Italian Imperfetto - The tense of storytelling - Learn Italian Go (2023)

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 withÂPassato 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. 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.

Examples:

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 grandfather’s stories.ÂÂÂ

Quando vivevamo a Parigi, passeggiavamo spesso sugli Champs-Élysées.
When we lived in Paris, we often used to walk down the Champs-Élysées. ÂÂÂÂÂÂ

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

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In order to conjugate regular verbs in the Imperfetto, you need to take the root of the main verb and add thedifferent endings of –are, –ere, –ire conjugations.

As you will notice, verbs simply keep the vowel that is beforethe -r and add -vo, -vi, -va, -vamo, -vate, -vano.

Let’s see them in detail, taking as an example the verbs cantare (to sing), leggere (to read) and dormire (to sleep).

Cantareto sing

Io cantavo
Tu cantavi
Lui / Lei cantava
Noi cantavamo
Voi cantavate
Loro cantavano

Example:

Quando aveva 12 anni, mia mamma cantava nel coro della chiesa.
When she was 12, my mom used to sing in the church choir.

Leggereto read

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Io leggevo
Tu leggevi
Lui / Lei leggeva
Noi leggevamo
Voi leggevate
Loro leggevano

Example:

Mentre leggevo, ho sentito suonare il campanello.
While I was reading, I heard the bell ring. Â

Dormireto sleep

Io dormivo
Tu dormivi
Lui / Lei dormiva
Noi dormivamo
Voi dormivate
Loro dormivano

Example:

Dormiva così profondamente che mi dispiaceva svegliarlo.
He was sleeping so soundly that I felt bad waking him up. ÂÂ

Italian imperfetto –Irregular verbs

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Here are five common verbs following an irregular conjugation: fare (to do), bere (to drink), dire (to say) essere (tobe) and also tradurre (totranslate).

Fareto do

Io facevo
Tu facevi
Lui / Lei faceva
Noi facevamo
Voi facevate
Loro facevano

Example:

Che facevano quando siete rientrati a casa?
What were they doing when you came back home?

Bereto drink

Io bevevo
Tu bevevi
Lui / Lei beveva
Noi bevevamo
Voi bevevate
Loro bevevano

Example:

Quando frequentavo l’universitÃ, bevevo ogni sera con gli amici.
When I was in college, I used to drink every night with my friends.

Direto say

Io dicevo
Tu dicevi
Lui / Lei diceva
Noi dicevamo
Voi dicevate
Loro dicevano

Example:

Non mi piaceva affatto quello che dicevano.
I didn’t like at all what they were saying.

Essereto be

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Io ero
Tu eri
Lui / Lei era
Noi eravamo
Voi eravate
Loro erano

Example:

Era davvero stanca di vederlo triste.Â
She was really sick of seeing him sad.

Tradurre –to translate

Io traducevo
Tu traducevi
Lui / Lei traduceva
Noi traducevamo
Voi traducevate
Loro traducevano

Example:

In vacanza lui parlava sempre in italiano e io traducevo in inglese.
On vacation he used to speak in Italian and I translated into English.

When to use ItalianImperfetto

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Here below are some of the most common situations where ItalianImperfetto is generally employed.

Habits in the past

When you want to speak about habits and repeated actions in thepast you need to use Italian Imperfetto.

Examples:

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

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 translatingItalian Imperfetto into English whentalking about habits and repeated actions in the past is by resorting to theexpression used to.

Description of people,places and situations in the past

When you want to give a description of people, places andsituations in the past you must use Italian Imperfetto.

Examples:

Il nonno di Adele era davvero una persona buona e gentile.
Adele’s grandfather was such a good and kind man. Â

Nella città di Katherine c’erano solo un cinema e una birreria per divertirsi.
In Katherine’s 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 wasn’t able to understand at all.

Description of the weather in the past

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Use the Italian Imperfetto when talking about the weather inthe past.

Examples:

Ieri c’era 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 didn’t manage to leave home.Â

Description of feelings inthe past

Furthermore, when your intention is to describe a physical orpsychological state in the past, you need the Italian Imperfetto.

Examples:

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 un’intensa 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 peopleknew, thought or meant in the past, but not anymore.

Examples:

Non sapeva cosa dire perché aveva paura di ferirlo.
She didn’t 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

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We use Imperfetto when referring to actions which happened atthe same time in the past.

If the two actions have the same exact length, we use theItalian Imperfetto for both the events.

Examples:

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 adifferent 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 “interrupts” the other.

Examples:

Ragazze, ma cosa è 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 pastcontinuous tense to translate sentences built with mentre + Imperfetto properly.

Surroundings andBackgrounds

In this situation, the Italian Imperfetto is mostly applied in storytelling and narration, even inliterature to set or describe a scene.

Examples:

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 più paranoico.
He was thinking about what they told him and he was getting more and more paranoid.ÂÂÂÂÂ

Time expressions with Italian Imperfetto

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Sometimes, it can be quite hard to know in which cases you needto apply Italian Imperfetto. Forthis reason, you can look for some indicators, like the following timeexpressions:

  • 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)

Examples:

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.

Imperfetto ipotetico

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On specific occasions, especially in the spoken language,Italian Imperfetto is widely used inplace of other tenses to make daily conversations shorter and faster.

In the case of imperfettoipotetico (hypothetical imperfect), it replaces thepast tense of Condizionale toindicate unreal conditions or events that would have happened in the past.

Look at the following examples, focusing on the differencesbetween the informal version using imperfetto, and the formal version using theConditional andthe Congiuntivo.

Examples

Imperfetto attenuativo

The Italian Imperfettoattenuativo (mitigating imperfect)is primarily employed with verbs like volere (towant) , desiderare (to wish) and preferire (to prefer) toexpress a polite request in place of the presentconditional.

Examples:

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 anziché 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. ÂÂÂÂÂÂÂ

Wrap up

At the end of this article, you should be able to say inItalian which are your past habits or what you used to do when you were achild.

You can easily recognize the Italian Imperfetto by the finalendings -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.

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By: Lucia Aiello

Lucia Aiello is one of the co-founders of LearnItalianGo. Born and raised in Italy, she is a passionate Italian teacher and language enthusiast.

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