table of content chapter 1818.2.2 sequence of tenses - introductory verb in a past tense

chapter 18: sequence of tenses

  18.2.2 sequence of tenses in Italian if the introductory verb is in a tense of the past
  Let's make a summary and some annotations.

1)   In general all the tenses has to move one step back if the moment when something is reported or imagined is in a period of time before someone images or tells what had been imagined or told before because the chronicle order has to be respected. That's why a present becomes an imperfetto, a passato prossimo a trapassato prossimo and so on.


The only exception is the imperfetto. The imperfetto remains an imperfetto.

Lui diceva: "Lei non lo sapeva."
Lui diceva che lei non lo sapeva.

In order to understand why the imperfetto remains unchanged we must speak once again about one function of the imperfetto, the function to describe an action / event whose beginning or end is unknown or irrelevant.

Lavorava molto.
He worked a lot.

This sentence means that someone in the past worked a lot and we don't know when he started to do that and when he stopped doing it. If someone tells later that someone else said that he worked a lot it is very possible that he is actually still working a lot. In theory we have three differente possibilities to transforme the imperfetto in the reported speech.

a) Lui disse che lei lavorava molto.
==> He said, that she worked a lot.
b) Lui disse che lei lavorò molto.
==> He said, that she worked a lot.
c) Lui disse che lei aveva lavorato molto.
=> He said, that he had worked a lot.

The crucial point we must see is that the imperfetto has an open ending. Lavorava means that someone works in the past and that it is very well possible that he still does it at the moment when someone else reportes what a third person reported before. Therefore, only a) reports correctly what someone else said before. The meaning of sentence b) would be said someone had worked a lot before the report, but does not do it anymore. The passato remoto describes a finished action in a finished passed and the same thing would happen using the trapassato prossimo, because the trapassato prossimo describes anteriority.

To make it clearer we can take another example.

Lavorò molto.

In this case the action is finished because the passato prossimo describes a finished action in a finished passed. If someone tells two days later that someone told that he worked a lot, then we can't use the imperfetto. The action has to be described as a finished action in a finished passed.

Lui disse che lei lavorò molto.
Lui disse che lei aveva lavorato molto.