I have searched past questions but cannot find an answer.

Now I have reached a point in my learning when I am brave enough to use more then the present tense. I am confused about the difference between passato prossimo and passato remoto when selecting verb tenses. It appears that even Italians vary in their use as something I have read says that the passato remoto tenses are used more often the further South one goes.

I would like to know when passato remoto kicks in. Is it 10 years ago, 100 years ago, in Roman times?

  • 3
    I don't think anybody was upset with you :-) This question of yours was closed as off-topic; this was marked as a duplicate. It is fine: you didn't do anything wrong. So be bold and, when you have a question, just ask.
    – user193
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 6:40
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    Thanks for this question! Please keep asking whenever you encounter any difficulties in understanding specifics of Italian. And please believe me, everybody here is glad to answer a good question. :)
    – I.M.
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 11:44
  • Thank you for reassuring me. It seems that this platform rewards users for editing contributions but also punishes those who are frequently clumsy with wording. I appreciate all the help I get here with developing my understanding of the beautiful language.
    – Jim's Mum
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 0:01
  • It's not about punishing those who use clumsy wording - StackOverflow users tend to be much worse at that, for example - it's about keeping questions "interesting" by removing duplicates and unrelated (off-topic) content, and preventing users from posting it. Feel free to keep posting; just pick up the habit to ensure that your question is on-topic and hasn't been already answered. Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 10:22
  • Fantastic explanation by all of you. Thanks a lot. It is indeed the same thing as "present perfect" vs "simple past" in English and "pretérito perfecto compuesto" vs "pretérito perfecto simple" in Spanish.
    – Renê
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 16:18

3 Answers 3


There is not a specific time limit at which one or the other tense kicks in: the distinction is rather given by whether the action you are describing, and all its effects, are concluded, in which case you use passato remoto (for instance, “Giovanni Boccaccio visse nel XIV secolo”); or it happening or beginning in the past, but its effect being still with us, in which case you use passato prossimo (e.g., “In un certo senso la società capitalistica di tipo moderno ha avuto inizio nel XIV secolo”).

So, there is not a rigid distinction; the fact itself you use one tense rather than the other might mean you intend to convey a sense of distance or, on the contrary, an involvement in what you are telling.

In other, Luca Serianni's, words, «[il passato remoto] inserisce l'azione entro coordinate temporali nette, marcandone la compiutezza, lo stacco rispetto al presente», while a sentence expressed with passato prossimo «rivive il processo nei suoi riflessi successivi, collegando il fatto [...] con un implicito risultato attuale» (Luca Serianni, Italiano, XI, 377).

To make the point clearer, and taking an example from Serianni's passage quoted above, you may use any of the two tenses in the same sentence, according to what you mean: if you say «da giovane lessi molto» you might imply now you don't read anymore and don't consider that as a true part of your education; if you say «da giovane ho letto molto», you probably mean that that had a lasting effect: for instance, you might add «e oggi mi considero istruito» or «e non mi lascio attrarre dall'ultimo premio letterario».

The sense that passato remoto refers to events far in the past while passato prossimo refers to recent ones is a consequence of the above. Events of one thousand years ago are often less relevant to our lives than events of just yesterday, but not necessarily.

Then again, not all Italians make full use of these potentialities; Tuscans, Romans and other living in Central Italy are most aware of them. Northern Italians tend to use almost exclusively passato prossimo, even for historical facts, while in parts of Southern Italy passato remoto is widely used as the unique past tense.

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    +1 -- I'd like to highlight a bit more the last point: the usage of these tenses varies greatly among regions. In the North of Italy passato remoto simply isn't used at all in everyday speech, while the opposite happens in the South. The sentence Ieri andai a fare la spesa may sound perfectly normal for someone in the South but it sounds really awkward from someone in the North.
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 11:30
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    Thank you for such a comprehensive explanation. Examples always help to make the point clearer.
    – Jim's Mum
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 0:08
  • I think that in Tuscany passato remoto is used more than in Latium, which is a "small" reversal of the general north-south trend. Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 21:03

Isn't the easiest thing, for a native English speaker, to just look at how English is used?

English has basically the same tenses:

passato prossimo = present perfect (e.g. I've been to the cinema)

passato remoto = past (e.g. I went to the cinema)

In English, you can say "I saw him a minute ago", i.e. use the past tense for something relatively recent. In Italian it's the same.

What "remoto" (i.e. remote) means is how the speaker perceives the action. With "I went to the cinema" the action is perceived as remote. It's a done thing, a point in the past when something happened (even if it's only a minute ago). That's why it's used in story telling—which is a series of things that happened (when it's set in the past of course).

With the passato prossimo (which like in English, is actually a present tense, not a true past tense) the action is perceived as relating to the present. When you say "I've been to the cinema", the consequence of that action is brought to the present. The implication might be that you're tired, and you don't want to go out again (for example).

The choice of tense is a choice of the speaker. It's the speaker that chooses how to describe an action. The choice of tense is not necessarily dictated by the event itself (i.e. how long ago it happened). Language learners tend to forget that.

However, of course there are differences, the most obvious being that Italians in the North don't actually use the passato remoto in spoken Italian.

In English, "Yesterday, I've been to the cinema" is wrong. But not in Italian (especially in the North).

Even in English, "I went to the cinema already" is correct in American English, but not British English (and sounds distinctly American), where you should use the present perfect instead.

But fundamentally the two tenses have the same meaning in each language.

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    Thank you for your contribution to this discussions. These tenses are very hard to grasp for a native English speaker. I then move on to having more than one past tense in the same sentence and my brain starts to hurt AHHHH!
    – Jim's Mum
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 4:49
  • The third to last paragraph seems to imply the sentence "Ieri sono andato al cinema" is less correct than "Ieri andai al cinema", but that's not true. The one using passato remoto may only be heard in parts of Calabria, Apulia and Sicily. More generally, it's not true that passato remoto is used whenever the time of action is made explicit (as opposed to past simple in English). Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:02

The passato remoto tense and the passato prossimo tenses have always existed in Italian, to mark the difference, respectively, between an past action performed in the "far past" and in the "near" past.

Far and near have here a relative meaning, one year ago is far past in a sentence which compares to today, as in

Oggi torno a Milano per un evento, ci andai pure l'anno scorso.

On the same footing, near past may be yesterday, as in

Vado oggi a Milano perché ieri non sono riuscita ad andarci.

Of course, whether to use one or the other of the two tenses is a fuzzy choice, and there may be preferences by parts of the peninsula. As an example, I tend to use more passato remotos than the average person.

This said, the difference is roughly the same occurring between simple past (passato remoto) and present perfect (passato prossimo).

  • Thank you Martina. The examples help to clarify the point. After a lifetime of using English, I am finding Italian challenging but very much worth the effort.
    – Jim's Mum
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 0:10

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