How to Use the Imperfetto to talk about the past

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

The imperfect is very common and indispensable for everyday speech, narrating, and reading.

WHAT IS THE IMPERFETTO TENSE?

The imperfetto allows you to talk about things that lasted in the past, it’s very useful when you want to talk about descriptions (of things, places or people) feelings, emotions, and habits.

You need it to talk about actions that happened at the same time in the past.

You’ll find in this page some guidelines for choosing the imperfect over another past tense.

where is the imperfetto?

da bambina andavo in vacanza al mare

Da bambina andavo in vacanza al mare (as a child I used to go to the sea)

D'inverno faceva molto freddo

D’inverno faceva molto freddo (It was very cold in the winter)

da bambina andavo in vacanza al mare
D'inverno faceva molto freddo

when you need the imperfetto?

As mentioned before, the imperfetto is very useful when you want to talk about habitual actions in the past and to describe something that happened (in the past).

We use the imperfetto also for actions that happened at the same time in the past.

use of imperfetto

Habitual actions: what used to happen

A major area of use of the imperfect is to indicate a habitual past action, for example what people used to do or what things used to be like.

These are fairly easy to identify, as they are often expressed by ‘used to’ or ‘would’ in English. 

imperfetto for habits

The imperfetto for habits is usually preceded or followed by expressions such as di solito, qualche volta, spesso, la domenica, il lunedì, di frequente, da bambino/a, ogni giorno, etc

descriptions in the past

The imperfect is a descriptive tense. 

This means that the important thing is:

  • not what happened but what was happening,
  • not what the subject did but what she/he/it was doing.

In English you can use a continuous tense.

contemporary actions

You need the imperfetto when a sentence refers to two or more events which happened in the past.

– in a background action interrupted by another action in the past that occur at the same time, usually using “mentre”.

– in action happening in the same time in the past.

The imperfetto is the only tense you can use to talk about events happened simultaneously.

imperfetto for parallel events

The position of MENTRE is always BEFORE THE VERB in the imperfetto.
The position of the main action (in the perfect past tense) can change without modifying the meaning of the sentence.

Example:

  • Mentre cucinavo è arrivato Fabio (While I was cooking Fabio came in)
  • Fabio è arrivato mentre cucinavo (Fabio came in while I was cooking)
mentre cucinavo è arrivato Fabio

Formation of the Imperfect

The imperfect is a simple tense.
As usual, you’ll find regular and irregular verbs, but luckily the imperfetto doesn’t have many irregularities.

Even with the few verbs that are irregular in the imperfetto, what changes are the stem of the verb; the endings are always the same.

The imperfetto tense is formed by adding the endings to the stem of the -are, -ere, and -ire verbs.

Regular –are Verbs (OF FIRST-CONJUGATION VERBS)

The imperfect indicative of -are verbs is formed by dropping the infinitive -are ending and add- ing the endings -avo, -avi, -ava, -avamo, -avate, and -avano to the verb root.

Regular –ere Verbs (OF SECOND-CONJUGATION VERBS)

The imperfect indicative of -ere verbs is formed by dropping the -ere ending and adding the endings –evo, -evi, -eva, -evamo, -evate, and -evano to the verb root.

Regular -ire Verbs (OF THIRD-CONJUGATION VERBS)

The imperfect indicative of -ire verbs is formed by dropping the -ire ending and adding the endings -ivo, -ivi, -iva, -ivamo, -ivate, and -ivano to the verb root.

Irregular Verbs

The verbs fare, dire, bere, produrre, porre, and essere take their root for the imperfect tense from the original Latin infinitives, but the conjugations are regular.
For these verbs add the imperfect endings to fac- (for fare), dic- (for dire), bev- (for bere), produc- (for produrre), pon- (for porre), er- (for essere).

IMPERFECT OF REFLEXIVE VERBS

If the verb is reflexive, the reflexive infinitive ending is dropped in a similar way.

lavarsi (to wash oneself)

Pronunciation Tip

Practice the pronunciation of the imperfetto.

There are one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable, and four-syllable verbs. Be sure to pronounce the imperfetto tense in this way: io parlavo, tu parlavi, lui/lei parlava, noi parlavamo, voi parlavate, loro parlavano.

AUDIO – verbo parlare all’imperfetto

imperfetto vs passato prossimo

Compare the difference in meaning in the following sentences where the passato prossimo and the imperfect are used.

Giulia è partita ieri. (Giulia left yesterday.)

Di solito Giulia partiva alle cinque. (Giulia used to leave at five.)

PASSATO PROSSIMO

giulia è partita ieri

imperfetto

di solito giulia partiva alle cinque

passato prossimo

Sono andata al supermercato.
(I went to the supermarket.)

imperfetto

Andavo al supermercato tutti i giorni.
(I went to the supermarket every day.)

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