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How to Talk About the Past in Italian Using the Imperfetto

imperfetto

Most Italian learners are a little intimidated by the imperfetto, one of the main past tenses in Italian. The imperfect tense (imperfetto) refers to both distant and recent past occurrences that happened on a regular basis.

In this lesson, we will show you how to use the imperfetto tense and will give you some tips to help you avoid some common pitfalls. Its rules are pretty straightforward and once you learn them, it will begin to come naturally.

Using the imperfetto

The imperfect tense in Italian can be a little tricky at first, because it doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English.

The imperfetto is a past tense used to:


(1) Talk about oft-repeated or habitual actions in the past:

  • Ogni giovedì ci incontravamo al bar – We used to meet at the bar every Thursday (the action happened continually in the past)
  • Quando Virginia era piccola, si svegliava alle 7:30 per andare a scuola – When Virginia was a kid, she used to wake up at 7:3 0 a.m. to go to school (a habitual action in the past)

 (2) Describe a situation in the past:

  • La strada non era asfaltata – The road wasn’t made up.
  • La città era deserta – The city was empty.
  • Quando andavo a scuola odiavo la matematicaWhen I was at school I used to hate maths.

(3) Talk about one’s age at a point in the past:

  • Nel 2000, Alessia aveva 16 anni – In 2000, Alessia was 16 years old.

 (4) Describe time or weather in the past:

  • C’era il sole ma faceva freddo – It was sunny but cold.
  • Erano le sette – It was seven o’clock.

(5) Describe the ongoing state of objects, places and people in the past:

  • Da piccola, Sabrina aveva i capelli ricci – When she was little, Sabrina used to have curly hair (you are talking about how she looked in the past).
  • Caterina era una donna coraggiosa – Caterina was a brave woman

(6) Express an emotional or physical state that occurred in the past, and is now over:

  • Ieri avevo mal di testa – I had a headache yesterday.
  • Eravamo così feliciWe were so happy.

 (7) Talk about two or more events that happened simultaneously in the past:

  • Mentre studiavo in camera mia, Tommaso guardava la televisione (parallel activities) – While I was studying in my room, Tommaso was watching TV.

(8) Describe an action that was taking place when something else happened:

  • Mentre passeggiavo nel parco, ho visto uno scoiattolo – While I was having a stroll in the park, I saw a squirrel (you are talking about what you were doing when something else occurred).

As you can see, that’s a lot of uses!

How to Construct the Italian imperfetto

Lucky for you, the imperfetto is one of the most stable Italian tenses and is formed by adding the same endings to all three verb types. The only difference is the typical vowel of the infinitive.

The imperfetto is formed by taking the -re off the end of the infinitive and replacing it with:
  • -vo for “I”
  • -vi for “you”
  • -va for “he”/ “she” / “it”
  • -vamo for “we”
  • -vate for “y’all”
  • -vano for “they”

That’s it! This works with all regular verbs. As you might have noticed, the characteristic letter of the imperfetto tense is the letter “v”:

  • Parlavo (I spoke or used to speak)
  • Leggevo (I read or used to read)
  •  Dormivo (I slept or used to sleep)

Once you learn one set of endings, it will be easy to learn the subsequent two because they all follow a similar pattern.

Parlare

Io parlavo

I spoke or used to speak

Tu parlavi

You spoke or used to speak

Lui/lei parlava

He/She/It spoke or used to speak

Noi parlavamo

We spoke or used to speak

Voi parlavate

Y’all spoke or used to speak

Loro parlavano

They spoke or used to speak

Leggere

Io leggevo

I read or used to read

Tu leggevi

You read or used to read

Lui/lei leggeva

He/She/It read or used to read

Noi leggevamo

We read or used to read

Voi leggevate

Y’all read or used to read

Loro leggevano

They read or used to read

Dormire

Io dormivo

I slept or used to sleep

Tu dormivi

You slept or used to sleep

Lui/lei dormiva

He/She/It slept or used to sleep

Noi dormivamo

We slept or used to sleep

Voi dormivate

Y’all slept or used to sleep

Loro dormivano

They slept or used to sleep

There are some irregular verbs in the imperfect form. First we will look at the imperfect conjugations of essere (to be):

Io ero

Tu eri

Lui/lei era

Noi eravamo

Voi eravate

Loro erano

Aside from the Italian verb “essere”, the other irregular verbs to beware of in the imperfect form are those that end in -orre, -urre and -arre, such as:

  • porre (to put, to place);
  • tradurre (to translate);
  • trarre (to pull, to draw);

and also:

  • fare (to make, to do);
  • dire (to say, to tell);
  • bere (to drink).

While the endings are similar, the stem used is not as easy to form. Fortunately, they tend to be the same troublesome verbs that are also irregular in other tenses in Italian, so they are easy to spot. Let’s go over some of the most common irregular verbs in the imperfect form:

Fare

Io facevo

Tu facevi

Lui/lei faceva

Noi facevamo

Voi facevate

Loro facevano

Dire

Io dicevo

Tu dicevi

Lui/lei diceva

Noi dicevamo

Voi dicevate

Loro dicevano

Bere

Io bevevo

Tu bevevi

Lui/lei beveva

Noi bevevamo

Voi bevevate

Loro bevevano

Porre 

Io ponevo

Tu ponevi

Lui/lei poneva

Noi ponevamo

Voi ponevate

Loro ponevano

Tradurre

Io traducevo

Tu traducevi

Lui/lei traduceva

Noi traducevamo

Voi traducevate

Loro traducevano

Trarre 

Io traevo

Tu traevi

Lui/lei traeva

Noi traevamo

Voi traevate

Loro traevano

We recommend committing those to memory.

