Italian past tense

italian past tenseItalian past tense explained

Ciao a tutti! In this lesson I will teach you how to form (and use) the Italian past tense.

First of all, in Italian we do not have only one tense, but two: passato prossimo and imperfetto.

How are they used? Let’s see :)


Passato prossimo: actions completed in the past

Italian past tense passato prossimo is used to:

  • describe recent past events that are now completed: Ho mangiato una mela (=I’ve eaten an apple)
  • describe sudden actions: All’improvviso è arrivato Gianni (=Suddenly, Gianni came in)

How do we form it?

SUBJECT + AUXILIARY (essere/avere) + PAST PARTICIPLE (arrivato, creduto, partito)

Please note that:

  • auxiliary essere is used with verbs of motion (arrivare, partire, andare, etc) and with verbs expressing a change (diventare, nascere, morire, crescere): sono andato, sono partito, sono arrivato
  • whenever the verb can be followed by an object (e.g. “mangiare” something, “leggere” something), the auxiliary has to be avere: ho mangiato, ho letto…
  • the past participle in Italian is formed in the following way: ending -ATO for verbs in -ARE (mangiare –> mangiato), ending -UTO for verbs in -ERE (credere –> creduto), ending -ITO for verbs in -IRE (partire –> partito).

For a list of irregular past participles, click here .


Imperfetto: actions in progress in the past

Italian past tense imperfetto, instead, is used to:

  • describe past habits: Da piccolo, andavo spesso al mare (=”When I was a kid, I used to go often to the seaside”)
  • describe actions in progess in the past (usually introduced by mentre): Mentre mangiavo, è arrivato Gianni (=”While I was eating, Gianni came in”)

How to form imperfetto:

andare: io andavo, tu andavi, lui/lei andava, noi andavamo, voi andavate, loro andavano (VERBS IN -ARE)

credere: io credevo, tu credevi, lui/lei credeva, noi credevamo, voi credevate, loro credevano (VERBS IN -ERE)

partire: io partivo, tu partivi, lui/lei partiva, noi partivamo, voi partivate, loro partivano (VERBS IN -IRE)



Mentre parlavamo, è squillato il telefono (=While we were speaking, the phone rang)

Nel 1980 andavo all’università. (=In 1980 I went/used to go to university)

Cosa hai fatto ieri? Ieri sono andato al cinema. (=What did you do yesterday? Yesterday I went to the cinema)


E adesso…practise Italian past tense with this exercise :) A presto!