6.10.1 The English simple past

We are going to discuss the tenses once again and in detail in chapter 9. For the moment it is enough to understand that sometimes the Italian imperfetto can be translated with the simple past, but sometimes a simple past must be translated with a passato remoto (or with a passato prossimo in modern Italian) and sometimes an Italian imperfetto must be translated with a simple past continuous. In order to understand that, we must analyse the functions of the English simple past.

The English simple past is used:

1) If the beginning and the end of an action is not known or is irrelevant

Example:
There were always a lot of people in the street.
=> We don't know (or we are not interested in telling it), when that had started to happen and we don't know neither if that still happens.

2) To describe a general situation, where other actions are embedded.

Example:
It was a dark and misty morning, when he arrived. He left the train and saw her.
=> The description of the day (dark and misty morning) is a general situation and all the following isolated action (to arrive, to leave, to see) are embedded in a general situation, in the dark and misty morning. To understand the difference between the simple past and the Italian imperfetto it is crucial to see that the simple past can describe a past state or condition (It was..), a past action (He left...) and a chain of actions (He entered, saw her and left the room). The Italian imperfetto cannot be used to describe a chain of actions nor to describe a single action finished in a finished past (Yesterday the car crashed against a wall).

3) Used to must be translated with an imperfetto, but an action that happened only once with the passato remoto (or with the passato prossimo in modern Italian)

Example:
When I was in Italy I used to go to the restaurant very often.
=> If an action happened in the past REGULARLY, in other words when the periphrases used to is the correct form in English, you can use an imperfetto in Italian. Otherwise, if the action happened several times, but not regularly (He asked me the same thing one hundred times!), you must use the passato remoto or the passato prossimo. (We are going to talk in chapter 9 about that problem, the fact the passato prossimo is substituting the passato remoto.)

4) If an ongoing action is interrupted by another action, you use the simple past to describe the interrupting action.

Example:
I was reading a book, when he suddenly came in.
=>We are going to see later on that Italian has a continuous form (I was reading a book, when...) as well, but it is not as important as in English because in Italian almost always the continuous form can be replaced with the simple imperfetto. Let's see why it is like this.

Due to the fact that one function of the simple past is to describe a chain of actions, one after the other, the first action is finished, the next action follows, it is not possible to embedd another action in the action described in the simple past (~He slept when suddenly someone knocke at the door <=> He was sleeping, when...). But in Italian you have two tenses, the imperfetto and the passato remoto (or passato prossimo in modern Italian) and the imperfetto is reserved to describe actions which are not finished or where it is unclear whether they are finished or not and therefore you can embedd into the action described in the imperfetto another action.

5) Not so subtle, but a big error, would be the use of the imperfetto in an if-clause.

If I had money, I would buy a car.

In the if-clause (type II, theoretical condition) the simple past is used in English, but never, never the imperfetto in Italian, not in that if-clause nor in any other one.

Summary: The central difference beetween the simple past and the imperfect is the fact that the simple past can be used to describe a chain of actions (in this case one action is finished before the other action starts) and to describe an action, where the beginning and the end are unknown or irrelevant. These two situations are clearly separated in Italian. A chain of action is described with the passato remoto (passato prossimo in modern Italian) and actions where the beginning and the end are unknown with the imperfetto.

following actions: passato remoto / passato prossimo (Italian), simple past (English)
He entered the room, said hello, took the key from the table and left the room
Entrò nella stanza , disse buongiorno, tolse la chiave della tavola e usci.

description of a state in the past: imperfetto (Italian), simple past (English)
It was cold, he was in a bad mood, he did not have any money left, when he suddenly found* a
purse with 100 €.
Faceva freddo, stava di cattivo umore, non aveva più soldi, quando di colpo trovò* un borsellino con 100 €.

* Pay attention to the fact, that the last action is not a description of a state in the past, but an action. Therefore the passato remoto is to be used in Italian, but in English you use the same time, the simple past.

The continuous forms in English are very important, because only with the continuous form you can stress the fact that something is happening at a certain moment.

a) The earth revolves around the sun. (It has been this way already for a long time and will hopefully be also this way for a long time in the future)
b) The earth is revolving around the sun. (Using the continuous form we describe the action as something happening at a certain moment, we describe it therefore as something unusual, what is strange in this context. Because if the sun stops to revolve around the earth, we have a very serious problem.)

The simple past continuous stresses the fact that something happens in a certain moment, but not in general. Very often you can use a "normal" imperfetto when the continuous form of the simple past is compulsory in English.

I was reading a book, when he suddenly came in.
Leggevo un libro, quando lui di colpo entrò.

In this case you can construct in Italian with the imperfetto or with the construction stare + gerundio. Only if the fact that the action is actually happening in a certain moment is crucial for the understanding of the meaning of the sentence you must use the construction stare + gerundio.

Keep quiet! I am being on the phone!
Stai zitto! Sto telefonando!

If the English simple past can / must be translated with an imperfetto depends on the circumstances.

case 1) Description of a state in the past

The simple past can and must always be translated with an imperfetto.

Example:
It was a warm summer, nobody imagined that something like that could happen.
Era una estate calda, nessuno si imaginava que qualcosa di questo genere potessi avvenire.

case 2) To describe parallel actions in the past

The simple past can and must always be translated with an imperfetto.

He felt sick and sad, he did not know what to do, when he suddenly got* an idea.
Si sentiva malato e triste, no sapeva cosa fare, quando di colpo gli venne* una idea.

* Pay attention to the fact, that the verb marked with * describes an action, not a general situation. In Italian you must use the passato remoto / passato prossimo (in modern italian) in this case.

case 3) The perifrasis used to do in English is translated with the imperfetto; in other words, if we describe an action which happens regularly in the past and not only once we must use the imperfetto.

I used to visit a lot of museums, when I was in Italy.
Visitaba molti musei quando sono stato in Italia.

But if we talk about something that happens only once, we use the passato remoto (or the passato prossimo in modern Italian.)

I visited the Louvre when I was in France.
Visitai il Louvre quando sono stato in Francia.

case 4) Ongoing action interrupted by another action

In this case there is no choice in English, the continuous form of the simple past is to be used. In Italian you can use the construction stare + gerundio (which corresponds to the English continuous form) or the imperfetto.

He was sleeping, when he suddenly heard the explosion.
Stava durmendo, quando di colpo ha sentito l' esplosione.
Dormiva, quando di colpo ha sentito l' esplosione.

case 5) if-clause

In type II of the if-clause (If I had money, I would by a car) you use the the simple past in English, but the congiuntivo in Italian.

If I had money, I would by a car.
Se avessi soldi, mi comprerei una macchina.

In detail things are even more complex, because actually in English there is a subjunctive (congiuntivo) as well. You can see that if the verb to be is used.

If I were rich, I would by a car.

It is not 'If I was rich,....' , but 'if I were rich'. 'Were' is the subjunctive of 'to be'. You can find in many grammars that the if-clause uses the simple past because normally the simple past is identical to the subjunctive and only the verb 'to be' has a special form for the subjunctive.

As you can see so far, it is not possible to say that the simple past corresponds to imperfetto or that the Italian imperfetto corresponds always to the simple past continuous (you can find that statement in some grammar books). It depends on the context and it is a little bit more complicated.

The whole picture is still more complicated, because the present perfect does not correspond exactly to the passato prossimo (at least in modern Italian) and the passato remoto is a tense, which does not exist in English. We are going to discuss about the tenses once again in chapter 9.






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