Italian Indicative Imperfect Tense

An essential tense for anchoring other actions in the past

View of Matera in southern Italy
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The imperfetto indicativo is an essential Italian past tense, used principally as a background or anchor to another simultaneous action in the past, or to express an action that repeated itself routinely over a certain time frame in the past.

The imperfetto is also used in storytelling to describe situations or a status that unfolds over an indefinite arc of time in the past and that does not come into focus with a true beginning or end.

A Versatile Tense

Let's look at some of the many rich ways in which the imperfetto is routinely used.

Descriptions and Setting

The imperfetto describes settings or situations that extend over imperfect arcs of time, mostly with verbs that express continuous actions (to be, to have, for example):

  • Vittorio era un uomo bellissimo. Vittorio was a beautiful man.
  • Marco aveva tre figli che abitavano a Roma. Marco had three children who lived in Rome.
  • Gianna conosceva bene Parigi. Gianna knew Parigi well.
  • Non lo vedevo da molto tempo. I had not seen him in a long time.
  • Franca era una grande collezionista e aveva molti libri. Franca was a great collector and she had many books.

Anchor or Background to Another Action

The imperfetto most often anchors actions in other past tenses (mostly the passato prossimo and the passato remoto) but that are simultaneous. In those situations, the imperfetto is often accompanied by mentre (while) and quando (when), and it corresponds to the English past progressive:

  • Andavo a Roma in treno quando vidi Francesco. I was going to Rome on the train when I saw Francesco.
  • Mangiavamo quando ha squillato il telefono. We were eating when the phone rang.
  • Mentre studiavo mi sono addormentata. While I was studying, I fell asleep.
  • Stavo aprendo la finestra quando ho rotto il vaso. I was opening the window when I broke the vas.

Routine

The imperfetto is also used to express actions that happened routinely or repeatedly in the past: what in English is expressed with "used to" or "would." Because of that, the imperfetto is often prefaced by certain adverbs of time:

  • Di solito: usually
  • A volte: at times
  • Continuamente: continuously
  • Giorno dopo giorno: day in and day out
  • Ogni tanto: once in awhile
  • Sempre: always
  • Spesso: often
  • Tutti i giorni: every day

For example:

  • Tutti i giorni andavamo a scuola a piedi. Every day we would walk to school.
  • Ogni tanto il nonno mi dava la cioccolata e le caramelle. Every now and then grandfather used to give me chocolate and candy.
  • Mi chiamava costantemente. He would call me constantly.

The imperfetto is also often prefaced by expressions of time that describe periods of one's life or spans of the year:

  • Da bambino: as a child
  • Da piccoli: when we were little
  • Da ragazzo: as a boy
  • In inverno: in winter
  • In autunno: in fall
  • Durante la scuola: during school
  • Durante l'anno: during the year

For example:

  • Da ragazzi andavamo al porto a giocare sulle barche. As kids we used to go to the port and play on the boats.
  • Da piccola passavo l'estate coi nonni. As a little girl, I used to spend summers with my grandparents.

Storytelling

Given its implicit "imperfection" or softness, the imperfetto is used in narration and storytelling, much in literature but also in everyday life. Again, it depicts scenes that don't have a necessary beginning or end unless in the context of some other action.

  • L'uomo mangiava piano, e ogni tanto chiudeva gli occhi come per riposare. Intorno, la gente lo guardava in silenzio. The man ate slowly, and every now and then he closed his eyes as if to rest. The people looked on in silence.

Still, even in a narrative environment that seems to have no beginning or end, the imperfetto still lives in the context of other actions, simultaneous, or setting the stage for something to come. One can imagine that something else happened or followed. As here:

  • In autunno i nonni andavano sempre a cercare i funghi nei boschi, e una volta portarono anche me. Purtroppo caddi e mi ruppi la gamba. In fall our grandparents used to always go look for mushrooms in the woods, and once they took me, too. Unfortunately, I fell and broke my leg.

Sometimes the imperfetto sets the stage for a contrast with something: between then and now, between before and after:

  • Quando vivevamo a Milano, andavamo spesso a vedere mostre e musei; poi, ci siamo trasferiti e non siamo più andati. When we lived in Milan, we went often/we used to go to see exhibits and museums; then we moved and we have not been since.

How to Conjugate the Imperfetto

Regularly, you conjugate the imperfetto by taking the root of the infinitive and adding the suffix -av-, -ev-, and -iv- plus the personal endings. Below are examples of three regular verb conjugations of the imperfetto in -are, -ere, and -ire: mangiare, prendere, and finire.

  Mangiare
(to eat)
Prendere
(to take/get)
Finire 
(to finish)
io mangi-avo prend-evo  fin-ivo 
tu mangi-avi prend-evi fin-ivi
lui, lei, Lei mangi-ava prend-eva fin-iva 
noi mangi-avamo prend-evamo fin-ivamo 
voi mangi-avate prend-evate fin-ivate
loro, Loro mangi-avano prend-evano fin-ivano

Examples:

  • Da bambino mangiavo sempre la Nutella; adesso non la mangio mai. As I child I used to always eat Nutella; now I don't eat it anymore.
  • Prima prendevamo il caffè in Via Scipio, ma recentemente abbiamo cambiato bar. Before, we used to have our coffee in Via Scipio, but recently we changed bars.
  • Al liceo Giorgio finiva il compito sempre per primo. At the liceo, Giorgio used to always finish the test first.

Irregular Imperfetto

Here are three verbs with an irregular imperfetto (there are relatively few): fare, bere, and dire. Each of these takes as their imperfetto root the root of the verb from which the Italian verb derives; otherwise, the endings are regular imperfetto endings, though with no distinction between the three conjugations.

  Fare
(to do/make)
Bere 
(to drink)
Dire 
(to say/tell)
io facevo bevevo dicevo
tu facevi bevevi dicevi
lui, lei, Lei  faceva beveva diceva
noi facevamo bevevamo dicevamo
voi facevate bevevate dicevate
loro, Loro facevano bevevano dicevano

Examples:

  • Quando eravamo al mare, faceva bellissimo tempo. When we were at the beach, it was beautiful weather.
  • All'università bevevano tutti molto. At university, everyone drank a lot.
  • Mio nonno mi diceva sempre, "Non dimenticare da dove vieni." My grandfather used to always say, "Don't forget where you come from."