January 8


The Present isn’t always so Perfect

By Rick

January 8, 2013

teaching english in RomeI remember seeing a movie once about an auto race or road rally or something where one of the drivers was an Italian.  When he got into his car the first thing he did was to rip the rear-view mirror from the windshield and throw it in the back seat.  His comment was, “The first rule of Italian driving: what’s-a behind me, it’s-a not important.”

This might be helpful to keep in mind when teaching the past tenses to Italians.  To them—it seems to me—the past isn’t all that important.  Or rather, their scale of time is so much grander than ours that it makes precise timekeeping superfluous.  In America, we think of history in terms of years or decades, whereas in Italy it is thought of in terms of centuries and millennia—so maybe that’s the difference.

Indeed, as I study the Italian language myself, I’m often confounded by the apparent subjectivity of their past tenses.  They use the passato prossimo for things that happened (more or less) recently, and the passato remoto for things that happened a (relatively) long time ago.  The choice of which tense to use appears to be at the total discretion of the speaker and the accepted conventions vary from region to region. 

Again, I think it’s more a question of the timescale.  I almost thought that I had this figured out until I once asked a Sicilian man if he’d care to have a coffee with me, to which he replied, in Sicilian, “No, grazie, mi nni bbivìa unu uora,”—No thanks, I just had one (in the passato remoto tense). Now granted, he was an older man, but I doubt he was referring to a cup of coffee that he had consumed during the Fascist era.  In fact, I know for sure that not more than an hour could have “passato” since his last coffee; not really very “remoto,” even by my American standards.

teaching the present perfect tense
Does this come in an XL?

But I digress.  For Italians learning English, one of the main challenges is in understanding the difference between the simple past and the present perfect.  The simple past is (almost) equivalent to their passato prossimo, but the present perfect is something that simply doesn’t exist in the Italian language.  Even Italians who speak excellent English can still make this particular mistake sometimes.  Perhaps the difficulty lies not only in the understanding the grammar rules, but also in the cultural context.

Let’s look at a few examples.  If I say, “John lived at home until he was eighteen,” we see that I’ve used the simple past to indicate an event that started in the past and finished in the past.

But if I say, “Giovanni has lived with his parents his whole life,” it’s clear that I’ve chosen the present perfect tense because this is something that started in the past, but is still true at the present moment (much to the chagrin of Giovanni’s fidanzata).

present perfect diagramThe Italians also have the imperfetto form, which is (almost) similar to the “used to” form in English.  We say “used to” when we want to imply that a past action was either repeated often or occurred over a long period of time.  Instead, the simple past is normally employed for a one-off event.

Going back our good friend Giovanni, I could say, “Giovanni watched the soccer match last night.”  One time, in the past, finished.  Fine.  But this is very different than saying, “Giovanni used to watch soccer only once a week, but now that his mother bought him a Sky Sport subscription for his onomastico day, he watches it all day long and does little else with his time.”  (Again, I think it’s safe to say that the girlfriend is probably weighing her options at this point).

Teaching the Present Perfect Tense

So then the beginning student might ask you: what’s the difference between “I used to live in Rome,” and “I’m used to living in Rome?”  For native English speakers, the difference is clear, even if you can’t quite explain it in grammatical terms.  The first sentence states an action that happened over a long period of time in the past (as in the above example with Giovanni and his soccer obsession), whereas the second sentence refers to habits, tolerances and such.  (The Italian word is abituarsi.)  “I’m used to living in Rome,” implies that I’m accustomed to the things that make living in Rome unique.

For example, I’m “used to” (accustomed /adapted/ habituated to) the weather in Rome.  I’m used to the food in Rome.  I’m used to the gridlocked traffic; I’m used to businesses being closed in the middle of the day for no apparent reason; I’m used to the public service employees who regard my presence merely as an obstacle to their next cigarette break; I’m used to Berlusconi avoiding prosecution and making a mockery of the justice system while continuing to run for public office; and so on.  So you see, while the two sentences appear to be similar structurally, they are really quite separate in meaning.

Finally, I should point out one additional fact that comes up from time to time when teaching this specific grammar point.  The verb “to go” is the only verb in English with which we can use two different past participles to mean two slightly different things.  These two forms are “been” and “gone.”  Let’s return to our example one last time to illustrate this important distinction regarding the present perfect tense.

playing soccer in the present perfect
Roma, Roma, Roma…

Giovanni’s girlfriend has been to London several times.

Giovanni’s girlfriend has gone to London and she has no intention of returning to Rome anytime soon to resume her so-called “relationship” with a 35 year-old man who still lives with his mother and watches soccer all day.

To be clear, when we say that someone “has been” someplace, we mean to say that they went and then returned.  But if we say someone “has gone,” we imply that they haven’t come back yet.  (And in the case of Giovanni’s girlfriend, it seems unlikely that she ever will.)

I sympathize with our Italian friends when it comes to learning this particular verb tense.  It seems logical that the term “present perfect” would specify a present tense; but instead it’s actually a past tense.  Strange, no?  But for us (Americans, anyway), the present and the past are so close to one another that they are almost indistinguishable.  Not so for an Italian.  The Roman Republic was founded 2,500 years ago, so the Renaissance was practically last year and World War II was yesterday.

