRESO 3 CAFFÈ
This morning I have already had 3 coffees

The Imperfect Past Tense: L'IMPERFETTO

The Italian Imperfetto is another past tense that is used to:

describe things / events in the past (nothing happened)
habits in the past
continuous actions in the past

As the name suggests, this tense is “imperfect” in the sense that it doesn’t really tell us a full story.

Some examples

LA MIA PRIMA MACCHINA ERA ROSSA
My first car was red

QUANDO ERO GIOVANE GIOCAVO A TENNIS
When I was young I used to play tennis

IERI MENTRE NUOTAVA, LUCA HA VISTO UN DELFINO
Yesterday, while he was swimming, Luca saw a dolphin

Here the fact that my car was red, is just a description. My car didn’t do anything.

The fact that I played tennis while I was young implies that I played it the whole time I was young, which is a pretty long time! It’s a habit.

Finally, the fact that Luca was swimming, is a continuous action in the past, which sets the scene for what actually happened (he saw a dolphin). We couldn’t stop our sentence at “Yesterday while Luca was swimming.” That would be … imperfect! 😉

I also recorded this video explaining how to interpret a Verb Conjugator like www.verbix.com to select the right tense for our needs. 

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