What is the imperfetto (imperfect tense) in Italian?

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

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

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

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

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 the imperfect tense

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

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