Given that perspective, “only” 35 years of living at home with your mother doesn’t seem like such a long time.  Makes sense to me…but I’m not sure that Giovanni’s girlfriend would agree. In fact, she tweeted this from London yesterday (in perfect English, I might add):

[thrive_text_block color=”blue” headline=”Twitter”]@mammone: I used to live in #Rome but now I’m used to living in London. Go #Chelsea![/thrive_text_block]

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Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Hell, now you’ve got me confused about English. Who came up with the term present perfect anyway? It’s the grammar equivalent of Democratic Republic of Korea. Hilarious string about Giovanni’s girlfriend. I’ve met three Roman women who broke up with men over calcio.

    John Henderson
    Dog-Eared Passport: http://www.johnhendersontravel.com

    • Thanks John, but if I’m being totally honest, the grammar discussion was just a bit of misdirection in order to poke fun at the tifosi/mammoni. I guess I hit the mark though if you have 3 real life examples to back it up! Grazie!!

  • In general the imperfetto is used yes for repetitive actions but also for express action not clearly closed in the past. At example “ieri alle 8, cucinavo” expresses that yesterday I cooked but it is not “perfectly” clear if I terminated to do it. Usually a sentence like this introduces another action “ieri alle 8 cucinavo quando è suonato il campanello”. This is in contrast to passato remoto (what latin name was “perfetto”), which defines a concluded action in the past. The difference between passato prossimo (born from the merging in late latin period between the have\be verbs and the adjective: habeo litteram scriptam – I have a written letter transformed as sense in I have written a letter)
    and remoto is like Rick told, a matter of time perception: in South Italy is more common use passato remoto for the past, in north Italy the prossimo.
    Anyway the imperfetto has many uses in spoken language: italian grammar is like our laws: very detailed and complex but no people respect it completly in daily life, it is a matter of interpretation or situation.

    • Ciao Davide! I love your explanations–much more clear than mine. But yes, daily life is more interesting when it requires a little creative interpretation. Thanks for your comment, informative and funny!

  • great post, Rick!! gotta really say you nailed it!! i went over these tenses just yesterday at the univ. and students had problems… so i’ll tell all my students about your blog;)

    RE arigrz: you know he’s still living with his mom because of that tense. In ital you’d translate it with a present “abito con mamma da 35” so he’s still living there. if he moved out, he would say “i lived with my mom for 35 years”. basically, despite what they teach you at school, you can use FOR with simple past.

    Rick, as for ital tenses, i think in most cases, Italians are more precise 😛 esp. IF clauses
    they just lack the “duration concept” of the English continuous forms. for me though, when i recap Ital pasts, i teach:
    – Imperfetto is for a repetitive action in the past, no matter when it happened, as long as it was repetitive
    – Pass pross is for a one time action in the past, like simple past in American Engl., no matter what past we are talking about (close or far)
    – trapassato pross is for something that happened before another past action (either in imp or pass pross)
    – pass remoto: we can forget about it as it’s almost dead in standard Italian… but it’s for an action that happened way back in the past. even worse for trap rem… up north we use these 2 tenses only in classic lit, history and to make fun 😀

    i don’t hide you though that, sometimes, i borrow the English duration form and i take the freedom translate it into Ital eg: “sono stata leggendo un bel libro”…

    • Great comments, Lucia. Tell me if I understand you correctly: you’re saying that “sono stata leggendo un bel libro,” would be “wrongly translated” as “I had been reading a good book?” Wow, maybe this is the next step in the merging of two languages!

      • it’s actually the opposite: “i’ve been reading” in my own very personal new language wrongly becomes “sono stata leggendo” which doesn’t exist as a tense. but “leggo” and “sto leggendo” don’t satisfy me enough 🙁
        that’s what happens when you think in one language and speak another one… there are words/structures/expressions that just don’t feel good enough in one language so you borrow them from another 🙂
        i know i “have many worms in my head” so this is how i keep balanced…plus Italians are forgiving, they always understand 😉

  • Everything seems clear with you!
    I think I got the difference (or “I’ve got”?), but I ask you another question. In Italy, one of the rules teachers teach us is that you use the present perfect with the duration form (at least, until you study the present perfect continuous), so you learn that with “since” and “for” you shouldn’t have doubts: present perfect! The problem is when you meet Giovanni and you don’t know anything about him, and he tells you “I’ve lived with my mother for 35 years”. How can you know if he still lives with her or if he stopped? I think there has been a huge misunderstanding about this with his (ex?) girlfriend…

    • ha, ha, ha…yes, Giovanni and his girlfriend have a few “issues” to work out. But I think she’ll get tired of the food in London and come home for some Carbonara eventually!

  • Hi Richard, that was excellent – a great way of explaining the differences. I wonder, though, when the perfect became the present perfect? I noticed this during my post-grad TESOL training, and my lecturer didn’t have a reasonable answer. Surely if we stick to calling the perfect the perfect, rather than the present perfect, it will cause less confusion all round. Apparently the pluperfect has also gone the way of the dinosaur – very sad.

    • Ahh…very interesting. And yes, a bit sad. Not sure of the history there, but I know that I haven’t heard the “pluperfect” spoken of since…well, I can’t recall when. And in any case, how can a tense be “more than” perfect? A bit presumptuous, don’t you think? ha, ha

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