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I am trying to translate a sentence about having breakfast from Italian, but I don't know which tense I should use.

Facevo colazione alle 9:00.

The sentence is about something done in the past; it's not something done in the present days or in the foreseeable future. It is about something done more than once, but nothing is said about the periodicity (it could be every day, once per week, or when there was the occasion). Nothing is said about when the action was not anymore done; I could have stopped one year ago, or a week ago. Every time I had breakfast, it was 9:00 AM.

I thought to use the following sentences, but each of them sounds not correct, for a reason or another.

I had breakfast at 9:00 AM.

It seems talking of a single event; without nothing else being said, I would take the sentence as referring to the past 24 hours.

I have had breakfast at 9:00 AM.

I would understand it as talking about something habitual, but that still happens.

I had had breakfast at 9:00 AM.

The Present Past alone, as far as I recall, it is not used in a simple sentence.

I was having breakfast at 9:00 AM.

It seems talking of a single event. Different from the first one, this sentence seems saying that at 9:00 AM I was not done with having breakfast.

To give more context, imagine that I move to New York, somebody asks me "How was your live before moving to New York?" and I answer with "It was wonderful." I then list what I liked to do and I am not anymore able to do. What tense should I use in that list?

  • This can't be answered as it stands. 1) That's too much freight for the verb to bear - you're going to need some explicit adverbials or context. 2) And we have to know context anyway, to determine whether a simple past or a perfect form is called for. Give us a sentence or two to either side of this. – StoneyB Aug 20 '13 at 13:09
  • Well, in Italian the freight is on the tense, not the verb. I could use the same tense for almost every verb, and the meaning would not be lost, even with a very few context like in the sentence I used as example. – kiamlaluno Aug 20 '13 at 13:50
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I think StoneyB is right that, in English, we generally require more context to be sure your meaning gets across. That being said, what you're asking for is kind of vague; it seems likely that there would be questions asked in response to get further information. So I think your best bet is this:

I have had breakfast at 9:00 AM.

This is indeed quite vague; sometime in the past, at least once but possibly more than once or even many times, you ate breakfast at 9:00 AM. It could have been a habit, a sporadic event, or a one-time occurrence. It could have been yesterday or a year ago or ten years ago. But you have, at some time or another, had breakfast at 9:00 AM.

Regarding the vagueness, the idea is really that (at least in English, but from what you've said possibly in Italian as well) this sentence doesn't mean much of anything. Knowing that you've had breakfast at 9:00 AM at some point in your life, with no further details or context or any idea when this might have happened... It just doesn't tell you very much. It's perfectly comprehensible, but my response would likely be "When?" (that is, at what point in your life or how often did you do this) or "...and?" (that is, "What's the rest of your sentence? What are you trying to say?").

It just doesn't seem to be a useful data point, by itself. I think that's probably the thrust behind StoneyB's comment; you can say it, just without context I'm not sure why you would.


Now that I better understand the context (that eating breakfast at 9:00 is something you were able to do it Italy, but can no longer do, and you are reminiscing) I would add:

In that case I would use could have. Technically it just means that you were able to do it, but in context it means that because you were able to do it, you sometimes did. So try something like:

It was wonderful. I could have breakfast at 9:00 AM, eat a lot of delicious food... I could relax outside in the sun whenever I wanted..."

(Okay, just making up examples here. But you get the idea).

  • The context is given in the before-the-last sentence of the question. The problem is that in Italian I could start saying Facevo colazione alle 9:00. and I would be understood to talking about something I did, and I am not doing anymore, probably because I miss doing it. – kiamlaluno Aug 20 '13 at 15:29
  • @kiamlaluno Oh, so being able to have breakfast at 9:00 was something you used to do in Italy but can't do any longer? I misunderstood that; I thought you were just giving another example of when the construction could be used. Sorry about that! – WendiKidd Aug 20 '13 at 15:32
  • @kiamlaluno Okay, so in that case I would use could have. Technically it just means that you were able to do it, but in context it means that because you were able to do it, you sometimes did. So: "It was wonderful. I could have breakfast at 9:00 AM, eat a lot of delicious food... I could relax outside in the sun whenever I wanted..." (Okay, just making up examples here. But you get the idea). – WendiKidd Aug 20 '13 at 15:33
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The usual way of expressing a habitual action in the past is: "I used to...". So if you want to say that 9:00 am was your usual time for eating breakfast, you'd say: "I used to eat breakfast at 9:00."

