Before looking at Italian, it may be helpful to note that English speakers have a choice of 2 tenses when presenting a "snapshot" of some past action or situation:

  • Simple Past = (Bob ate; the bell rang)
  • Present Perfect = (Bob has eaten; the bell has rung)

Like a video camera, English can also switch to a progressive (continuous) form of each to "record" past duration: "Bob was eating / the bell was ringing" ... or "Bob has been eating / the bell has been ringing".

Now, Italian has no "Simple Past" (top bullet point) ... so you will not hear an Italian friend tell you that Bob "ate" or the church bell "rang" in a single word. Instead, Italians use the "Present Perfect" to express completed action. They construct this past tense (the same way English and French speakers do) by combining a helping verb + past participle. This crucial tense is known in Italian as:

  • Passato Prossimo

To convey ongoing past action or to describe past conditions or past states of mind Italian has another past tense called the "Imperfect". Familiar to students of French and Spanish, the Imperfect covers: (1) habitual action ("every Friday we used to eat clams"), (2) descriptions of situations ("it was a festive night in Venice"), (3) physical states ("she used to have red hair"), or (4) states of mind ("Mario was sad that summer"). This tense, often used when painting the background to a story, is known as:

  • Imperfetto = (Bob was always eating, Bob used to eat; the bell was ringing)

There is a third past tense in Italian which is exactly the same as that in English. It is the "Past Perfect" and comes into play when recounting a past action which happened before another. ("The car started after ten mechanics had worked on it all week.") In Italian it is known as:

  • Trapassato Prossimo = (Bob had eaten; the bell had rung)

Finally, for advanced students, Italian has a tense used when writing about events which happened long ago. (Remember, this is an old civilization!) It is known as the "Absolute Past" or "Remote Past". You rarely hear it spoken except in southern Italy and in Tuscany. (Thus, in the north one says "ieri ho scritto una lettera", while in Naples one says "ieri scrissi una lettera"):

  • Passato Remoto = (Pliny the Younger watched Vesuvius erupt in 79; the bell rang for Napoleon's army.)

To summarize, there are 3 past tenses in Italian everyone needs to master ... and 2 more which are mostly literary and for advanced students only:

  • passato prossimo (present perfect)
  • imperfetto (imperfect)
  • trapassato prossimo (past perfect)
  • passato remoto* (absolute past)
  • trapassato remoto (preterite perfect)