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.
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.
Da bambina andavo in vacanza al mare (as a child I used to go to the sea)
D’inverno faceva molto freddo (It was very cold in the winter)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Mentre cucinavo è arrivato Fabio (While I was cooking Fabio came in)
- Fabio è arrivato mentre cucinavo (Fabio came in while I was cooking)
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.
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)
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.)
Sono andata al supermercato.
(I went to the supermarket.)
Andavo al supermercato tutti i giorni.
(I went to the supermarket every day.)