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Which Italian verb tenses are the most useful?

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Which Italian verb tenses are the most useful?
Which Italian verb tenses are you going to hear used most in the street? Photo: DepositPhotos"

The Italian language famously has a large number of verb tenses. But how many of them do you really need to know at first?


The number of verb tenses in Italian can be overwhelming to language learners. Italian has a total of 21 tenses, divided into two forms (compared to 12 tenses in English) plus a total of seven moods, also split into two categories. (Here's a full explanation of what that means.)

This may feel a bit much when you're still perfecting your coffee order.

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All of these tenses are still used in Italy. But how many of them do you really need to know, at least at first? How many will you actually use in everyday life?


While your Italian language teacher will no doubt say “all of them” (which is true, and you'll get there eventually) some tenses are going to come in far more immediately useful than others.

It might be years before you fully understand them all. After all, ci vuole tempo (it takes time).

Italians themselves rarely use some of the more obscure tenses, particularly when speaking. Some will only come in useful when writing an essay, for example. Much like English speakers, who rarely use a couple of their 12 tenses.

For casual conversation, only a few tenses are really needed. Photo: AFP

So if you want to start speaking Italian right away, here are five of the most immediately useful tenses that you can't get by without.

These are also the tenses most likely to feature in beginner-level Italian classes - though the order in which some of these are introduced will vary between schools.

Indicativo presente

The most useful tense of all. Just like the simple present tense in English, you'd use this to talk about something that relates to the present moment or to talk about your habits/hobbies.

- Io vivo a Roma

- I live in Rome

- (Io) corro tutte le mattine

- I run every morning

And this tense can also replace the future tense to talk about something you're going to do later, so it's basically two tenses in one. We did say it was useful!

- (Io) vado al cinema domani

- I will go to the cinema tomorrow



Even though you can replace the future tense with the present in some contexts, the futuro (like the simple future tense in English) is also used a lot in spoken Italian.

To start with, you'll at least need to recognise and understand it, even if conjugating verbs in the future tense while speaking seems an impossible task for now.

-  il mese prossimo andrò in Italia

- Next month I will go to Italy

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Photo: Depositphotos

Passato prossimo

The 'near past' is the most commonly-used past tense in the spoken language. Much like the present perfect tense in English, you can use this verb tense to talk about something that happened in the past and is now finished or complete.

- Ho finito di pranzare

- I’ve finished my lunch

- Ho letto tre libri questa settimana

- I've read three books this week

It is usually used to talk about something that happened in the recent past. But in the centre and north of Italy, it's also often used (in spoken, informal Italian) when talking about the distant past in place of the more grammatically correct passato remoto, which some say sounds a little old-fashioned. If you're in the south, it will help to get to grips with both of these tenses as soon as you can.

- Sono nato a Milano

- I was born in Milan


Like the passato prossimo, the imperfetto is very commonly used to talk about the past. You'll hear it a lot. This time, it refers to continuous actions or past habits, making it similar to the past continuous tense in English.

You'd use it to talk about past habits (which you no longer have) or a continous action that happened in the past.

- Quando ero piccolo andavo a letto alle 9.00

- When I was little, I used to go to bed at 9pm

- Ieri ero a scuola

- Yesterday I was at school

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You'll find yourself using the imperativo presente or imperative a lot in informal situations when you need to ask for or tell someone to do something. If you have Italian family members this might be the most frequently used one of all!

- Fate silenzio!

- Be quiet!

- Passami il pane, per favore

- Pass me the bread, please

- Mangia!

- Eat up!

So there you have it. If you're just starting out on your Italian language journey, or if you're starting to feel a little lost, don't let those 21 tenses intimidate you.

Take them on one at a time, and you'll find yourself easily switching between tenses before you know it.

See more in The Local's Italian language section.


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