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Italian Trapassato Prossimo and Past Perfect: Reflections from the Field

The story of an Italian native speaker who writes in English, between Past Italian and Past Perfect English

by Luca Passani
Achieving the expressiveness typically used in the Italian language is not easy, but using proper English can create a similar effect. Grammar is just a scaffold, a formidable tool, but alone it is not enough. There is "Field Experience" behind it. For instance, the use of the 'Past and Present' and 'Past Perfect' are perfect examples of it.

Italians who study English learn that the Italian Trapassato Prossimo should be translated with the English Past Perfect. If you are an English-speaking student who is studying Italian, chances are that you learned the same exact thing, only in the opposite direction, of course. After years spent confronting the two languages, I need to express a word of caution, “Not so fast, kid!” This “mapping” represents a good approximation and an okay starting point, but you have much to gain if you give it some extra thought.

My knowledge of languages is not university grade, even though I did pretty well in English while in high school. This in itself would not qualify me to publicly discern grammatical nuances. What prompted me to write this article is, however, a long field experience, combined with the need to step up and be an Italian teacher for my son, who would otherwise be inexorably doomed to US-style monolingualism.

I’m an Italian native speaker. My first encounter with the English language was in Italian middle school. Over the years, I have written parts of books in English and various articles in both English and Italian, always on IT-related topics, of course. As the CTO of an American IT company, I often find myself writing emails, internal-use documents, and even blog posts meant for an international audience.

The question that I try to answer pretty much daily relates to the clash between two contradictory requirements, and the compromises that I occasionally discover to ‘settle the case’. Here’s the question:

“How do I master a correct form of English that still preserves the expressiveness that I normally have in Italian?”

This goal is not always easy to achieve, but I have come to rely on a bag of tricks that I have been collecting through years of experience. By now I have ended up regarding Italian and English grammars as little more than scaffolding, i.e. formidable tools to understand how correct sentences are built and formed, but which (learners of new languages beware!) will not suffice by itself on your path to mastery. There exists a de-facto “language sensitivity” that cannot be achieved through a mere knowledge of grammatical rules, but only with years of field experience. Understanding and being understood in a language that is not your own is only one part of the experience. The other part is observing daily how native speakers create phrases and use expressions that are (still) not part of your weaponry, i.e. what linguists call the “active vocabulary” of each person, if memory doesn’t fail me.

A telling example from personal experience is from the day I told an American how, while I was driving, a sudden obstacle materialized in front of my car and so I “braked”. “You braked …?”. Yup! I braked. The other party pointed out that the expression was wrong and that the correct one was “I jammed on the brakes”.  With the support of an English dictionary I objected that the verb “to brake” existed and it was regular. To no avail. I’d better accept that “I braked” was wrong. This is not how people speak in the US!

Further research showed that this is not actually the case. People with an academic background have confirmed that the expression is correct and usable. Native speakers without specific studies, however, keep claiming that the expression “I braked” jars their ears. Now, how interesting is that!?

This is one of many examples of how grammar does help, yet there is more to a language than grammar. Our mind’s neural networks record patterns, and those patterns decide whether the language used by someone is correct or not. Grammar can be regarded as an a posteriori attempt to describe those patterns, but only those who learned their native tongue as children completely master it. Personally, I suspect that they do it best when the structures of other languages aren’t there to confuse things.

Of course, the litmus test of all this is that the vast majority of people either do not know or have forgotten the grammatical rules of their own language. They just use it! Try asking an Italian about the Trapassato Prossimo of the verb “Andare” or asking your average American about the Past Perfect tense of the verb “to go”, and they will probably respond that they vaguely recall studying those things back in the days, but are unable to give an answer offhand.

The long introduction was necessary to set the stage. I am going to discuss the relationship between Past Perfect in English and Trapassato Prossimo in Italian. Grammar courses inform us that there is a one-to-one relation between the two: Past Perfect must become Trapassato Prossimo and vice versa. Those who are not sure about what the topic is can catch up here. This is certainly a good approximation for those who approach the study of the other language for the first time. For example:

Gianni era già andato in North Carolina per il fine settimana quando l’ho invitato alla festa. Gianni had already gone to North Carolina for the weekend when I invited him to the party.

 

Clean and smooth. In a sentence in the past tense, reference must be made to an event that has occurred even earlier. Trapassato Prossimo and Past Perfect tense perform this function well in their respective languages. Yet this is a minefield in which Italian native speakers need to tread carefully, particularly those equipped with Italian high-school English education alone. Who determines that a temporal reference should be established between a certain event and a different one that has happened earlier in time? In cases like the one above the time sequence is obvious and undeniable in both languages, but experience tells me that Italians often use the Trapassato Prossimo in contexts that a North-American speaker would hardly consider handling with a Past Perfect. Here come some examples:

 

Ti avevo contattato il mese scorso, ma non mi hai risposto. I reached out last month, but you did not respond.

 

Things are no longer so clear here. An Italian native speaker perceives that the attempt to contact the other party has taken place before what is referenced later, and rightly uses the Trapassato Prossimo. A native speaker from the US would never use the Past Perfect in that situation. (I’m tempted to say something about the use of the Simple Past where a British speaker would probably use the Present Perfect, but let’s not digress…). Here’s another example:

Il giocatore è stato espulso con un secondo cartellino giallo. Evidentemente il primo non era servito da avvertimento. The player was expelled with a second yellow card. Obviously the first one did not serve as a warning.

And what about:

La macchina che era partita per prima è arrivata ultima! The car that started first arrived last!

