How to master the Italian Imperfetto

The Italian Imperfect Tense 

First things first..

What’s The Imperfect Tense? 

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.

Smart tip 

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.

Example,

  • Quando siamo arrivati (event), pioveva (background, frame) [When we arrived, it was raining] 
  • Quando andavano all’università (background, context), ho vinto (even) una borsa di studio. [When I was in school, I got a scholarship]

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.

 

Italian vs.English 

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:

  • I  was feeling sick yesterday, so I didn’t go to work – Mi sentivo male ieri, così non too 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 –avo, -avi, -ava, -avamo, -avate, -avano to the stem of the verb. The conjugation is the same for all the verbs, no matter what group they belong to.

Irregular Verbs  

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.

We use the imperfetto to describe your life as it used to be.

Common word prompts: prima, una volta, nel passato, negli anni “X”, quando + imperfect tense 

  • Negli anni 90, vivevo a Londra e facevo il barista nei weekend – In the 90s I was living in London and I would work as bartender over the weekends.

We use the imperfetto to make a comparison between “before and nowadays”.

Common word prompts: prima…adesso.

  • Prima i bambini giocavano in strada, adesso giocano al cellulare – Before children used to play in the streets, today the play on their phones.

We use the imperfetto to talk about the weather in the past.

  • Ieri faceva caldo – Yesterday it was hot.
  • Ieri nevica – It snowed yesterday.
  • Ieri c’era una bella giornata di sole – Yesterday, it was a sunny day.

 We use the imperfetto to 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 was I was little: there were less cars and traffic.
  • Il mio primo appartamento era molto luminoso e si trovava nel centro città – My first apertamente was very bright and was in the city center.

We use the imperfetto to talk about your childhood.

Common word prompts: da piccolo/a, quando avevo + your age / Quando ero piccolo/a 

  • Quando ero piccola, mi piaceva preparare le torte con mia madre – When I was little I liked to bake with my mum.
  • 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.

We use the imperfetto to describe the context or background of a specific event.

Common prompt words: mentre 

  • Mentre passeggiavo al mare, ho ricevuto una chiamata importante – While I was walking on the beach,  I got an important phonecall 

We use the imperfetto to describe how people 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.

We use the imperfetto to describe the personality traits or other characteristics of people 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

We use the imperfetto 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 

We use the imperfetto to 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

We use the imperfetto 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 

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.

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, someone called and I woke up.

Passato Prossimo vs. Imperfetto: The Difference 

When to use the imperfect tense instead of the passato prossimo?

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 time expressions.

Common time expressions that trigger the use of the passato prossimo:

  • 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, giovedì scorso and similar phrases 
  • Ultimamente – lately 
  • L’altro ieri – the other day

If one of the above time expressions is used, we always use the passato prossimo. We would also use the passato prossimo if we didn’t say one of the above expressions, but they were still implied in the conversation.

For example,

  • Ho mangiato troppo ieri sera 
  • Due anni fa sono andato in Sud Africa
  • Ho comprato una macchina la scorsa settimana 

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 for some time. The imperfect often appears in combination with time expressions indicating a routine or a habitual activity.

Common time expressions used with the imperfect tense

  • Normalmente – typically 
  • Di solito – usually
  • Mentre – while 
  • Ogni volta che – every time that 
  • Da piccola/da piccolo – when I was little
  • Tutto il tempo – all the time

For example,

  • 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 more advanced grammar topic. If you’re 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.