In learning a new language, when we are able to latch onto parallels with our own language, it can be comforting, but sometimes we have to let go and realize things work differently in the new one. That is the case with il passato prossimo. It has a name that makes us think that this tense is about a past that isn't very far away, because prossimo (with its cognate "proximate") does mean "near," "next," "close," etc.).
So when we learn that we use this tense to express things that have happened in the past and are already finished (as we use the simple past in English), it doesn't necessarily make sense. But let's look at it from another point of view. Let's look at it relatively. Because, although you can mostly get away with not using it, there is another past tense in Italian called il passato remoto. Here, too, we can detect the cognate remoto meaning "remote" or "far away." This is a simple tense in which the verb itself is conjugated. In general, it is used to express finished actions happening in the past that don't have any effect on the present. It means that there is a clear chronological and psychological distance between the fact expressed with the Passato Remoto and the present.
So compared to the passato remoto, the passato prossimo is closer, or less remote.
The passato remoto itself is not within the scope of this lesson, but let's mention that even when the passato remoto would be the preferred tense, we can usually get away with using the passato prossimo and lots of people do.
The passato prossimo is a compound tense that takes an auxiliary verb (avere or essere) and a past participle, but in a way, it is easier to use because we don't have to remember how to conjugate the verbs in the passato remoto. People will understand us and that's the most important thing. In addition to this, it's not always easy to know when to use the passato remoto. There are some grey areas.
The name "passato prossimo" refers to an action's place on a timeline. The name "present perfect," on the other hand, deals with the tense of the auxiliary verb we use ("to have" is used in the present tense in the present perfect). In the past perfect, the auxiliary verb is in the past tense. So the naming of the tenses has two different parameters, not to be compared.
The passato prossimo can express past actions that are over and done with (as the simple past does in English). But can also coincide with the present perfect in some instances.
To get an idea about when we use certain tenses, let's take a look at this video where two young women talk about their friendship. They talk about the past when they were in secondary school. They use the passato prossimo even though they are clearly talking about a time when they were younger.
E poi, dopo la maturità, abbiamo deciso di partire da sole con altri sei ragazzi di [sic: della] classe e siamo andati a Malta.
And then, after graduation, we decided to leave on our own with six other kids from the class and we went to Malta.
Captions 28-30, Erica e Martina La nostra amiciziaPlay Caption
As we mentioned above, sometimes the passato prossimo does coincide with the present perfect, as in this comment about their continuing friendship. Note that there is an adverb of frequency.
Ci siamo trovate sempre molto bene, in questi sei anni non abbiamo mai litigato.
We've always gotten along really nicely — over these six years we've never argued.
Captions 46-47, Erica e Martina La nostra amiciziaPlay Caption
But here, in the following example, they use the present tense to express what in English, we would express using the present perfect. Note the use of da (since, for).
Siamo amiche da sei anni,
We've been friends for six years.
Caption 3, Erica e Martina La nostra amiciziaPlay Caption
The above use of the present tense in Italian to express a "present perfect" situation is perhaps one of the trickiest tense differences to wrap our heads around. And it's just as tricky for Italians trying to speak English!
The two young women go on with the present perfect to talk about the past. Here, we find fa (ago), putting the action clearly in the past.
Ci siamo conosciute, appunto, sei anni fa, il primo giorno di scuola.
We met, in fact, six years ago, on the first day of school.
Captions 4-5, Erica e Martina La nostra amiciziaPlay Caption
If you are a subscriber it might be useful to watch the entire video to get a better feel for how the tenses are used. Looking at the transcript can help, too.
How do we talk about frequency — how many times in a period of time something happens or should happen? Let's find out.
Just as English has "every" and "each," so does Italian. Italian has tutti (all) and ogni (each). For more about tutti see this lesson.
In Italia, come ben sapete, la pasta è un alimento consumato tutti i giorni.
In Italy, as you well know, pasta's a food that's eaten every day.
Caption 1, Anna e Marika La pasta frescaPlay Caption
Note that with tutti, we use the plural. Both the noun giorni and the adjective tutti are in the plural. Not only that. If we replace giorni (days) with settimane (weeks), we have to change tutti to tutte, as settimana is a feminine noun. Note also that we have tutto il giorno, which means "all day." Here tutto is singular, so try not to get mixed up (we'll talk about this in a different lesson).
Usciamo quasi tutte le settimane, il sabato sera,
We go out almost every week, on Saturday night,
Caption 40, Erica e Martina La nostra amiciziaPlay Caption
When we use ogni (each), on the other hand, it's always singular.
Qui in Sicilia, in estate si va ogni giorno al mare e la sera si esce.
Here in Sicily, in the summer we go to the beach every day and in the evenings we go out.
Caption 49, Adriano Le stagioni dell'annoPlay Caption
What if we want to talk about "every other day?" We can say ogni due giorni (every two days) or we can say un giorno sì e un giorno no (one day yes and one day no).