  • But "It is about something done more than once, but nothing is said about the periodicity". – StoneyB Aug 20 '13 at 13:11
  • @StoneyB I don't think that this construction necessarily says anything about the periodicity, at least not beyond what's already inherent in this particular action's association with one's daily ritual. – Tyler James Young Aug 20 '13 at 20:08
  • But "habit" and "daily ritual" (which are, as you say, implications and not merely implicatures of the "used to" construction, unless specifically qualified) do imply periodicity, viz, every day. – StoneyB Aug 20 '13 at 21:32
  • Of course, you can weaken that by adding sometimes. "I used to eat breakfast at 9:00 sometimes." – snailboat Aug 22 '13 at 4:19
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SUPPLEMENTAL to WendiKidd's answer

Your question seems to be fundamentally one of whether you should employ the simple past (preterite) form or the present perfect construction, with the choice between these and the corresponding "progressive" constructions (past progressive / present perfect progressive") a secondary concern.

There is no simple answer. Formalizing the preterite-perfect opposition has been continuously debated by linguists since the early 1970s. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of learned articles and at least two entire books have been written on this topic, and no consensus has emerged.*

There is however a growing recognition that English verb forms/constructions bear very little inherent "meaning". Even their grammatical time/aspect/modality significations are variable, depending on the semantics and "lexical aspect" of the verbs they're used with. And they're strongly dependent on context: what's been said, what's already defined in the previous discourse, and what use you want to make of them in the following discourse. They're like programming functions: you input specific values to get an output which will then become the input for your next operation ...

That's why the context Wendi and I ask for is so important. The context you added to your question makes a preterite the best choice:

SB: How was your life before you moved to the Big Apple?
KL: It was wonderful! I slept until 8:30, showered and shaved. I had breakfast at 9:00 AM. I went to work at 10:00. Now I have to get up at 5:00 and eat at 5:30 to catch the train and get to work by 7:00.

But here are different contexts which satisfy your other requirements (indefinite past, multiple occasions, periodicity not defined) and call for your other examples:

SB: Kiam, you're a workhorse. I eat breakfast at 9:00, and you've already put in two hours of work.
KL: Oh, I've had breakfast at 9:00. But it was always because I got so absorbed in my work I forgot to eat.

SB: Kiam, you were a lazy bum in those days. We used to start work at 6:00, and as often as not, when we'd invite you to lunch at eleven you'd say you just had breakfast.
KL: It's true, I had had breakfast at 9:00 AM. But that was always because I had worked until two or three in the morning the night before.

SB: We all thought you were very self-indulgent. We used to come in at 9:00, ready to work, and you'd be sitting at your desk eating a huge English breakfast!
KL: Well, yeah. I was having breakfast at 9:00 AM. But what you didn't know was that I'd been at work since 4:00. Early morning was my most productive time, so I didn't take time to eat til I'd broken the back of the day's work. Breakfast was really my lunch.


* The question is further complicated by the fact that usage varies both by region and by register: for instance, US colloquial use permits the preterite in contexts where it is forbidden by formal use and unusual in British colloquial use.

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Hopefully you have found an answer by now. The Italian imperfetto (which does not correspond exactly with the English progressive) can be translated using the simple past, the past progressive, would plus bare infinitive, and used to plus bare infinitive. In your context you could use simple past, used to or would. It depends, of course, on the context of the original Italian. Your last sentence gives the context. In this context you could use the simple past:

Before I moved to New York, I ate breakfast at 9am, I went to work at 10, I came home at 4pm, I partied most evenings, I drank myself sick, I made an ass of myself. I also played tennis all the time, went to the cinema often, was in bed by 4am every day.

Or used to or would (which I will use interchangeablly in the following although normally we would stick with one or the other:

Before moving to New York, I would eat breakfast at 9am, I used to go to work at 10, I would come home at 4pm, I used to party most evenings, I would drink myself sick, I used to make an ass of myself, I also would play tennis all the time, used to go to the cinema often, would be in bed by 4am every day.

You could also use the past progressive:

Before moving to New York, I was eating at 9am, going to work at 10, coming home at 4, going to parties most evenings, I was drinking myself sick, making an ass of myself, playing tennis all the time, going to the cinema often, was going to bed by 4am every day.

but the progressive presents the actions as having duration, and in fact limited duration.

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