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Which Italian verb tenses are the most useful?

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

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 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.

READ ALSO: 12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language

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

READ ALSO: Ten of the most common Italian mistakes you should avoid

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

READ ALSO: The 12 ways speaking Italian will mess up your English


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


– 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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‘I’m not Onassis’: Seven things Italian dads say and what they mean

As world-famous promoters of tough love, Italian dads have a repertoire of phrases ready for 'creatively' scolding their children. Here are just a few of of their favourite lines.

'I'm not Onassis': Seven things Italian dads say and what they mean

From doors being carelessly left open to requests for unreasonably expensive items, there are countless things that are guaranteed to upset an Italian dad.   

And whatever the misdeed, they’ll have a snarky remark suited for the occasion. 

Here are just seven of the favourite set phrases you’re likely to hear an Italian dad come out with.

Ma ti sembro Onassis?

Usually uttered after a request to buy something indecently pricey, “Do I look like Onassis to you?” is one of the best comebacks in the Italian dad’s repertoire. 

Onassis was a Greek shipping magnate who established himself as one of the richest men on the planet in the 20th century. 

READ ALSO: Ten phrases to talk about cold and wet weather like a true Italian

We might never get to know where exactly Italian fathers’ obsession with the Greek tycoon stems from, but we are sure that countless generations of young Italians will continue to be reminded that their father isn’t nearly as opulent as Onassis. 

Countless alternative versions of this expression exist, including non sono la Banca d’Italia (“I’m not the Bank of Italy”) or those referring to Italy’s very own cavaliere, Silvio Berlusconi, such as: “non sei la figlia di Berlusconi” (“You’re not Berlusconi’s daughter”)

Io non vado a rubare!

Roughly translatable into English as “I don’t steal for a living!”, this is another parenting staple for requests involving the purchase of expensive items. 

The phrase is generally uttered with sheer indignation and accompanied by various expressions of outrage. 

Financial prudence is top of Italian dads’ priorities. Mess with that at your peril. 

Come ti ho fatto, ti distruggo.

The “I’ll destroy you just as easily as I made you” ultimatum is not used lightly but, whenever the circumstances call for it, the real Italian father will not hesitate to pull out this verbal ace.

Generally triggered by grave displays of disrespect or (very) bad behaviour, the expression is nothing short of a psychological warfare masterpiece.

READ ALSO: These are Italy’s most popular baby names

A family of four posing for a photo.

Italian dads are world-famous promoters of tough love but most also have a soft side to them. Photo by Jean-Pierre CLATOT / AFP

Questa casa non e’ un albergo.

Here’s one for the rogue adolescents having a hard time abiding by the sacred rules of the house, especially those turning up late for meals or getting home late at night. 

Italian fathers don’t like to beat around the bush, so any breach of the law of the land is met with a stark reality check: “This house is not a hotel”. 

The phrase might sometimes be followed by “You cannot come and go as you please” (Non puoi andare e tornare come ti pare e piace) but the first part is usually sufficient to get the message across.

Hai la coda?

Very few things upset Italian dads as much as an open door does. 

It doesn’t really matter what type of door – whether that be the front door, a bedroom door or even a car door – as long as it’s one that their unfailing judgement commands should be shut at all times.

READ ALSO: Puns and plot spoilers: How English movie titles are translated into Italian

As a result, any Italian boy or girl forgetting to close a door behind them should expect to be asked whether they have a tail (coda).

It nearly goes without saying, having a coda would theoretically explain why the guilty party didn’t close the door in question.

Perche’ no. 

If you’ve had the luck (or misfortune – you decide) to be raised by an Italian father, you’ll know this one all too well. 

When mercilessly turning down yet another one of his children’s requests, the quintessential Italian dad doesn’t remotely bother coming up with a plausible reason for doing so. 

It’s not happening “because I said no”. That’ll be all.

Ma da chi hai preso?

It’s only right for us to wrap up with Italian dads’ darkest moment of doubt. That’s when the actions of their children make them question whether they actually are the fathers of the misbehaving brats after all.

The phrase in question, which is roughly translatable into English as “Who did you get this from?”, is usually said with a mixture of dismay and bewilderment. 

The Italian father cannot fathom where his offspring’s disposition to reprehensible behaviour comes from but refuses to accept that his genes might be responsible. 

Several hours of silent introspection generally follow the utterance of this phrase.