The past perfect and the past perfect subjunctive


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The Italian language is a beautiful and musical language (are we being too partial?), but it is certainly not among the simplest in terms of grammar and use of tenses. We ourselves, Italian native speakers, are at times confused regarding the correct use of tenses, so that the difficulties encountered by foreigners are obvious and comprehensible. Although we are already in 2015, we always throw an eye to the past and, recounting it, we cannot forget the correct use of tenses such as the trapassato prossimo (past perfect), trapassato remoto (past perfect) and the congiuntivo trapassato (past perfect subjunctive). You have no idea what they are and how to use them in a sentence? Let’s make some clarity.

The trapassato prossimo is also called “piuccheperfetto” (pluperfect) and is a verbal form used to indicate the completeness or the occurrence back in time of an action or event with respect to a time in the past. It is one of the compound tenses of the indicative and is conjugated combining forms of the imperfect indicative of the auxiliary verbs to be or to have with the past participle of the verb in question, for example: avevo parlato, avevo scritto, eravamo stati, ero andato, erano partiti (I had spoke, I had written, we had been, I had gone, they had gone).

The main purpose is to indicate the prior occurrence of an action in respect to one that has already occurred. A few examples?

  • Avevo già parcheggiato la macchina quando Chiara era arrivata al ristorante (When Chiara had arrived at the restaurant, I had already parked the car);
  • Ero già stato in quel parco divertimenti quando i miei amici me ne hanno parlato (When my friends had spoken to me about it, I had already been to that amusement park);
  • Avevo già mangiato, quando nonna era arrivata a casa a farci visita (When grandmother had arrived home to visit us, I had already eaten).

At a higher level of complexity we find the trapassato remoto, used (less and less often) to indicate a past event that took place just before another. It is a verbal form composed of the auxiliaries to be or to have, conjugated in the passato remoto (instead of the imperfect as in the past perfect) and the past participle of the verb in question, for example: ebbi parlato, fummo chiamati, avemmo scritto (I had talked, we were called, we had written). It is often introduced by prepositions like dopo che, non appena, finché (after that, as soon as, until).

Some examples?

  • Finché non ebbe smesso di diluviare, non potei tornare a casa (Until it had stopped pouring, I could not return home);
  • Non appena i miei amici furono arrivati a casa, smise di piovere (right after my friends had returned home, it stopped raining);
  • Dopo che Chiara ebbe scartato il regalo andò a dire a tutti quanto le fosse piaciuto (After Chiara had unwrapped the gift, she went to tell everyone how much she had liked it).

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It is not very common but you could still use it to show off a great mastery of Italian!

And what is the congiuntivo trapassato (past perfect subjunctive)? It is also called subjunctive piuccheperfetto (pluperfect) and is a verbal form composed of the imperfect subjunctive of the auxiliary verbs to be or to have and the past participle of the verb in question, for example: avessi parlato, fossi stato, avessero comprato (I had spoke, I had been, they had bought).

When should it be used? When you want to express a possibility referred to the past or an event that was never fulfilled, therefore placing itself in the range of the hypothetical period of unreality.

For example: se fossimo arrivati prima, avremmo trovato parcheggio (if we had arrived earlier, we would have found a space to park); se fossimo andati a lezione, avremmo passato l’esame (if we had gone to class, we would have passed the test); se non avessimo visto quel film dell’orrore, stanotte avremmo dormito (if we had not seen that horror movie, we would have slept last night); se fossimo usciti, avremmo incontrato la nostra amica (if we had gone out we would have met our friend).

Were you familiar with these “dead” but still current verbal tenses? Are you able to use them?


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