Ah no, eh? E tu come lo chiami un bambino che vomita un giorno sì e un giorno no?
No? And what do you call a little boy who vomits every other day?Play Caption
When it comes to doing something once a day, once a week, once a month, or once a year, we use the noun volta, which we can also use in the plural when appropriate. It is followed by the preposition a (at, to, in)
Allora, amici di Yabla, all'interno del mio negozio, una volta al mese ospito degli artisti...
So, Yabla friends, inside my shop, I host artists once a month...
Captions 56-57, Adriano Negozio di Antichità SgroiPlay Caption
Note that the noun volta has other meanings and connotations, so consider checking out the dictionary entry linked to above. Learn more about the noun volta meaning "time" in this lesson.
una volta al giorno (once a day)
due volte al giorno (twice a day)
una volta alla settimana (once a week)
due volte alla settimana (twice a week)
una volta al mese (once a month)
due volte al mese (twice a month)
una volta all'anno (once a year)
due volte all'anno (twice a year)
There is a lot to talk about regarding time. We've covered one aspect of frequency in this lesson, but in future lessons, we'll talk about ways to say "usually," "sometimes," "always," "never," and so on.
There's a movie on Yabla about a musician who wants to make it as a singer, but is not succeeding.
His agent tells him to take a break from performing, and to soften the blow, says that although Martino's music making is all right, he doesn’t have the presence necessary for performing on stage.
Here's what the agent says:
Sì, la musica ancora ancora sta, ma è la faccia, "the face" [inglese: la faccia]. È questa...
Yes, your playing is maybe all right, but it's the face, the face. It's this..
Caption 36, Chi m'ha visto - filmPlay Caption
A reader has written in asking if the double instance of the adverb ancora was a mistake or not. It’s a good question, and we’ll try to answer it.
We have learned from Daniela's lessons about comparatives and superlatives that, in addition to using più or the suffix -issimo to form the superlative of adjectives and some adverbs, we can also simply repeat the word twice. So we have bellissimo or bello bello. They mean the same thing, although the double adjective or adverb is used primarily in spoken Italian. Read this lesson about it!
So, we have this word ancora. It’s already the source of a little confusion because it means different things in different contexts.
We've looked at this before and there's a lesson about the different meanings of ancora.
Let’s give the word a quick review here.
In the following example, ancora means "even."
Così puoi capirmi ancora meglio.
That way, you can understand me even better.
Caption 27, Italian Intro - SerenaPlay Caption
And In this example, ancora means "still". "Still" and "even" can often be interchangeable, as in these two examples.
E ancora oggi siamo molto amiche.
And still today we're very close friends.
Caption 39, Erica e Martina - La nostra amiciziaPlay Caption
È ancora vivo.
He’s still alive.
If we put it in the negative, non ancora means "not yet."
Non è ancora morto.
He's not dead yet.
In the example that follows, ancora means “more.”
Ne vuoi ancora? -Eh?
Do you want some more of it? -Huh?Play Caption
And ancora can also mean simply, “again.”
Va be', comunque io ti ringrazio ancora per i biglietti,
OK, in any case, I thank you again for the tickets,
Caption 67, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP7 - Sogni di VetroPlay Caption
So this adverb has different meanings that are somewhat related. They have to do with time or quantity and can mean “still,” “again,” “yet” with non (not), “more,” or “even.”
But in this movie, it’s repeated twice, and here, it has a particular, colloquial meaning. It means we are on the borderline of something. Ancora ancora means we're at the limit. We're on the line, even though we haven't stepped over it. Something can pass.
So Martino’s agent is saying, “Your playing is good enough,” and might even be implying “it’s passable.” Here, it’s followed by ma (but), so it's clear that something else isn't passable. "Your playing is passable, but your face isn’t."
There are other adverbs that lend themselves being doubled for effect:
Poco poco to mean just a tiny bit.
Piano piano to mean really soft, really slow.
Appena appena to mean faintly, barely.
Sometimes the doubling takes on a special meaning that has evolved over time, as in the case with ancora ancora.
Quasi quasi is another adverb like this. Literally, it means almost almost, but that makes little sense. For more on quasi quasi, see this lesson about it. Here's an example to give you the basic idea. Let's say I've been debating in my mind whether to have another helping, but then decide and say:
Quasi quasi, ne prendo ancora.
I might just have some more.
If you're not yet a subscriber but seriously thinking about it, you could say,
Quasi quasi mi iscrivo a Yabla.
I might just sign up for Yabla.
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 amiciziaPlay Caption
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 21, Antonio - Maratea, Madonna del Porto SalvoPlay Caption
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 amiciziaPlay Caption
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 days ago.
Captions 16-17, Tiziano Terzani - Cartabianca - Part 1Play Caption
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.