Italian Imperfetto is one of the most simple Past Tense, but it can be very confusing since most non-romance languages don’t use it. Also, it is one of the most used past tenses along withÂ Passato Prossimo and it can be very tricky to understand when to use Italian Imperfetto or Passato prossimo learning their differences and uses in context.
By the way, once you master these Italian Past Tenses, you will find out that Italian Imperfetto is quite simple to study:
What is the Italian Imperfetto?
Italian Imperfetto is generally employed to mention events that happened regularly for a certain amount of time in the past, actions occurring at the same time or to describe something in the past.Â It is formed dropping the -re of the infinitive and adding -vo, -vi, -va, -vamo, -vate, -vano. In English there are lots of ways to translate the Italian Imperfetto, for example using the expression used to, the past progressive, or the simple past.
Il Sig. Foster era sempre gentile con tutti.
Mr Foster was always kind to everyone.
Mentre mangiava, ascoltava le storie di suo nonno.
While he was eating, he listened to his grandfatherâs stories.Â Â Â
Quando vivevamo a Parigi, passeggiavamo spesso sugli Champs-ÃlysÃ©es.
When we lived in Paris, we often used to walk down the Champs-ÃlysÃ©es. Â Â Â Â Â Â
Now that you are starting to understand its uses, let’s see how to use Italian verbs in the Imperfetto.
And if you want to learn more about Italian Grammar, here there are useful books I suggest you to read:
Now let’s dive in!
Italian imperfetto – Regular verbs
In order to conjugate regular verbs in the Imperfetto, you need to take the root of the main verb and add the different endings of –are, –ere, –ire conjugations.
As you will notice, verbs simply keep the vowel that is before the -r and add -vo, -vi, -va, -vamo, -vate, -vano.
Letâs see them in detail, taking as an example the verbs cantare (to sing), leggere (to read) and dormire (to sleep).
Cantare – to sing
|Lui / Lei cantava|
Quando aveva 12 anni, mia mamma cantava nel coro della chiesa.
When she was 12, my mom used to sing in the church choir.
Leggere – to read
|Lui / Lei leggeva|
Mentre leggevo, ho sentito suonare il campanello.
While I was reading, I heard the bell ring. Â
Dormire – to sleep
|Lui / Lei dormiva|
Dormiva cosÃ¬ profondamente che mi dispiaceva svegliarlo.
He was sleeping so soundly that I felt bad waking him up. Â Â
Italian imperfetto – Irregular verbs
Here are five common verbs following an irregular conjugation: fare (to do), bere (to drink), dire (to say) essere (to be) and also tradurre (to translate).
Fare – to do
|Lui / Lei faceva|
Che facevano quando siete rientrati a casa?
What were they doing when you came back home?
Bere – to drink
|Lui / Lei beveva|
Quando frequentavo lâuniversitÃ , bevevo ogni sera con gli amici.
When I was in college, I used to drink every night with my friends.
Dire – to say
|Lui / Lei diceva|
Non mi piaceva affatto quello che dicevano.
I didnât like at all what they were saying.
Essere – to be
|Lui / Lei era|
Era davvero stanca di vederlo triste.Â
She was really sick of seeing him sad.
Tradurre – to translate
|Lui / Lei traduceva|
In vacanza lui parlava sempreÂ in italiano e io traducevo in inglese.
On vacation he used to speak in Italian and I translated into English.
When to use Italian Imperfetto
Here below are some of the most common situations where Italian Imperfetto is generally employed.
Habits in the past
When you want to speak about habits and repeated actions in the past you need to use Italian Imperfetto.
Quando erano fidanzati si vedevano ogni giorno a pranzo e a cena.
When they were engaged, they used to meet for lunch and dinner every day.Â
Quando Jamie era piccolo giocava a calcio con i ragazzi del quartiere.
When Jamie was young, he used to play football with the neighbourhood boys.Â Â
In inverno io e i miei parenti andavamo sempre a sciare a Saint Moritz.
In winter my relatives and I always used to go skiing in St.Moritz.
As you may have noticed, one of the several ways of translating Italian Imperfetto into English when talking about habits and repeated actions in the past is by resorting to the expression used to.
Description of people, places and situations in the past
When you want to give a description of people, places and situations in the past you must use Italian Imperfetto.
Il nonno di Adele era davvero una persona buona e gentile.
Adeleâs grandfather was such a good and kind man. Â
Nella cittÃ di Katherine câerano solo un cinema e una birreria per divertirsi.
In Katherineâs town there was only a cinema and a brewery where to have fun.Â
Era una situazione strana che non riuscivo per niente a comprendere.
It was a weird situation that I wasnât able to understand at all.
Description of the weather in the past
Use the Italian Imperfetto when talking about the weather in the past.
Ieri câera il sole, oggi invece piove.
Yesterday it was sunny, today it rains instead.
Faceva caldo quando ci siamo messi in viaggio per Sorrento.
