The Italian Passato Prossimo

Learn how to use the indicative present perfect in Italian

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The indicative passato prossimo—called the present perfect in English—is one of the most widely used tenses in the Italian language. It expresses actions that, whether in the very immediate past or a past slightly more removed, happened before the moment of narration and have a defined chronological arc, now concluded.

Sometimes the actions described in the passato prossimo reflect or linger somehow onto the present: you passed a test today, for example, or you saw a friend, or you ate a beautiful meal last night; however the duration of the event is perfect, enclosed in a parenthesis and finished, unlike the chronological arc of the imperfetto, or imperfect tense, which, aptly named, describes routine, repetition, and actions that have a fuzzier—imperfect—duration.

A Compound Tense: How to Form the Passato Prossimo

The passato prossimo is likely the first Italian compound tense (tempo composto) you are studying. Being a compound means that the verb is expressed and conjugated with a combination of two elements: an auxiliary verb, essere or avere—conjugated, in this case, in the present tense—and the past participle of the main verb, or the participio passato.

Since we need to have them handy, let's review the present tense of essere and avere:

  Avere Essere
io ho sono
tu hai sei
lui/lei/Lei ha è
noi abbiamo siamo
voi avete siete
loro/Loro hanno sono

Participio Passato: What Is It?

About participi passati, they are very important. The participio (there is also a participio presente) is one of the so-called undefined modes of a verb, together with the infinitive and the gerund. You need the participio passato for all compound tenses of verbs, the passive voice, many adverbial subclauses, and for constructions in which the past participle is used as an adjective.

The regular participio passato of a verb is formed by removing the -are, -ere, and -ire endings of the infinitives and adding, respectively, the suffixes -ato, -uto, and -ito to the root of the verb: for example, the past participle of mangiare is mangiato; of bere, bevuto; of sentire, sentito. However, the irregulars among participi are many, especially with second-conjugation verbs: scrivere, scritto; vedere, visto. It is helpful to look them up in a dictionary and try to commit them to memory as you go along.

What Does the Passato Prossimo Look Like?

Here are a few examples:

  • Ti ho scritto una lettera ieri. I wrote you a letter yesterday.
  • Questa settimana ho visto Carlo quattro volte. This week I saw Carlo four times.
  • Ieri abbiamo mangiato da Lucia. Yesterday we ate at Lucia's.
  • Avete studiato ieri? Did you study yesterday?
  • Mi sono iscritto all'università quattro anni fa e ho finito quest'anno. I enrolled in university four years ago and I finished this year.
  • Questa mattina sono uscita presto. This morning I left early.
  • Sono arrivati i cugini di Francesco. Francesco's cousins have arrived.
  • Ci siamo vestiti prima di andare alla festa. We got dressed before going to the party.

As you see in the sentences above, you couple the present tense of essere or avere with your past participle: ho scritto; ho visto; abbiamo mangiato; avete studiato.

Essere or Avere?

Which verbs gets essere and which avere? Often you hear that transitive verbs get avere and intransitive verbs get essere. This is partially but not entirely true: Most transitive verbs with a direct object do get avere, but some intransitive verbs also get avere. And some verbs can get either, for different uses. Reflexive and reciprocal verbs and verbs of movement or condition of being (to be born and to die) get essere, but some verbs in some of those groups can also get both.

A nice way of thinking of it is this: if only the object is affected by the action, then it gets avere. For example, I ate a sandwich, or I saw the dog. If the subject is also "subjected" or somehow affected by the action, it gets essere (or it may get either). For example, I got lost; I enrolled in university; I lived in Paris: all those take essere.

When in doubt, look it up in a good Italian dictionary.

Past Participle Agreement

As you can see in the last four sentences above, with verbs of movement, reflexive and reciprocal verbs, and any other intransitive verb that gets essere, because the action returns onto the subject (which in the case of reflexive verbs is the same as the object) or otherwise affects the subject, the past participle MUST agree in number and gender.

For example, you want to say that last summer you went to Rome. Your verb is andare, your past participle andato; since andare is a verb of movement that uses essere as its auxiliary, your conjugated passato prossimo is sono andato.

Note, however, the changes in the past participle depending on the number and gender of the subject:

  • Marco è andato a Roma (masculine singular).
  • Lucia è andata a Roma (feminine singular).
  • Marco e Lucia sono andati a Roma (plural masculine because masculine trumps in a mixed plural).
  • Lucia e Francesca sono andate a Roma (plural feminine).

If you’re using avere as the auxiliary, it’s much simpler: the past participle does not have to agree in number and gender (that is, unless you’re using direct object pronouns).

Verb Mode Matters

Let's practice with the verb guardare (to watch/look at), which, like many other verbs, can be used in transitive, intransitive, reflexive, and reciprocal modes. The participio passato is guardato.

In plain transitive mode—today we watched a movie, for example—it uses avere: Oggi abbiamo guardato un film. The past participle is unaltered.

In intransitive, reflexive and reciprocal forms, the same verb guardare uses essere. Note the changes in the past participle:

  • Le bambine si sono guardate nello specchio (reflexive). The little girls looked at themselves in the mirror.
  • Lucia e Marco si sono guardati e sono scoppiati a ridere (reciprocal). Lucia and Marco looked at each other and cracked up laughing.
  • Mi sono guardata bene dal dirglielo (pronominal intransitive). I carefully guarded against telling him.

Passato Prossimo Versus Imperfetto

When you are talking about the recent past, for learners of Italian it can be challenging to correctly decide between using the passato prossimo or the imperfetto.

But remember this: The passato prossimo is the expression of an action in the past (most often conversational and recent) whose arc is specific and finished. In fact, the passato prossimo is often preceded by specific expressions of time: ieri, questa settimana, il mese scorso, l'anno scorso, ieri sera, questa mattina, sabato scorso. Or a specific date in recent times: Mi sono sposata nel 1995. I got married in 1995.

The imperfetto, on the other hand, is often preceded by such expressions as d'estate, in inverno, quando ero piccola, quando eravamo al liceo (in summer, in winter, when I was little, or when we were in high school). These set the stage for actions whose unfolding was inexact and imperfect, routine or repeated over time (when I was little John and I always went swimming in summer). Or—and this is the other very important use of the imperfetto—to set the background for another action in the passato prossimo:

  • Mangiavo quando è venuto il postino. I was eating when the mailman came.
  • Stavo andando a scuola quando sono caduta. I was walking to school when I fell.
  • Leggeva e si è addormentata. She was reading when she fell asleep.

Passato Prossimo Versus Passato Remoto

Interestingly, in contemporary Italian, the passato prossimo is increasingly favored over the passato remoto, even for the expression of actions in the remote past.

For example, Giuseppe Mazzini was born in 1805: Traditionally one would have said, Giuseppe Mazzini nacque nel 1805. Now more commonly a school student will say, Giuseppe Mazzini è nato nel 1805, as if it happened last week.

Conversely, and quite interestingly, in Southern Italy the passato remoto is used even to describe things that happened yesterday or earlier in the day, almost in the place of the passato prossimo. Watch "Inspector Montalbano," Andrea Camilleri's famous Sicily-based detective series, and you will notice it.

We suggest you follow the more traditional route and use the passato remoto for things that took place a while ago.

Buon lavoro!