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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.