What’s the Imperfetto?
The imperfect (or imperfetto, in Italian) is a past tense. We mainly use the imperfect tense to talk about past actions that happened as a habit, to describe the context of past actions or events, and in a few other cases.
As the name says, the action described by this tense is “imperfect,” so we can say that, as a rule of thumb, we use it when we can’t apply a time reference to the past action we want to talk about. You should picture the imperfect tense as the frame of a picture or the background to the main event. The frame is the context (descriptions, feelings, ongoing actions). The picture is of you or a specific event.
|When we arrived, it was raining
|Quando siamo arrivati, pioveva*
|When I was in school, I got a scholarship
|Quando andavo* all’università, ho vinto una borsa di studio
Most non-romance languages don’t have an “imperfetto,” so using the imperfetto correctly in Italian can be confusing. Reading and listening to Italian will help you naturally develop a good understanding of how and when to use the imperfect. Learning the rules, as always, is just the first step.
In English, the imperfect tense in usually translate with:
|I used to…
|I used to live in that area
|Vivevo in quel quartiere
|I was ‘-ing verb’
|I was feeling sick yesterday, so I didn’t go to work
|Mi sentivo male ieri, così non sono andata a lavoro
|Sometimes, though, the imperfetto can be translated with the regular English past tense ending in -ed
How to Conjugate the Imperfect Tense in Italian
I have some great news for you. The imperfect is the most regular Italian verb.
It just adds the imperfect endings –vo, -vi, -va, -vamo, -vate, -vano to the stem of the verb. The conjugation is the same for all the verbs, no matter what group they belong to.
|Voi (You all)
There are just four irregular imperfect verbs in Italian, which are super easy to remember.
- Fare → facevo, facevi, faceva, facevamo, facevate, facevano
- Bere → bevevo, bevevi, beveva, bevevamo, bevevate, bevevano
- Dire → dicevo, dicevi, diceva, dicevamo, dicevate, dicevano
- Essere → ero, eri, era, eravamo, eravate, erano
When Do You Use the Imperfect tense in Italian?
Since there is not a straightforward translation in English when it comes to the Italian imperfetto, using this verb in Italian is one of the most complex aspects of the language. However, there are some rules you can look at when deciding whether to use the imperfetto or not.
|Use of Imperfetto
|Describe life as it used to be
|Negli anni 90, vivevo a Londra e facevo il barista nei weekend. (In the 90s, I was living in London and would work as a bartender over the weekends.)
Common prompts: prima, una volta, nel passato, negli anni “X”, quando + imperfect tense
|Make a comparison between “before” and “nowadays”
|Prima i bambini giocavano in strada, adesso giocano al cellulare. (Before, children used to play in the streets; nowadays, they play on their phones.)
Common pattern: prima [imperfetto], adesso [presente].
|Talk about the weather in the past
|Ieri faceva caldo. (Yesterday it was hot.)
Ieri nevicava. (It snowed yesterday.)
Ieri c’era una bella giornata di sole. (Yesterday, it was a sunny day.)
|Give a description of a situation, a place, or a thing in the past
|La mia città era diversa quando ero piccola: c’erano meno macchine e il traffico era più lieve. (My city was very different when I was little: there were fewer cars, and the traffic was lighter.)
Il mio primo appartamento era molto luminoso e si trovava nel centro città. (My first apartment was very bright and was in the city center.)
|Talk about your childhood
|Quando ero piccola, mi piaceva preparare le torte con mia madre. (When I was little, I liked to bake with my mom.)
Quando ero piccolo, passavo le estati a casa dei miei nonni. (When I was a child, I used to spend my summers at my grandparent’s house.)
|Describe the context or background of a specific event
|Mentre passeggiavo al mare, ho ricevuto una chiamata importante. (While I was walking on the beach, I received an important phone call.)
|Describe people’s state of mind or health in the past
|Ieri sera avevo mal di testa. (Last night I had a headache.)
Ieri mattina stavo male. (Yesterday morning I felt sick.)
Al liceo, ero innamorata di Marcello. (In high school, I was in love with Marcello.)
|Describe personality traits or characteristics of people in the past
|Mio nonno era molto saggio. (My grandfather was very wise.)