Fortunately, the Italian verb “avere” is regular in the imperfect tense:

Avere

Io avevo 

Tu avevi 

Lui/lei aveva 

Noi avevamo 

Voi avevate 

Loro avevano

Which phrases are typically used with the Italian imperfect tense?

Here is a list of adverbial expressions that are usually used with the imperfetto in Italian:

A volte

at times

Continuamente

continuously / continually

Giorno dopo giorno

day in and day out

Mentre

while / as

Ogni tanto

every so often

Sempre

always

Spesso

often

Tutti i giorni

every day

Imperfetto or passato prossimo?

Confused by the past tenses in Italian? Understanding when to use the imperfetto over the passato prossimo can be tough at first, and most English speakers who decide to learn Italian struggle with this. Here are some tips to help you with the use of these two past tenses.

As mentioned previously, the imperfetto describes repeated or habitual actions in the past as well as the characteristics and frequency of past situations.

  • L’estate scorsa andavo in piscina ogni domenica – Last summer, I used to go to the pool every Sunday.
  • A 11 anni Cinzia aveva i capelli lunghissimi – When Cinzia was 11, she had very long hair.
  • On the other hand, the passato prossimo refers to events which are clearly defined in time and describes things that happened only once in the recent past.
  • Due anni fa siamo andati a Firenze – We went to Florence two years ago (we didn’t keep on going to Florence).

Events that happened long ago may be expressed using the passato prossimo when they still have an active relationship to the present.

If you are talking about an action in the past that happened at the same time as something else, then you use both.

  • Mentre andavo a scuola ho incontrato Francesca. – While I was going to school, I met Francesca. 

Colloquial uses of the imperfetto

There are colloquial uses of the imperfetto which are well worth learning. It is quite common in colloquial speech to skip complicated grammar structures and use the imperfect tense instead.

In spoken everyday language the imperfetto is commonly used instead of the conditional and past subjunctive, which take longer to say. So, the imperfetto has become an acceptable alternative in casual, informal conversation. It is crucial for foreigners to learn its colloquial uses to understand what people are talking about.

The following example is a classic use of the imperfetto in place of a subjunctive tense, which would have been grammatically correct.

  • Se sapevo che eri vegetariana, non preparavo l’arrosto (only acceptable in spoken Italian) – Had I known you were a vegetarian, I wouldn’t have made the roast.

The above is considered incorrect but it is what most native Italian speakers would actually say when speaking at a colloquial and informal level. The technically correct but rather complex version is appropriate in formal communication and written Italian: Se avessi saputo che eri vegetariana, non avrei preparato l’arrosto.

Here are other examples:

  • Potevate avvisarmi che arrivavate in ritardo (informal communication). Avreste potuto avvisarmi che sareste arrivati in ritardo (formal communication). - You guys could have told me that you were late.
  • Se Fabio mi mandava una mail, rispondevo subito (informal communication) / Se Fabio mi avesse inviato una mail, avrei risposto subito (formal communication) - If Fabio sent me an email, I would have replied right away.

The imperfect tense is also used in place of the conditional to make a request sound less imperative.

  • Buongiorno, volevo un caffè per favore (volevo instead of vorrei) – Good morning, I’d like a coffee please.
  • Volevo prenotare una camera per due nottivolevovorrei. ( instead of ) – I’d like to book a room for two nights.

How to translate the imperfetto into English

English and Italian have different past tenses and there is no exact one-to-one correspondence between how they are used. The imperfetto corresponds roughly to “used to” or the past continuous tense. The most similar phrasing you have in English is perhaps the expression “used to,” but it is not a direct translation.

Widely used both in the spoken and written language, the imperfetto in Italian may need to be translated with:


The past continuous tense

  • Pioveva forte – It was raining heavily.

“used to”

  • Andavo a trovare Emanuele ogni giorno – I used to visit Emanuele every single day.

The simple past tense

  • Marta faceva la babysitter dopo la scuola – Marta worked as a babysitter after school (this was a regular happening).

"Would"

  • Silvia lo seguiva dovunque andasse – Silvia would follow him everywhere.

How to pronounce verbs in the imperfect form

Lots of students get tripped up on which syllable to stress in Italian imperfect verbs.

You should stress the penultimate syllable on imperfetto verb conjugations, except in the third person plural (loro), when, as in the present, the stress falls on the third to last syllable (antepenultimate).

Andrea e Adele andavano al cinema ogni mercoledì sera – Andrea and Adele used to go to the cinema every Wednesday evening

This might sound a bit weird to you at first but this rhythm will come to feel natural with a bit of practice.

To sum up...

  • The imperfect tense is used for situations and events that continued for some time in the past.
  • It is used to describe things that happened continuously in the past on a regular basis, kind of like the expression “used to” in English:

Quando ero in Sicilia parlavo italiano ogni giorno – When I was in Sicily I used to speak Italian every day

Quando ero piccolo, mangiavo la pasta tutti i giorni – When I was a kid, I used to eat pasta every day
  • The verb forms are made by removing the letters -re of the infinitive and simply adding the endings -vo, -vi, -va, -vamo, -vate and -vano. There are a few irregular forms.
  • The Italian imperfetto has various ways of being translated into English.

Developing an understanding for which tense to use in a sentence is not something you can learn by simply studying grammar rules. It will take time and requires you to spend a lot of time with the language till you develop a natural feel for the correct tense form to use.

Read and listen to Italian as much as you can to speed up this process. The more you expose yourself to Italian, the more natural this and other grammatical structures will become for you.

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About the Author Jessica Magi

Jessica is a native Italian speaker, a passionate linguist and a proud Grammar nerd. She has a lifelong passion for English and studied Linguistic and Cultural Mediation at the University of Milan. She currently works as a freelance translator and copywriter.

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