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How to Tell a Story in Italian, Part 1

Using tenses correctly in a new language is usually somewhat of a challenge. Let's talk about two tenses — presente indicativo (present simple) and passato prossimo (present perfect) — that we can use to set the scene in a story, or to establish a timeframe, and the signpost words that can help us figure out which tense to use. 

 

Here's what causes some confusion. Italian commonly uses the passato prossimo (present perfect), that is, the tense using the auxialiary verb "to have" plus the past participle, to refer to things that happened at a particular moment in the past, for which in English we use the simple past tense. This is hard to assimilate, because English uses the present perfect for events that are still going on, or still true. In addition to that, in cases where English does use the present perfect, Italian often uses the present simple. It's easy to get mixed up, but it should become clearer as we go along. 

 

In a new video this week, Erica and Martina speak very simply about their friendship and how it developed. This is an excellent opportunity to zoom in on the passato prossimo, since they use it a lot, and to get a feel for how it’s employed in everyday storytelling. Maybe you can tell a story of your own, using the same outline.  

 

But let's zoom out for a moment. Before telling a story, we often need to set the scene and establish a timeframe. Erica first uses the present simple, and adds da (from, since). This formula takes some getting used to, so it's a good idea to practice. Notice that the translation employs the present perfect. 

Siamo amiche da sei anni.
We've been friends for six years.
Caption 3, Erica e Martina: La nostra amicizia 

 

Here's another example of how the present tense is used to establish a timeframe that includes the past.

Questa statua è qui da almeno cinquanta anni.
This statue has been here for at least fifty years.
Caption 19, Antonio: Maratea, Madonna del Porto Salvo 

 

We can use this setup with verbs like conoscere (to be acquainted with), frequentare (to hang out with, to frequent), essere colleghi (to be co-workers), lavorare insieme (to work together),essere sposato (to be married), vivere in un posto (to live in a place).

Ci conosciamo da tre anni (we've known each other for three years).
Sono sposati da sei mesi (they've been married for six months).

 

Practice: Set the scene for a story. Establish the timeframe including the past up to the present with the simple present tense plus da (from, since), using the above-mentioned verbs, or other verbs you think of. You'll be answering the question: da quanto tempo (for how long)?

 

Another way to set the scene is to find the starting point in the past. We use the passatoprossimo for that, plus the short adverb fa (ago) that signals the past.

So in the featured video, Erica continues setting the scene, telling us when the two friends met. Here she uses the passato prossimo. In English, we’d use the past simple, of course. Erica is essentially saying the same thing she said in caption 3, but she’s pinpointing the moment, not a period of time. Note: Since the friends are female in this case, the ending of the past participle conosciuto is feminine and plural. If it were two guys, or a guy and a girl, what do you think the ending would be?

Ci siamo conosciute, appunto, sei anni fa.
We met, in fact, six years ago.
Caption 4, Erica e Martina: La nostra amicizia 


When you meet someone for the first time, it’s unique: one instant. So you use the passato prossimo.

Learn more about the verb conoscere (to be acquainted with, to make the acquaintance of) in this lesson.

Il figlio, diciassettenne, ha pubblicato il suo primo articolo su un quotidiano americano pochi giorni fa.
His son, seventeen years old, published his first article in an American newspaper a few daysago.
Captions 15 - 16, Tiziano Terzani: Cartabianca - Part 1 of 3

 

Practice: Experiment establishing a timeframe using the presente plus da (from, since) as you did in the first exercise, and then saying much the same thing in a different way, pinpointing a moment in time with the passato prossimo and fa (ago). You'll be answering the question: quando (when)? or quanto tempo fa (how long ago)?.

Here’s a quick example to get started:

Vivo in Italia da più di venticinque anni (I’ve been living in Italy for over twenty-five years).
Sono venuta in Italia per la prima volta più di trent’anni fa (I came to Italy for the first time, over thirty years ago).
Lavoro in questo posto da otto anni (I’ve been working in this place for eight years).
Ho 
cominciato otto anni fa a lavorare qui (I started working here eight years ago).

 

As Erica and Martina continue their story, they use the passato prossimo to describe events in the past. You can do this too!

 

Hint: Why not use the transcript of this video? Just click on "transcript" underneath the video thumbnail (or in the pop-up menu "more" in the new layout). You can view it in just Italian, just English, or both. You can copy and paste it into a blank document. You can make it printer friendly. In somma (in short), it's pretty handy!

There are other ways to set the scene, and other tenses to use, but we’ll get to those in another lesson.

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