It was hot while we were heading to Sorrento. Â
Grandinava forte quel giorno e non si poteva uscire di casa.
That day it was hailing heavily and we didnât manage to leave home.Â
Description of feelings in the past
Furthermore, when your intention is to describe a physical or psychological state in the past, you need the Italian Imperfetto.
Aveva un mal di testa terribile che le impediva di stare in piedi.
She had a terrible headache that made her incapable of standing.Â
Si sentiva davvero stanco dopo unâintensa giornata di lavoro. Â
He felt really tired after an exhausting working day.
I bambini aspettavano con impazienza il ritorno dei loro genitori.
Kids were waiting impatiently for their parents to get home.Â
With some verbs
You need to use the Italian Imperfetto when saying what people knew, thought or meant in the past, but not anymore.
Non sapeva cosa dire perchÃ© aveva paura di ferirlo.
She didnât know what to say because he was afraid of hurting him.
Pensavo fosse lui il ragazzo per cui ti sei presa una cotta.
I thought he was the guy you had a crush on.
Volevi davvero dire quello che ho sentito? Sul serio?
Did you really mean what I heard? Seriously?
Parallel actions with the same length
We use Imperfetto when referring to actions which happened at the same time in the past.
If the two actions have the same exact length, we use the Italian Imperfetto for both the events.
Mentre passeggiavo, ascoltavo la musica.
While I was walking, I was listening to music.Â
Mentre cenavo, guardavo la TV.
While I was having dinner, I was watching TV.
Parallel actions with a different length
If an action is shorter than the other, you are required to use the Italian Imperfetto for the ongoing event and the Passato Prossimo for the action that âinterruptsâ the other.
Ragazze, ma cosa Ã¨ successo esattamente mentre eravamo via?
Girls, what exactly happened while we were away? Â
Cucinavamo quando abbiamo sentito uno strano rumore
We were cooking when we heard a strange noise.
As you can see, in English you need to apply the past continuous tense to translate sentences built with mentre + Imperfetto properly.
Surroundings and Backgrounds
In this situation, the Italian Imperfetto is mostly applied in storytelling and narration, even in literature to set or describe a scene.
Quella sera tutti giocavano a carte e si divertivano molto.
Everybody was playing cards and having a lot of fun.
Intanto il sole sorgeva e gli uccellini cinguettavano sugli alberi.
Meanwhile, the sun rose and birds were chirping on the trees. Â
Pensava a quello che gli era stato detto ed era sempre piÃ¹ paranoico.
He was thinking about what they told him and he was getting more and more paranoid.Â Â Â Â Â
Time expressions with Italian Imperfetto
Sometimes, it can be quite hard to know in which cases you need to apply Italian Imperfetto. For this reason, you can look for some indicators, like the following time expressions:
- da piccolo/giovane (when I was a child/ young)
- sempre (always)
- tutti i giorni / ogni giorno (every day)
- mentre (while)
- often (spesso)
- continuamente (continually)
- a volte (sometimes)
- normalmente (normally)
- solitamente (usually)
- ogni volta che (every time that)
- ogni tanto (once in a while)
Da piccola, Gaia trascorreva le vacanze estive con i suoi nonni.
When she was a child, Gaia used to spend summer holidays with her grandparents.
Ogni volta che le mentiva si sentiva in colpa.
Every time he was lying to her he felt guilty.Â
Marika si allenava tutti i giorni, poi ha smesso.
Marika used to exercise every day, then she stopped.
On specific occasions, especially in the spoken language, Italian Imperfetto is widely used in place of other tenses to make daily conversations shorter and faster.
In the case of imperfetto ipotetico (hypothetical imperfect), it replaces the past tense of Condizionale to indicate unreal conditions or events that would have happened in the past.
Look at the following examples, focusing on the differences between the informal version using imperfetto, and the formal version using the Conditional and the Congiuntivo.
The Italian Imperfetto attenuativo (mitigating imperfect) is primarily employed with verbs like volere (to want) , desiderare (to wish) and preferire (to prefer) to express a polite request in place of the present conditional.
Scusami, volevo solo sapere se qui hai finito.
Sorry, I just wanted to know if you are done here.
Lucia desiderava uscire con le amiche anzichÃ© rimanere a casa.
Lucia wished to go out with her friends instead of staying at home. Â
Giovanni e Marco preferivano andare in spiaggia nel weekend.
Giovanni and Marco preferred to go to the beach on the weekend. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
At the end of this article, you should be able to say in Italian which are your past habits or what you used to do when you were a child.
You can easily recognize the Italian Imperfetto by the final endings -vo, -vi, -va, -vamo, -vate, -vano.
You saw all the various situations where Imperfetto is required and also time expressions applied along with this tense.
Concerning irregular verbs, you are suggested to learn their conjugation by heart. When you are unsure about the conjugation, check verb conjugators online such as Il Coniugatore, or Scuola Elettrica.