Can you speak Italian? By now, many of you have passed the beginning stages of learning to speak Italian and can read and comprehend quite a bit of the language. Meraviglioso!
But have you tried to take the next step to speak Italian fluently? Can you tell the story of your family history in Italian, using the passato remoto past tense?
Can you speak Italian the way you would speak in your native language, with complex and varied sentences? This is more difficult than it may seem at first, and it is something that I am always working on!
This series will focus on the situations that have come up most frequently in my everyday conversations with Italian instructors and friends. The “Speak Italian” blog series will focus on the type of sentence structure and vocabulary we all need to remember to be more fluent when we speak Italian!
Let’s take that giant step from simple beginning sentences to more complex and fluid sentences in Italian by learning how to use the different Italian past tenses more easily. In this segment, we will focus on the Italian passato remoto past tense and describe the similarities and differences between the passato remoto and the passato prossimo and imperfetto past tenses.
Included in the dialogue for this blog post are examples of Italian hypothetical phrases in the past tense, reprinted from a previous blog post on this topic.
If you need to refresh your memory on when to use the passato prossimo form of the past tense versus when to use the imperfetto, please visit the third blog post in this series, Speak Italian: A Story About… Love!
In the “Speak Italian” blog series, first, a short essay or dialogue in Italian will be presented about a commonly used topic of conversation.
Then, we will review the Italian grammar that is necessary to talk about the particular topic in detail.
And finally, if you want, ask a relative about the story of your own family history, then write it in Italian using the Italian passato remoto.
Remember these examples as “anchors” in your knowledge for when you must speak Italian in your next conversation!
Enjoy the fourth topic in this series, “Speak Italian: Passato Remoto—Let’s Tell a Story!”
Some of this material is adapted from our textbook, Conversational Italian for Travelers © 2012 by Stella Lucente, LLC, found on www.learntravelitalian.com. Special thanks to Italian language instructor Maria Vanessa Colapinto.
In the dialogue to follow, we listen in on a conversation between an Italian mother and her daughter, Francesca and Maria, who are preparing a welcoming party for an Italian-American relative who is visiting the family for the first time. You may remember the characters from our recent Italian Subjunctive Mood Practice blog posts.
When reading the example dialogue below, notice the use of the imperfetto past tense (for making general statements about the past) and the passato remoto past tense (for describing actions that began and were completed in the past). The use of these tenses shifts from one to the other while Frances is narrating the story of her family, depending on the situation that is described. The passato remoto past tense verbs will be underlined.
You will notice Italian hypothetical phrases in the past tense in this dialogue as well, which will use the imperfetto subjunctive mode and the trapassato past tense, because this dialogue is a reprint from a former blog post on Italian hypothetical phrases. If you would like to review how to make Italian hypothetical phrases in the past tense, please see our blog post Italian Subjunctive (Part 5).
The Story of a Family Reunion
It was a lovely spring day in April in the mountains of Abruzzo. Frances and her daughter Mary met at Frances’ house to plan a party.
Era un bel giorno di aprile nelle montagne abruzzesi. Francesca e sua figlia, che si chiama Maria, si sono incontrate a casa di Francesca per organizzare una festa.
“Tell me again how Great Uncle Mark, cousin Rudy’s grandfather, saved our family in Italy,” Mary asked her mother.
“Raccontami ancora come il prozio Marco, il nonno del cugino Rudolfo, ha salvato la nostra famiglia in Italia,” Maria ha chiesto a sua madre.
Frances replied (to her) with the following story:
Francesca le ha risposto con la storia qui di seguito:
Great Grandmother Mary had a brother whose name was Mark.
La bisnonna Maria aveva un fratello, che si chiamava Marco.
Great Uncle Mark left Italy and went to live in America with his family in 1920.
Il prozio Marco lasciò l’Italia e andò a vivere in America con la sua famiglia nel 1920.
He had to leave Italy to find work, because after World War I, there was no work in Italy.
Dovette lasciare l’Italia per trovare lavoro, perché dopo la Prima Guerra Mondiale, non c’era lavoro in Italia.
Right after Uncle Mark had left Italy, Great Grandmother’s husband died, and she was left all alone to raise their three children.
Subito dopo che lo zio Marco lasciò l’Italia, il marito della bisnonna morì, e lei era da sola a crescere i suoi tre figli.
In Italy in the early 1900s, if a woman didn’t have a husband, usually she was not able to support her family.
In Italia negli anni del primo novecento, se una donna non aveva un marito, normalmente non poteva mantenere la famiglia.
