How to master the Italian Imperfetto
WHAT’S THE IMPERFETTO?
The imperfetto is a tense, a past tense. We 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 have to picture the imperfetto as the frame for the picture. The frame is the context (descriptions, feelings, ongoing actions). The picture is you or a specific event.
Most non-romance languages don’t have an “imperfetto,” so using the imperfetto correctly in Italian can be confusing. Reading and listening in 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.
Italian vs English
In English the Italian imperfetto can be translated into:
→ I used to…
→ I would (for past action)
→ I was -ing
→ I -ed
“Vivevo a Londra” can be:
- I used to live in London
- I would live in London
- I was living in London
- I lived in London
CONJUGATION OF THE ITALIAN IMPERFECT TENSE
Great news! The imperfect is the most regular Italian verb.
It just adds the suffixes –avo, -avi, -ava, -avamo, -avate, -avano to the stem of the verb. The conjugation is the same for all the verbs, despite ending in -are, -ere, -ire.
Irregular verbs in the imperfetto
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
HOW TO USE THE IMPERFECT TENSE
Luckily, there are tricks to decide when using the imperfect tense in Italian.
To talk about the weather:
- ieri faceva caldo – Yesterday it was hot
- ieri c’era una bella giornata di sole – Yesterday, it was a sunny day
- l’estate scorsa pioveva sempre molto – It was raining a lot last summer
To give a description of a situation, a place, an 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 was I was little: there were less cars and traffic
To describe your life “how it used to be”
- Negli anni 90, vivevo a Londra e facevo il barista nei weekend – In the 90s I used to work in London and I would work as bartender over the weekends
- Prima del Covid-19, viaggiavo di più – Before Covid-19, I travelled more
To talk about your childhood
- Quando ero piccola, mi piaceva preparare le torte con mia madre – When I was little I liked to make pies with my mother
- Quando ero piccolo, passavo le estati a casa dei miei non – When I was a child, I would spend my summers at my grandparent’s home
To describe the context of a specific event (often used with the adverb mentre)
- mentre passeggiavo al mare, ho ricevuto una chiamata importante – While I was walking on the beach, I got an important phonecall
To describe how people felt (health, behavior, feelings) in the past
- Prima avevo mal di testa – Before 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
To describe the personality traits or other characteristics of someone in the past
- Mio nonno era molto saggio – My grandfather was very wise
- La mia insegnate d’inglese era molto preparata – My English teacher in middle school was knowledgeable
To say what people knew or meant in the past
- 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
To translate the pattern “I used to do..” in English
- Vivevo in the center of Rome quando studiavo all’università – I used to live in the center of 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 imperfetto in Italian
To express a polite request in place of the present conditional (vorrei)
- Volevo/Vorrei chiederti una cosa – I wanted to ask you something.
- Volevo/Vorrei chiederti un favore – I wanted to ask you for a favore
- Volevo/Vorrei farti una domanda – I wanted to ask you a question
If two actions happen at the exact 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.
If one action interrupts an ongoing action, we use imperfetto (ongoing action) and passato prossimo (interruption)
- Mentre dormivo, mi hanno chiamato al telefono e mi sono svegliata – While I was sleeping, someone called and I woke up
What drives students crazy is the difference between using the two main Italian past tenses: passato prossimo and imperfetto.
PASSATO PROSSIMO VS. IMPERFETTO
When to use the imperfect tense instead of the passato prossimo?
Passato prossimo (the present perfect)
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, we know when the event ended. The passato prossimo often appears in combination with time expressions.
Typical time expressions used with the passato prossimo
- A due giorni fa, un anno fa – two days ago, one year ago
- ieri – yesterday
- L’anno scorso – last year
- questa mattina – this morning
- ieri sera – last night
- l’estate scorsa, gioved scorso
- prima della lezione
The Italian passato prossimo is used for what happened on one occasion and it is always presented with an explicit or implicit time reference.
The imperfetto (the imperfect tense)
The imperfect indicates an event that repeatedly occurred in the past, and we don’t know when it started or when it ended. It was an ongoing action. The imperfect often appears in combination with time expressions indicating a routine or a habitual activity, like..
Typical time expressions used with the imperfetto
- di solito-usally
- ogni volta che-every time that
- da piccola/da piccolo-when I was little,
- tutto il tempo-all the time
The imperfect continuous in Italian (advanced)
The Italian imperfect continuous is a combination of the imperfect of “stare” and the gerund. 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?
- Ieri sera mi stavo rilassando sul divano, quando sono venuti i miei amici a trovarmi – Last night I was chilling on the couch, when my friends showed up.