Verbs are probably the most daunting thing for Italian learners. I want to be honest with you: this article will give you an overall idea about verb tenses but it’s not a complete guide. The bad news is that there are more than 20 verb tenses in Italian. The good news is that we only use about 8 tenses in normal life.
The everyday Italian verbs’ landscape is made of the following tenses: il presente, l’imperfetto, il passato prossimo, il futuro semplice, il condizionale presente, il condizionale passato, il congiuntivo and l’imperativo.
Let’s not worry about trapassato prossimo, passato remoto, trapassato remoto and futuro anteriore. They are not trendy anymore. You will meet these tenses only in books and academic papers. And keep in mind that most Italian verb tenses don’t have an exact matching counterpart in English so it’s better not translate sentences literally.
The present tense
Let’s start with the easiest one, il presente. It’s used mainly for 3 situations:
1) To describe an action happening right now.
Scrivo un articolo.
I write / I’m writing an article.
To get the “I’m writing” effect, we build our sentences like this.
2) To tell a general fact / universal truth.
Ex: I bambini amano giocare.
Children like to play.
Ex: C’è bel tempo in estate.
The weather is nice in summer.
3) To state a current habit
Ex: Leggo l’attualità in internet tutti i giorni.
I read news online every day
Now, let’s move on to the past. In Italian, it’s declined in 2 verb tenses: il passato prossimo and l’imperfetto. Choosing which one to use is not so easy, but hopefully, it will be less of a nightmare in a minute.
Il passato prossimo
is made of 2 parts: the first bit is the verb “to be” or “to have” in the presente and the second bit is the actual verb you want to conjugate, in its participio passato form (rest assured, that sounds more complicated that it is). Of the 2 verb tenses for the past, it’s the one we use the most, so in doubt, my advice is pick il passato prossimo. It’s useful for:
1) isolated facts
It’s great for stating something and then moving on to a different topic of conversation. When a story is told in passato prossimo, there is no suspense. The reader knows immediately everything is now fine or back to normal.
Ex: Ieri ha piovuto.
It was raining yesterday.
2) something finished
The length of the action is not important in itself, as long as it’s finished.
Ex: Ho studiato all’università per 4 anni.
I studied at University for 4 years.
Here are 3 cases where imperfetto is used:
1) to mention lost habits – “I used to”
Ex: Avevo l’abitudine di prendere l’autobus
I used to take the bus.
Ex: Quando ero giovane…
When I was young…
2) to tell a story, to explain something.
However, in a normal conversation, a sentence with only one verb in imperfetto doesn’t work if it’s not followed with more sentences. Since there is a drama unfolding, the other person will want to know “and then what?” If you don’t wish to add anything, use il passato prossimo.
Ex: Ieri pioveva quindi sono rimasto a casa.
It was raining yesterday so I stayed at home.
3) to portray a fact fixed in time for dramatic poetic or historic effect. This is like looking at a photo: something is described frozen in mid-air. It’s used in novels and documentaries.
Ex: Un bambino parlava a sua madre. Un altro giocava in silenzio.
A kid was talking to his mother. Another one was playing in silence.
Il futuro is very much like the future tense in English, except that we don’t simply tag a translation of the word “will” in front of everything, we actually conjugate the whole verb.
Ex: L’uomo parlerà alla donna.
The man will talk to the woman.
However, I have a good news for you. We often use the present tense to talk about the future
Ex: vede Jane stasera.
He is going to meet Jane tonight.
-Ho molta fame
-Faccio dei panini
-I’m really hungry.
-I’ll make some sandwiches
Ex: John inizia la scuola di medicina l’anno prossimo.
John is going to begin medical school next year.
We’ve now explored half of the verb tenses I was set to explain today. Well done! It’s seems like a lot to take in in one go. Now take a break and you’ll find the second half in another article.
Thank you for reading this article.
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