9.2.2 the simple past in English

The simple past in English is used in very different situations.

examples
  a) I went to school.
  b) He bought a bike.
  c) The school was red.


In all these sentences we use the simple past, but the function of the simple past in these sentences is very different. In a) the simple past describes an action repeated regularly in the past, if we suppose that he went to school regularly, in other words several times and not only one time. In b) the simple past describes an action which happened only once in the past. In c) we have the description of a state in the past, not an action.

You can read on many websites and grammar books that the English simple past corresponds to the imperfetto or that simple past corresponds to the present perfect or that the present perfect corresponds to the passato remoto, etc. etc. All statements of this kind are wrong, the Italian tense system doesn't correspond to the English one and therefore there is no one to one relationship. We see that if we translate the sentences above.

a) Andava a scuola. b) Ha comprato una bicicletta. c) La scuola era rossa.

A correct translation is only possible, if we take into account the context. If we don't know the context, all the translation below are possible and in some context correct. The following little discussion is just an introduction to the problem, we are going to present each tense in detail, the formation and the use, later. Let' s translate the sentence above with different tenses.

a) I went to school. <=> (a) Andò a scuola. / (b) Andava a scuola. / (c) È andato a scuola.

This simple sentence can be translated with three different tenses and all versions can be correct depending on the context. The simple sentence "I went to school" can have (even if we exclude the possibility that he went there only once) two different meanings. A possible meaning is that he got his first training at school and that this process is finished. In this case, we consider the whole action as one single action and we use the passato remoto (a), if we want to apply the rules of the classical Italian or the passato remoto, if we follow the rules of nowadays Italian. Finally, we can interpret the sentence as well as an action repeated regularly in the past. In this case, we use the imperfetto (b). But if someone want to say that someone else is not at home, because he has gone to school, then we use the passato prossimo (c).

b) He bought a bike. <=> Si comprò una bicicletta. / Si è comprato una bicicletta.

The second function of the English simple past is to describe an action which happened only once in the past. In this case, it can never be translated with the Italian imperfecto. It must be translated with the passato remoto, if the rules of classical Italian are applied or with the passato prossimo if we follow the rules of nowadays Italian.

c) The school was red. <=> La scuola era rosa. (La scuola fu rosse. La scuola è stata rossa.)

If we look at the isolated sentence the most plausible translation is with the imperfetto. The simple past and the imperfetto are used to describe a state in the past. But depending on the context, there can be different translations as well.

The school was red but then they painted it blue.
<=> La scuola fu rossa, ma dopo l' hanno tinteggiata d' azzurro.
<=> La scuola è stata rossa, ma dopo l' hanno tinteggiata d' azzurro.

In this case we talk about a state in the past as well, but in this case it is finished and the passato remoto or the passato prossimo it to be used.

From that we can draw the following conclusions.

1) It is well possible that an Italian tense and an English tense has one function in common, but that doesn't mean that they have ALL of their respective functions in common. Therefore, it depends on the context, which tense is to be used in a certain context.

2) More than English (because in English in most of the cases we use the simple past, so it is very hard to confuse one tense with an other) we have to consider the context. The tense to be used depends on the context.

The second problem is the translation of the continuous form. There is some overuse of the continuous form when English native speakers speak Spanish or Italian, which is due to the fact that the continuous form in English is used much more frequently than in Italian. Even if something similar exists in Italian as well, stare + gerundio, it is not as important as it is in English.

The continuous form is used to describe an action as something happening in a concrete moment.

1) Ripe apples fall from the trees.

<=> Mele mature cadono dagli alberi.

2) Ripe apples are falling from the trees.

<=> Mele mature stanno cadendo dagli alberi. / Mele mature cadono dagli alberi.

It is obvious that these two sentences doesn't have the same meaning. Sentence a) describe a general rule, it is always like that, ripe apples fall from the trees, year after year. Sentence 2) describes this fact as somenthing happening in a concrete moment, but not a general rule. The distinction exists as well in Italian, but nevertheless the contionuous form is rarely used to mark the difference, because the italian imperfetto is already able to realize this function.

1) Ripe apples fall from the trees.

<=> Mele mature cadevano dagli alberi.

2) Ripe apples were falling from the trees.

<=> Mele mature stavano cadendo / cadevano dagli alberi.

If you have just an isolated sentence you can use the simple past in English and the imperfetto in Italian, but 1) means that it happened regularly, every year ripe apples fall from the trees, and 2) describes this action as something happening in a concrete moment, Ripe apples were falling from the trees, when she kissed him and in Italian you can use the imperfetto as well in this context. The typical overuse of the Italian continuous form (stare + gerundio) by English native speakers is due to the fact that in Italian the continuous form is rarely used. Italians prefer to construct with the imperfetto even if the meaning of the sentence (in some rare cases) becomes ambiguous and can be interpreted in two different ways.

The translation of the sentenced above would be.

Ripe apples were falling from the trees, when she kissed him.
Mele mature cadevano dagli alberi, quando lei gli ha baciato.
(possible, but a little bit unusual: Mele mature stavano cadendo dagli alberi, quando lei gli ha baciato.)






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