9.2 the tense system in English


9.2.1 preface

t is crucial to see that there is no one to one relationship between the English tense system and the Italian tense system, in other words, depending on the context the same tense in English can be translated with different tenses to Italian and an Italian tense can be translated with different tenses to English.

The simple past can be translated with an imperfetto, passato prossimo or a passato remoto depending on his function in the sentence.

Simple past describing a single action in the past => passato remoto / passato prossimo

He broke his leg.
=> Si è fratturato una gamba. / Si fratturò una gamba.

Simple past describing a regularly repeated action in the past => imperfetto

Every day he asked me the same thing.
=> Ogni giorno mi chiedeva la stessa cosa.

Simple past describing a state in the past. => imperfetto

It was six o' clock when he arrived.
=> Erano le sei quando è arrivato.

The Italian passato prossimo can be translated either with a simple past or with the present perfect depending on the context


The passato prossimo has assumed the functions of the passato remoto, describes an action that happened only once in the past => simple past

La macchina si è schiantato contro un muro.
=> A car crashed against a wall.
(classical Italian: La macchina si schiantò contro un muro.
=> A car crashed against a wall.)

Passato prossimo has assumed the functions of the passato remoto, describes following actions in the past => simple past

Ha escrito la carta, è andato a la posta, e l' ha despedita.
=> He wrote the letter, went to the post office and send it away.
(classical Italian: Scrisse la carta, andò alla posta e lo inviò.)
=> He wrote the letter, went to the post office and send it away.

Passato prossimo is used in his "original function", describes a relationship to the present of the speaker => present perfect. In this circumstances a present perfect is always translated with the passato prossimo.

I have worked the whole day, I am tired now.
Ho lavorato tutta la giornata, sono stanco adesso.


Concerning English we can keep it simple by simplifying a bit. It there is a relationship of an action that happened in the past to the present of the speaker, we use the present perfect and in all other circumstances we use the simple past. It doesn't matter if the event happened only once, if it is an event which happened regularly in the past or if we describe a state in the past. It is always simple past.

The tense system in nowadays Italian (at least in the north of Italy) can only be understood through the tense system in the classical Italian. In classical Italian we have (and still have in the south of Italy) three tenses.

The imperfetto has four functions:

- describes a state in the past:
It was cold. / Faceva freddo.

- describes parallel actions:
While he read the newspaper, she smokes a cigarette. / Mentre lui leggeva il giornale lei fumava una cigaretta.

- describes an action which has been interrupted by another action:
He was sleeping peacefully in his bed, when she came in. / Dormiva tranquillamente nel suo letto quando entrò.

- describes an action whose end and beginning are irrelevant
When I saw her last time, she worked as a waitress. Quando la vidi l'ultima volta lavorava di cameriera.



The passato remoto has two functions:

- describs a finished action in a finished period of the past
I lost my purse. Perdei il mio borsellino.

- a chain of events
He chose a book, paid it and left the store. Scelse un libro, pagò e uscì.

- describs the action which interrupted another action
He was writing a letter to her when she suddenly stood at the door. Stava scrivendo una carta quando di golpo lei apparì nella porta.

The passato prossimo has one function
- establishing a close relationship between something that happened in the past and the present of the speaker.
I have lost my job I can' t pay the rent. Ho perduto il mio lavoro, no posso pagare l' affitto.

 

In nowadays Italian the passato prossimo has assumed the function of the passato remoto and all the functions of the passato remoto are translated to English with the simple past. Therefore, you have very often a situation where an English simple past is to be translated with a passato prossimo, something that may seem strange to someone whose mother tongue is English because in English this tense is only used to describe a relationship with the present of the speaker.

If we stick to the classical Italian we have two different situations. We can translate from Italian to English or from English to Italian. In the first case it is very easy. Both, the passato remoto and the imperfetto are translated with the simple past, it is not even necessary to understand the Italian tense system in this case. The problem is that  in real live we have to produce sentences in Italian and so we must understand that sometimes the simple past should be translated with a passato remoto and sometimes with an imperfetto. All the functions realised in English by one single tense, the simple past, are realised in Italian by two tenses. Only the present perfect is simple, if we stick to classical Italian. The english present perfect is always translated with the passato prossimo.

If we stick to the nowadays Italian, in other words the Italian spoken in the north of Italy the situation is still more confusing. In this case we must see, that the passato prossimo has assumed the function of the passato remoto and therefore even the English simple past is sometimes to be translated with the passato prossimo.

After that general overview we are going to focus on the details.






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