The expression consecutio temporum, borrowed from Latin, is the set of rules governing the logical sequence of tenses and moods in Italian.
The topic is quite broad, so we’ll split this post in two parts: INDICATIVO (part 1, now) and CONGIUNTIVO (part 2).
The whole point of this topic is not just learning grammar, but speaking Italian logically, making yourself understood.
The Italian “consecutio temporum” indicates the temporal relation between a main clause and a subordinate clause. In other words:
- Sono felice perché vado in vacanza – I’m happy because I go on holiday.
- Sono felice – is the main clause (frase reggente), it can make sense by itself.
- …perché vado in vacanza – is a subordinate clause (subordinata). It makes sense only if attached to the main clause.
There are three possible positions in time for the main clause, pretty obviously:
There are three possible positions of the subordinate in time, related to the main clause:
- ANTERIORITÀ – before the main clause
- CONTEMPORANEITÀ – simultaneously with the main clause
- POSTERIORITÀ – after the main clause
The combination of those elements is the consecutio temporum, also known as concordanza dei tempi in Italian.
When the verb of the main clause expresses a real situation, the subordinate will generally be with a tense of the indicativo mood, with a few exceptions that we will see below. Please read the sentences and the explanations. Listen to the podcast.
SCENARIO 1: La frase reggente è al presente
I am happy because I went on holiday (anteriorità, it happened before), because I go on holiday (contemporaneità, it happens at the same time), because I will go on holiday (posteriorità, it will happen in future).
- If the main clause is with the presente indicativo, simple present, we can express the posteriorità with presente indicativo in the subordinate clause.
- Sono felice perché DOMANI vado in vacanza – I’m happy because TOMORROW I’ll go on holiday.
In this case we use the presente as a future tense, because we are sure the action is going to happen.
- We can express anteriorità with other past tenses, like the imperfetto or passato remoto.
- Sono felice perché andavo in vacanza – I’m happy because I used to go on holiday.
- Sono felice perché andai in vacanza – I’m happy because I went on holiday (long time ago).
As a side note, we can express a real situation in the main clause with the imperativo, for example:
- Sii felice perché sei andato in vacanza – Be happy, because you were on holiday.
SCENARIO 2: La frase reggente è al passato
- In the first example, we can see the typical use of the trapassato prossimo (the Italian past perfect simple: ero andato, close but not entirely to “I had gone”) to indicate an action happening before another past action.
- In the second case we have an imperfetto / imperfetto match, but we can have different combinations. For example:
- Sono stato felice perché sono andato in vacanza
I can use a combination of imperfetto and passato prossimo. The meaning of the sentence will change but not the fact that both actions happened simultaneously in the past.
- In the third example, we have to handle an exception. We can’t use the indicativo (
andrò), we need the condizionale passato (sarei andato) for expressing the future in the past. That’s a rule!
SCENARIO 3: La frase reggente è al futuro
- The futuro anteriore is a tense of the indicativo (sarò andato) and the name says it all. In the first example, we can express a complete action in the future, (I will be gone), before another action (I will be happy). We can obviously use the presente or past tenses to describe an action happening before the future.
- In the second example we have a futuro/futuro scenario (sarò/andrò). We can use the presente as future (sarò/vado) and the consecutio won’t change.
- I changed the third example to make it more clear. The combination is usually futuro/futuro “I will know when the holiday will be over”.
There are more particular cases, but that’s it as far as the indicativo is involved in the consecutio. The next post will be dedicated to the Congiuntivo.Photo credits