At that time, if a woman wanted to work, she could be a teacher or a seamstress.
A quel tempo, se una donna voleva lavorare, poteva fare l’insegnante o la sarta.
Grandmother Mary was a teacher before she was married.
La bisnonna Maria era un’insegnante prima di sposarsi.
But with three children, it was not possible for her to leave the house to work.
Ma con tre figli, non era possibile per lei uscire di casa per lavorare.
So Uncle Mark worked in America and sent money to Italy.
E così, lo zio Marco lavorava in America e mandava i soldi in Italia.
If Uncle Mark had not sent money to Grandmother Mary, she and the children could have starved to death.
Se lo zio Marco non avesse mandato i soldi alla bisnonna Maria, lei e i figli sarebbero potuti morire di fame.
At the end of this story, Mary said, “And if Uncle Mark had not helped Grandmother Mary, you and I would not be here today!”
Alla fine della storia, Maria ha detto, “E se lo zio Marco non avesse aiutato la bisnonna Maria, tu e io non saremmo qui oggi!”
“Probably not,” replied Frances. “But fortunately, Uncle Mark was a good person. And so is our cousin Rudy. Let’s organize a wonderful party!”
“Probabilmente no,” ha risposto Francesca. “Ma fortunatamente, lo zio Marco era una persona perbene. E anche nostro cugino Rudy è così. Organizziamo una festa meravigliosa!”
The Italian “Passato Remoto”
The Italian passato remoto past tense is used in textbooks to describe historical events that took place centuries ago and is used in textbooks that describe art history.
Outside of scholarly works written in Italian, the passato remoto is still commonly found as a narrative tool in novels and other forms of fiction written today.
In fiction today, the author of a novel will often use the passato remoto form for the voice of the narrator. The passato remoto is useful for the “detached” feeling it gives to the narration in descriptive passages that relate completed events in the “remote past” of a character’s life. The passato prossimo is the past tense form usually used by the characters during their conversations, in order to give a “realistic” feeling to the dialogue.
The English translation for the passato remoto is the simple past tense, because English does not have an equivalent tense to the passato remoto. In effect, the different Italian past tenses can express certain shades of meaning that cannot be expressed by the past tense verb forms in English.
Although the passato remoto and the passato prossimo are used to evoke different feelings in the reader of an Italian novel, grammatically speaking, the passato remoto can be considered interchangeable with the passato prossimo. This is because both past tense verb types describe completed events that took place during a given period of time in the past.
Note that the imperfetto remains important for works of fiction as well because the passato remoto cannot be used to replace the imperfetto! We remember that the imperfetto is used to describe an ongoing action or event, and we have just reviewed that the passato prossimo describes completed actions or events. For a review of the specific uses of the imperfetto, please refer to our blog post Speak Italian: A Story About… Love!
Because our focus to this point has been on conversational, rather than written, Italian, a common convention regarding stories told in conversation should be noted here. In English and Italian, the present tense is very often used to tell a story that the speakers understand to have happened in the past. For instance:
Kathy (past tense to introduce setting): “Yesterday, I met Janice.
Kathy continues (switch to present tense to tell the story): “And she says to me… And then I say to her…”
This simplifies matters—no complex, little-used past tense is needed to tell a story! But if one wants to expand his or her conversational Italian to include the ability to narrate a story about the past formally, the passato remoto is an important tense to learn.
We should also note here that in certain southern regions, particularly in Sicily, it is the normal convention to use the passato remoto instead of the passato prossimo. In these regions, the idea that the passato remoto should be reserved for remote events or narration is not adhered to, and the passato remoto is instead chosen to speak about any past event that took place within a given period of time.
Speak Italian: Past Tense
You Will Need to Know…
“Italian Passato Remoto”—”Avere” and “Essere”
The most commonly used forms of the passato remoto are the first and third person singular of essere, which is are fui and fu.
The first and third person singular of avere, which are ebbi and ebbe are also commonly used.
Even if you don’t plan to continue to learn the passato remoto tense, remember these verbs because you will surely encounter them when reading Italian! The full conjugations of these irregular verbs are given for completeness. The stressed syllables have been underlined.
