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Imperfetto: Italian grammar 83

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What is the imperfetto?

The Italian imperfetto (imperfect tense in English) is a tense that we use to talk about the past.

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

The Italian imperfetto is sometimes similar (not equal) to the English past simple: when you use the past simple of “to be”, we generally use the imperfetto of “essere”, as in “I was at home” (“Io ero a casa.”).

However, we don’t always translate it with an English past simple.

We mainly use it to express a continued and prolonged action that happened in the past, or a habit in the past.

More precisely, imperfetto means “not exact”, so we cannot use this tense when we talk about an action that happened at an exact moment in time.

Instead, we use the imperfetto to talk about events that happened at some point in the past but we don’t say exactly when.

What is the Italian imperfetto

When to use the imperfetto 

We use the imperfetto in the following cases:

1. To describe the way people, objects, or places were in the past.

Da piccola avevo i capelli ricci.

When I was a child I had curly hair.

Era un uomo coraggioso.

He was a brave man.

2. To describe ongoing situations and facts which happened over a continuous or unspecified period of time.

In this sense, it is often used in literature and storytelling to set or describe a scene.

I bambini giocavano per strada.

The children were playing in the street.

La città era deserta e i negozi erano chiusi.

The town was empty and the shops were closed.

Era buio e la pioggia cadeva gentilmente.

It was dark and the rain was falling lightly.

3. To describe states of mind or health.

Avevo sonno.

I was sleepy.

Laura non si sentiva molto bene.

Laura wasn’t feeling very well.

Ieri ero triste.

I was sad yesterday.

4. To describe what used to happen, such as habits and repeated actions in the past.

Ogni venerdì ci incontravamo al bar.

We used to meet at the bar every Friday.

D’estate andavamo sempre al mare.

In the summer we always used to go to the sea.

Da bambino mangiavo pane e marmellata tutti i giorni.

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

5. To describe 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.

While I was on my way to the office, I met Claudia.

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.

How to use the imperfetto

How to conjugate regular verbs in the imperfetto 

The conjugation of regular verbs 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 the following rules:

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

Learn more about Italian verb conjugation.

How to use the Italian imperfetto

Three common irregular verbs in the imperfetto

Let’s now have a look at the conjugation of three 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

Italian imperfetto

Time expressions with the imperfetto

The imperfetto usually goes together with a time expression referring to the past, like the ones you can see below:

  • sempre – always
  • mai – never
  • spesso – often
  • tutti i giorni – every day
  • ogni giorno – each day
  • da piccolo – when I was a kid
  • a volte – at times, sometimes
  • ogni tanto – once in awhile

How to use the imperfetto in Italian

Examples with the imperfetto

Let’s have a look at some examples:

Volevamo sempre andare in Italia.

We always wanted to go to Italy.

Il cielo non era mai blu.

The sky was never blue.

Nel 2000, avevo vent’anni.

In 2000, I was twenty years old.

Loro credevano sempre a tutto.

They always believed everything.

L’anno scorso andavamo a ballare ogni fine settimana.

Last year we would go to dance every weekend.

Quando ero piccola, mangiavo la pasta ogni giorno.

When I was a kid, I would eat pasta every day.

Giocavo a calcio ogni pomeriggio.

I used to play soccer every afternoon.

Italian imperfetto conjugation

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