La mia insegnante d’inglese era molto preparata. (My English teacher in middle school was knowledgeable.)
|Say what people knew or meant in the past with the verbs ‘sapere’ and ‘volere’
|Non sapevo cosa pensare. (I didn’t know what to think.)
Non volevo dire quello. (I didn’t want to say that.)
Non sapevo che Marco e Maria stavano insieme. (I didn’t know Marco and Maria were together.)
|Translate the English pattern “I used to do…”
|Vivevo a Roma quando studiavo all’università. (I used to live in Rome when I was in school.)
Viaggiavo molto prima di avere bambini. (I used to travel a lot before having children.)
More Uses of the Imperfect Tense in Italian
1.We use the imperfetto to express a polite request in place of the present conditional (vorrei).
|Volevo chiederti una cosa
|I wanted to ask you something.
|Vorrei chiederti una cosa
|I would like to ask you something.
|Volevo chiederti un favore
|I wanted to ask you for a favor.
|Vorrei chiederti un favore
|I would like to ask you for a favor.
|Volevo farti una domanda
|I wanted to ask you a question.
|Vorrei farti una domanda
|I would like to ask you a question.
2. We use the imperfetto if two actions happen at the exact same moment in the past, we use the imperfect.
|Mentre scrivevo il mio diario, mio figlio disegnava nella sua camera.
|While I was writing in my journal, my child was drawing in his room.
3. We use the imperfetto if one action interrupts an ongoing action, we use the imperfect tense for the ongoing action and the passato prossimo for the interruption.
|Mentre dormivo [ongoing action], mi hanno chiamato al telefono [interruption] e mi sono svegliata.
|While I was sleeping [ongoing action], someone called [interruption] and I woke up.
Passato Prossimo vs. Imperfetto: The Difference
When to use the imperfect tense instead of the passato prossimo?
The Italian passato prossimo indicates an event that occurred at some point in the past, at a specific moment. To put it another way, we know when the event started, and when it ended. The passato prossimo often appears in combination with these time expressions.
Common Time Expressions for Passato Prossimo:
|Due giorni fa, un anno fa
|Two days ago, one year ago
|L’estate scorsa, giovedì scorso, etc.
|Last summer, last Thursday, etc.
|The other day
If one of the above time expressions is used, the passato prossimo is always used. It is also used if implied in the conversation.
Examples of Passato Prossimo:
- Ho mangiato troppo ieri sera. (I ate too much last night.)
- Due anni fa sono andato in Sud Africa. (Two years ago, I went to South Africa.)
- Ho comprato una macchina la scorsa settimana. (I bought a car last week.)
Common Time Expressions for Imperfetto:
|Ogni volta che
|Every time that
|Da piccola/da piccolo
|When I was little
|Tutto il tempo
|All the time
The imperfect tense indicates an event that repeatedly occurred in the past, with an unspecified start or end time. It is often used with time expressions indicating routine or habitual activities.
This chart outlines the common time expressions associated with the use of passato prossimo and imperfetto in Italian.
- Di solito andavo in quel caffè a studiare – Typically, I would go to that caffè for studying
- Ogni volta che andavo a Roma, andavo a trovare i miei amici – Every time I would go to Rome, I would visit my friends
Notice that if you say, “Ho comprato una macchina” and you don’t mention the time expression, I would still understand that the action happened at the specific moment in the past. Using the imperfetto and saying “compravo una macchina” would also sound weird, as the act of buying a car is never ongoing. Saying “compravo una macchina” would sound in English like “I used to buy a car.”
The imperfect continuous in Italian [advanced topic]
This is a more advanced grammar topic. If you’re a beginner or intermediate student, you can skip it for now. The Italian imperfect continuous is a combination of the imperfect of “stare” and the gerund from. It is used to describe what was going on at a specific time in the past.
|Cosa stavi facendo ieri alle 3?
|What were you doing yesterday at 3?
|Mi stavo rilassando sul divano con i miei amici, quando i miei amici sono arrivati.
|I was relaxing on the couch yesterday when my friends arrived.