Avere—to have—Passato Remoto
|tu||avesti||you (familiar) had|
|ebbe||you (polite) had
|(se) noi||avemmo||we had|
|(se) voi||aveste||you all had|
|(se) loro||ebbero||they had|
Essere—to be—Passato Remoto
|tu||fosti||you (familiar) were|
|fu||you (polite) were
|voi||foste||you all were|
Speak Italian: Past Tense
You Will Need to Know…
“Italian Passato Remoto” Regular Conjugations
Unfortunately, before we even begin to conjugate verbs in the passato remoto, it should be noted that the passato remoto has many, many exceptions to the regular conjugation. But luckily, use of the passato remoto in novels is usually limited by the narrative form chosen, which will normally be in the first person or third person singular. This in turn limits the number of endings necessary to learn.
Also, certain verbs are used over and over in a novel in the passato remoto form—those needed to keep the flow of dialogue going, such as said, asked, answered, went, and came. So even a limited knowledge of this verb form is very useful for understanding a work of Italian fiction.
For this blog post, we will describe how to conjugate the passato remoto but will focus on only the most commonly used verbs in the singular first and third persons.
To conjugate the passsato remoto past tense…
As usual, we must first make our stem from the infinitive –are, –ere, and –ire verbs. The method used to form the stems for the passato remoto is easy—just drop the –are, –ere, or –ire from the infinitive verb!
Then we add the endings for our passato remoto conjugations to the stems.
However, a quick look at the table below, and you will notice that, for all persons except the third person singular, each ending for the passato remoto begins with the first vowel that we have just removed from the stem!
So if it makes it easier for you, think of the endings for the –are, –ere, and –ire verbs
as being the same,
except for the third person singular.
Using the above method for the third person,
for the –are verbs, the third person ending will be –ò,
for the –ere verbs, the ending will be –é, and
for the –ire verbs, the ending will be–ì.
After another glance at the table below, it soon becomes apparent that the first and third persons for the –ere form of the passato remoto will not be unique (the first person –ei ending will be the same as the first person singular (io)ending for the conditional tense; the third person é is almost identical to the third person singular (Lei, lei, lui) of the -ere and -ire present tense verbs; the third person plural –erono is identical to the third person plural of the -ere future tense verbs).
Therefore, there are alternate –ere endings for the passato remoto.
The –ere endings used most often will instead be
–tti for the first person singular,
–tte for the third person singular, and
–ttero for the third person plural.
Passato Remoto Endings for –are, –ere, and –ire Verbs
When pronouncing the passato remoto verbs, the stress will always be on the first vowel of the ending—except, of course, for the third person singular, where the ending has only one vowel and the accent reminds us that this vowel must be stressed.
Notice that andare has a regular conjugation in the passato remoto! Also, because the –etti, –ette, and –ettero forms for the –ere first and third persons are used most frequently, they are listed first.
Passato Remoto: Regular Conjugations
Speak Italian: Past Tense
You Will Need to Know…
“Italian Passato Remoto” Common Irregular Verbs
Because there are so many irregular verbs in the passato remoto past tense, we present in the following table only the most commonly used verbs—and only in the first person singular io and third person singular Lei/lei/lui forms. Notice that some of these irregular forms fall into groups, which are listed together.
Because the passato remoto is often used for historical purposes when describing famous individuals from the past, it should be mentioned here that although nascere (to be born) is irregular in the passato remoto, the verb morire (to die) is regular!
Passato Remoto: Common Irregular –are Verbs
Passato Remoto: Irregular –ere Helping Verbs
(could have had to)
Passato Remoto: Common Irregular –ere Verbs
Passato Remoto: Common Irregular Verbs That Double the Stem Consonant
Passato Remoto: Common Irregular Verbs with a Double “S” in the Stem
Passato Remoto: Common Irregular Verbs That End in –dere and –endere
Passato Remoto: Common Irregular Verbs That End in –gliere
Passato Remoto: Irregular Verbs That End in –ngere and –ncere
Passato Remoto: Verbs with –cqui in the stem
(liked/was pleasing to)
Now that you have an example story of one family’s history, try to write a narration of your own family history using the passato remoto and imperfetto past tenses. Check the conjugations in the last section if you need to when you use the passato remoto for narration!
Here are some questions you might ask a relative to get started:
- What relatives came to America?
- What year did they come to America?
- What was the family situation in Italy when they left?
- How did the family members who were left behind manage in Italy?
- How did the family members who went to America manage?
- Did any of the family return to Italy? Why?
- Did the family stay in touch despite being separated? How?
- Was the separation difficult? For whom and why?
- Did the relatives who were separated ever meet again?
- Did the children in the separated families ever meet?
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
“Everything you need to know to enjoy your visit to Italy!”
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Speak Italian : Passato Remoto—Let’s Tell a Story!