How do you choose what tense to speak Italian in?

This seems to be the most difficult part of learning Italian for us Anglos.

We practice on Duolingo, faithfully, for months and months. We know a lot of Italian words and, when we are doing the lessons, we can remember which "tense" to use, because the sentences are focused on a single tense, usually. But, when it comes time for us to compose a sentence of our own, in Italian, without anything to restrict us to one tense or another, we freeze up.

The lesson sections here on Duolingo do us a bit of a disservice, because they are titled in English. So when we see a section called "Present Perfect", we don't know what that is (for 90% of the people, I'd bet). Likewise, "Imperfect". It's a word that makes English speakers glaze over. "Ooh; grammar!"

Even when we try to buckle down and learn Italian grammar, the headings are no help to us. No one seems to know what an Italian word for "Clitics" is. So you can't just Google "clitics" and expect help there. In fact, here's what Wikipedia says that Clitics is:

In morphology and syntax, a clitic (from Greek κλιτικός klitikos, "inflexional") is a morpheme that has syntactic characteristics of a word, but depends phonologically on another word or phrase.


Anyway, this is just a long introduction to get you to a useful video link that I found. This is quite an advanced video, since she doesn't speak much English during it, except for the translated examples, but it does show you how to use four common Italian tenses; Presente, Imperfetto, Passato, e Trapassato and you should be able to use the key words/ phrases to help you here on Duolingo.

Examples, using key words and showing (the Italian tense):

  • I think they are (presente)
  • I think they have been (passato)
  • I thought they were (imperfetto)
  • I thought they had been (trapassato)

In another video, she explains that imperfetto often has the English equivalent of, "I used to, but that was in the past, not now." For example, "I used to go to school (but not any more)".

May 13, 2015


Does this help?

I put this together, and keep it handy for when I am working with Italian translations. As for remembering what tense to use while speaking, I don't think anyone really thinks about it, they just repeat phrases they have used or heard before, that sound right. It's really about the time you spend practicing speech.

May 13, 2015

Actually the video was not about how to pronounce or spell the forms, but rather it was about when to use which form. She covered what some of us might call "sequence of tenses".

But that is a very nice form chart you linked!

May 13, 2015

I really like your chart. I'd like to have an opportunity to speak Italian.

May 14, 2015

have you tried

May 14, 2015

I presume it requires a microphone? I have never had/used one.

May 15, 2015

I saw your comment where you say you have dial-up, so I'm not sure if your connection is fast enough for audio/video anyway, but there is a text feature, and that's what I use most often. The person with whom you are texting, can edit your texts, and that has been very useful for me. Normally, I use a script of what I want to say in normal conversations, and then if I get corrected, I copy from the text page, to my script. I previously used Skype with a French language partner and we would e-mail a script back and forth, beforehand. When we were on-line, we'd use the script as the basis for our conversations. The script had both languages, so my French speaker knew the English was correct, and she would use it to Skype with others as well.

May 15, 2015

Thanks! I'll keep this in mind.

May 15, 2015

Thanks. This is a terrific chart!

May 14, 2015

This Spanish one is the one that inspired my chart:

I also made one for French, on my French blog:

May 14, 2015

If it doesn't take too long, can you make one for Portuguese? Thank you!

May 16, 2015

My charts (Italian, French) are done in Excel. If you would like a copy of the file, so that you can make a Portuguese version, e-mail either of the blogs, and I'll send you an Excel file that has both.

May 16, 2015

I don't have a blog though, I just wanted it so I can easily just look at it, and I know which tense to use in Portuguese.

May 16, 2015

I love the chart - thank you!

May 14, 2015

Grazie. This looks useful. Most of the remaining DL modules for me are new verb tenses, and I already struggle with knowing when to use the tenses already completed. Bravo.

May 17, 2015

So you can't just Google "clitics" and expect help there.

Have you tried Googling "Italian clitics"

May 14, 2015

That's great Mabby, I have been living in Italy for 5 months now and I struggle with working out which tense to use- in fact I just struggle! By the time I work out what to say and how to say it- people have wandered off, thinking I am a halfwit! You can know lots of vocabulary but putting it together is another thing altogether!

May 13, 2015

HI Mabby. I totally agree that it's easy to do the tenses in the lessons because you can expect the tense that the lesson handles, but when it wall gets mixed up, it's much more difficult. I thought that the general 'strengthen skills' button on the right of the homepage would mix things up a bit but they don't. It would be really useful if you could do a mixed-up lesson in Duo where it picks randomly from any of the lessons. Also, when you go back and do a non-grammar lesson (eg time, medical, science etc), it would be really good if the lessons incorporate the tenses that you've already learnt. So even if you learn Passato Remoto (right near the end), and then you go back and redo clothing, it would be awesome if the clothing lesson included Passato Remoto. This would be fabulous.

Anybody know if something like this is offered? Or how to suggest this to Duo?

May 14, 2015

Hi Mabby! Thanks for your post, I agree that it’s sometimes difficult to choose which tense to use when speaking Italian! I get confused between Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto quite a lot!

I just wanted to point out that the video you’ve put a link to actually describes the differences between the four subjunctive tenses, as opposed to the four equivalent indicative ones. However, it’s still a great video (as all of Lucrezia’s are) and explains your point nicely!

You should check out these videos by Tom Txxytu as well, who outlines many of the Italian verb tenses really clearly:


Passato Prossimo:

Futuro Semplice:




Congiuntivo Presente:

Congiuntivo Passato:

Congiuntivo Imperfetto:

Hope this helps!

May 15, 2015

She speaks especially slowly and clearly, and even has Italian captions available, all of which is very nice of her.

May 13, 2015

I am sorry that I can't watch the videos (slow dial-up). It sounds like they are really helpful.

May 14, 2015

Mabby, you nailed it. I can relate to the freeze upon having to start a conversation. The skill headings on duolingo could use some upgrades, particularly for tenses. Why are those headings so invisible? Often times I am interrupted by one thing or another and then I've forgotten what skill I was working on. :( I know, I'm old. But it's a penalty I don't need for the lack of a bit of clarity in a header.

May 14, 2015

They're on the status line. Of course, I know that's not highly visible, and I, too, forget sometimes what skill I'm on. (I'm old, too!)

May 15, 2015

How do you choose what tens to speak English in? Credo che sia lo stesso approccio al problema. Io fatico a capire le sfumature delle forme del futuro in inglese. Ma non demordere! Il senso 'affiora'...

May 19, 2015

As far as tenses go, I don't know much about it in Italian, however I do know Spanish and will assume that the two are similar. The passato prossimo can be used to say that you have done something (I have eaten today), or that you did something in the past, while the imperfect can be used for habitual/descriptive actions. So if you want to say you went for a walk yesterday, you use the passato prossimo. If you want to say what time you went and what the weather was like, you use the imperfect because it is describing something. If you want to say you went to the park all the time when you were a child, you would use the imperfect, as it as a habitual action (something you would use "used to" with). The difficulty with these two tenses is that in English we have one past tense, but in romance languages, there tends to be two. Hope that helps!

May 20, 2015
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