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What is the imperfetto (imperfect tense) in Italian?

The Italian imperfetto is a tense that we use to talk about the past.

It is the second most used past tense in Italian, after passato prossimo.

The Italian imperfetto sometimes is similar (not equal) to English Past Simple: when you use the Past Simple of “to be” we generally use the Imperfetto of “Essere” “Imperfetto” means “not exact”, so we cannot use this tense when we explain the exact amount of time it was repeated.

When to use the passato imperfetto:

  1. To describe the way people, objects or places were in the past.
    For example: da piccola avevo i capelli ricci (when I was a child I used to have curly hair); era un uomo coraggioso (he was a brave man).
  2. To describe situations and factual conditions (this tense is used a lot in literature).
    For example: la citta’ era deserta e non si vedevano macchine (the town was empty and there were no cars to be seen);
    era buio e la pioggia cadeva gentilmente (it was dark and the rain was falling lightly).
  3. To describe states of mind or health.
    For example: avevo sonno (I was sleepy);
    gli faceva male la testa (he had an headache);
    ero triste (I was sad).
  4. To describe what used to happen such as habits and repeated actions in the past.
    For example: ogni venerdi’ ci incontravamo al bar (every Friday we used to meet at the bar);
    d’estate andavamo sempre al mare (in the summer we always used to go to the sea);
    correva alla porta ogni volta che suonava il campanello (he would run to the door every time that the bell rang).

Essere (imperfetto)

  • Io ero – I was
  • Tu eri – You were
  • Lui/Lei era – He/she/it was
  • Noi eravamo – We were
  • Voi eravate – you were
  • Loro erano – they were

Common expressions with the imperfect tense:

  • a volte – at times, sometimes
  • continuamente – continuously
  • giorno dopo giorno – day in and day out
  • ogni tanto – once in awhile
  • sempre – always
  • spesso spesso – again and again
  • tutti i giorni – every day

How to conjugate regular verbs in the imperfect tense

Regular verbs with -are endings

Mangiare – To Eat

  • Mangiavo – I ate
  • Mangiavi – You ate
  • Mangiava – He/she/it ate
  • Mangiavamo – We ate
  • Mangiavate – You (all) ate
  • Mangiavano – They ate

Regular verbs with -ere endings

Prendere – To take, to get

  • Prendevo – I took
  • Prendevi – You took
  • Prendeva – He/she/it took
  • Prendevamo – We took
  • Prendevate – You (all) took
  • Prendevano – They took

Regular verbs with -ire endings

Finire – To finish

  • Finivo – I finished
  • Finivi – You finished
  • Finiva – He/she/it finished
  • Finivamo – We finished
  • Finivate – You (all) finished
  • Finivano – They finished

Learn more about Italian verb conjugation.

3 common irregular verbs

Fare – To do/ To make

  • Facevo – I did
  • Facevi – You did
  • Faceva – He/she/it did
  • Facevamo – We did
  • Facevate – You (all) did
  • Facevano – They did
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Essere – To be

  • Ero – I was
  • Eri – You were
  • Era – He/she/it was
  • Eravamo – We were
  • Eravate – You (all) were
  • Erano – They were

Dire – To say/ To tell

  • Dicevo – I said
  • Dicevi – You said
  • Diceva – He/she/it said
  • Dicevamo – We said
  • Dicevate – You (all) said
  • Dicevano – They said

Imperfetto: Conjugation

The imperfetto is one of the most commonly used past tenses in Italian, together with the passato prossimo.

It is often used to express a continued and prolonged action that happened in the past, or a habit in the past.

Before explaining how to use the imperfetto in more detail, let’s take a look at how this tense is formed in regular verbs.

The conjugation for the imperfetto past tense is pretty straightforward, which makes it fairly easy to recognize:

First conjugation Second conjugation Third conjugation
Infinitive form: (-are)

mangiare

(= to eat)

(-ere)

cadere

(= to fall)

(-ire)

capire

(= to understand)

io mangiavo cadevo capivo
tu mangiavi cadevi capivi
lui mangiava cadeva capiva
noi mangiavamo cadevamo capivamo
voi mangiavate cadevate capivate
loro mangiavano cadevano capivano

As you may have noticed by looking at the table above, the imperfetto tense looks very similar for all three conjugations. The only difference is the first letter (the vowel a, e, or i) of the tense suffix. Therefore, we just need to keep in mind that:

  • Verbs ending in –are (first conjugation) will have an A immediately following the verb root. Ex: for “parlare” (= to sing): io parl + A + vo.
  • Verbs ending in –ere (second conjugation) will have an E immediately following the verb root. Ex: for “leggere” (=to read) io legg + E + vo.
  • Verbs ending in -ire (third conjucation) will have an I immediately following the verb root. Ex: for “dormire” io dorm + I + vo.

Imperfetto: When to use it?

Let’s take a look at the different situations for which the imperfetto is used in Italian:

  1. To describe a habit in the past (something that used to happen routinely in the past):
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Da bambino mangiavo pane e marmellata tutti i giorni.

When I was a kid, I used to eat bread with jam every day.

In passato andavo in palestra almeno 2 volte a settimana. Ora non ho più tempo.

In the past, I used to go to the gym at least twice a week. Now I don’t have time to go anymore.

  1. To describe an ongoing situation or state in the past, which happened over a continuous or unspecified period of time. In this sense, it is often used in storytelling to set or describe a scene.

Anna ieri aveva molto sonno.

Anna was feeling very sleepy yesterday.

Non incontravo Luca da molto tempo.

I had not met Luca in a long time.

I bambini giocavano per strada.

The children were playing in the street.

  1. When describing two past actions happening at the same time, we use the imperfetto for the ongoing “background” action, and we use the passato prossimo for the “interrupting” action which happened for a shorter period of time. In this situation, the imperfetto is often introduced by mentre (=while).

Mentre andavo in ufficio, ho incontrato Claudia.

I met Claudia on my way to the office.

Studiavamo quando improvvisamente ha squillato il telefono.

We were studying when suddenly the telephone rang.

Mi sono addormentata mentre leggevo.

I fell asleep while I was reading.

Sample sentences with the passato imperfetto

  • Volevamo andare in Italia.
    We wanted to go to Italy.
  • Il cielo era sempre blu.
    The sky was always blue.
  • Nel 2000, avevo vent’anni.
    In 2000, I was twenty years old.
  • Loro credevano sempre a tutto.
    They always believed everything.
  • Il mese scorso, era (c’era) un tempo bellissimo!
    Last month, it was really beautiful weather!
  • Quando ero piccolo/a, mangiavo la pasta ogni giorno.
    When I was a kid, I ate pasta every day.
  • Giocavo a calcio ogni pomeriggio.
    I played soccer every afternoon.

Audio lessons to practice imperfetto

To practice the imperfetto, take Lesson 83 of the Italian audio course “Ripeti con me!“.

Here’s a preview:

File A

File B

File C

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