The Italian passato prossimo is equivalent to the English simple past. It describes complete events that happened in the past.
As opposed to the English simple past, the italian passato prossimo is a compound tense. It’s the result of the combination of “essere” or “avere” simple present as auxiliary and the past participle of the main verb, the Italian participio passato. See the table for more details.
Oggi vado al cinema. Ieri sono andato a teatro.
Oggi studio l’italiano. Ieri ho studiato il francese.
- Passato Prossimo as present tense: It’s used immediately after completing an action: Ho finito di mangiare (I have finished eating); Maria è arrivata adesso (Maria has just arrived). Both mean right now. Theoretically the action is in the past, but it refers to the present. It’s close to the English present perfect.
- Passato prossimo as past tense: the correct use of Passato Prossimo is as past tense. Sono andato in Italia means I went to Italy, probably recently but in the past. We said Passato prossimo is THE italian past tense because it’s rapidly replacing Passato Remoto as perfect past tense. We can say dieci anni fa sono andato in Italia and the sentence would be correct. Dieci anni fa, ten years ago, is arguably a long time ago, but still the use of the passato prossimo (which means “near past”) is possible.
Passato Prossimo VS Imperfetto
The first sentence I went to Roma last week, describes a past event with an end. It happened once The second, I used to go to Rome when I was a student. is a series of past events, not defined.
Passato Prossimo VS Passato Remoto
This one is tricky, because nowadays Passato Prossimo is rapidly replacing the Passato Remoto, not always properly. The rationale behind the use of one of these two past tenses is the psychological distance with the present.
In English both sentences would be “He was born in Firenze”. In Italian, because Dante was born in 1265 and Mario in 2008, we use Passato Remoto for Dante and Passato Prossimo for Mario. Having said that, Dante è nato a Firenze isn’t wrong. It’s of common use, so it’s acceptable. Mario nacque nel 2008 though sounds wrong, since we suppose 2008 is pretty close to the present and Mario is a child now.
Read this post on the passato remoto
Essere or avere as auxiliary verb?
It’s one of the most common dilemmas. When should I use essere (to be) and when avere (to have) as auxiliary verb? For English native speakers it’s difficult to switch to essere because English Present Perfect always wants to have. But Present Perfect and Passato Prossimo are different animals and please don’t get confused. There’s a rule:
- Essere is used with intransitive verbs (verbs not supporting a direct object)
- Avere is used with transitive verbs (verbs supporting a direct object)
There are many exceptions to this rule. Read this post for more examples.
For example the verb andare, to go, does not answer the question what? cosa? but where? dove?, so it is intransitive. That’s why we say SONO ANDATO A MILANO, and not HO ANDATO A MILANO.
If I say I ate a sandwich, a tasty Italian panino, I have a direct object. So we can say HO MANGIATO UN PANINO and not SONO MANGIATO UN PANINO.
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