In other words, it takes a lot less for an Italian to detect that the two events in the past must be placed in chronologic order relative to one another and trigger the Trapassato Prossimo. Arguably, Trapassato Prossimo is much more popular in Italy than its Past Perfect cousin in the US.

Let’s take a look at other scenarios. Trapassato Prossimo is often used in Italian to create expectation and suspense in narrative. For example:

 

Gianni quel giorno si era alzato come tutte le mattine. Si era fatto la barba con i resti della schiuma della bomboletta esaurita e aveva fatto colazione con il solo caffé, come era suo solito. Incamminatosi in strada, non aveva notato nell’immediato che tutto appariva assai più calmo del normale…

 

What a nice sequence of Trapassati. Each one of them legitimately used. An Italian reader would understand that this certainly looks just like a regular day in the life of Gianni, but they would also be expecting something out of the ordinary, or even shocking, to manifest itself shortly on that specific day.

Now try and ask yourself (and this is exactly the kind of questions I routinely ask myself) whether an American author would ever start a chapter in their book with such a long list of Past Perfects. My answer is no. Very unlikely. It would hinder the flow and sound artificial. I think an American author would structure the entire paragraph differently to obtain the same result. For example:

The day had started off as usual for Gianni. He got out of bed just like every morning. He shaved with the remains of an exhausted shaving cream can. His customary cup of coffee was all he had for breakfast. As he hit the road, he did not immediately notice that everything appeared way calmer than normal…

The initial sentence does deploy a Past Perfect to set expectations. From that moment, though, the author is free to switch to Simple Past, i.e. arguably the past tense Americans feel the most comfortable in (I’m sort of curious to hear the opinion of a British-English speaker on this… It’s a good question for the day I get hold of one).

This is a point of paramount importance. In my opinion, thought is not independent from language. Learning a new language means learning how to think differently and come up with sentence structures that are closer to what a native speaker would use from the get-go.

In conclusion, here is my advice. If you are learning a new language, learning to observe is absolutely essential. You will soon find out that grammar is only a part of the journey. The other part is observation and it is totally up to you. As you experience new aha! moments, I would like you to come back here and report in the comments what you have discovered. I could answer with “I told you!”, a Simple Past (to be translated with “Te l’avevo detto“, a Trapassato Prossimo).

  • Great article! This is definitely one of those areas that trip up both English speakers learning Italian and Italian speakers learning English.

    When you write, “In my opinion, thought is not independent from language,” I’d say that is closer to fact that opinion. I’ve studied six languages and each one has caused me to have to think in different ways, because the ways that people express concepts such as being and having can be quite different.

    Russian, for instance, does not have an exact equivalent to the expression “to have.” Rather than say, “I have a dog,” they say, “У меня есть собака” (U menya yest’ sobaka), which translates to “The dog is to me.” When you think about it, the way Russians say it puts the emphasis on the object being owned rather than the owner of that object, a different way of thinking about possession.

    There are countless areas in how people express things in between languages, and it’s those same areas that stem from a different way of thinking.

    For instance, in the Romance languages, including Italian, we don’t say, “I like you.” We say “Mi piaci” (you are liked by me).

    We don’t say, “It’s hot today,” we say “Fa caldo ogg.” (It makes hot today). It’s not just the weather condition of the day. Rather, in Italian, we’re basically saying that the weather itself is responsible for what it’s doing today.

    I’ll never forget an American friend of mine whose home in Italy I was visiting, responding to the caller’s question, “C’è Brad?” (Is Brad there?) by responding “È io!” (It’s me!) which sounds absolutely terrible in Italian. He should have said “Sono io!” which translates more directly as “I am!” and sounds more like a philosophy proclamation in English.

    In English we take baths and showers, we take a pause or a break, we take a walk, we take and we take. In Italian, most of the time, we make or do (fare), so we make baths and showers, we make a pause or a break, we make a walk. It’s almost as if Italians are saying that they are initiating the action whereas in English we are finding it elsewhere and appropriating it. Obviously, we don’t mean it literally, but I wonder how these sayings came to be expressed that way at the start.

    The hardest area of all for most learning another language is in the use of prepositions, which more often than not never seem to translate directly. For instance, in English, we are going to Rome and, once there, we are in Rome. We are going to Italy and, once there, we are in Italy. In Italian, however, the thinking is different. Cities and towns use “a” (at, to) all the time while countries and states use “in” so we say “Vado a Roma” (I’m going to Rome) and “Sono a Roma” (I am to Rome). The rules in this case are pretty consistent in both languages, but of course they are different in both.

    I could go on and on, but I’ll finish with how we love in both languages. In Italian, we say “ti amo” only to spouses and long-time boy/girlfriends (whom we call fidanzati [engaged] in Italian!). For everyone else, including parents, children and other grandparents, we tend to say “Ti voglio bene” (I want you well) which denotes a familial love rather than a romantic love.

    It’s a fascinating area for me, and once again I’m reminded that to learn another language, we do ourselves a disservice when we try to equate too much to our native language. Rather, we have to immerse ourselves as much as possible in the culture, in the way of thinking, of the people whose language we’re learning. Eventually, we can switch gears easily and both ways of expressing ourselves sound natural to us, though at first it may seem like the language we’re learning is bizarre in the way it expresses itself. It’s a question of conditioning and where we grew up, just as Americans in Europe find it odd that we don’t get a full cup of ice when we order a soft drink and Europeans in the US find it bizarre that we use so much ice in our glasses of soft drinks.

    • Luca Passani

      Thank you for the kind words and the long discussion, Joe. I agree with everything you say (except maybe that the “y” in Russian means “at” more than it means “to”, as far as I recall 🙂

      Do svidania

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