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The Italian “Imperfetto”

The Italian “Imperfetto” is a tense that we use to talk about the past.

The Italian imperfetto sometimes is similar (not equal) to English Past Simple: when you use the Past Simple of “to be” we generally use the Imperfetto of “Essere”

Here is the irregular conjugation:

Essere (imperfetto) To be (past simple)
Io ero I was
Tu eri You were
Lui/Lei era He/she/it was
Noi eravamo We were
Voi eravate
Loro erano

.

So: “C’era” = There was

And “C’erano” = There were

But “Imperfetto” means “not exact”, so we cannot used this tense when we explain the exact amount of time it was repeated (we cannot say: “guidavo per molti kilometri prima di trovare un telefono pubblico“; we must say “ho guidato per molti chilometri prima di trovare … “; or we cannot say “vivevo lì per 25 anni“; but we must say: “ho vissutoper 25 anni in these sentence we must use the “Passato prossimo“); we cannot use the “imperfetto” when we say when the fact happened: Di solito mi alzo presto, ma oggi mi sono alzata alle 10 (here we need “Passato prossimo”, you use “past simple” instead (= I usually get up early but this morning I got up at 10).

On the contrary we use the “imperfetto” to express habits in the past (in English you generally say “used to + verb“ or “would always + verb”), but not only. I ‘ll explain better:

The Italian imperfetto is used

  • for talking about a situation or regular activity in the past (it happened regularly or existed in the past but it does not happen or exist now):
  • Quando ero studente uscivo ogni sera.
  • Mia madre mi faceva sempre la pasta
  • = I used to go out every night when I was a student.
  • = My mother would always make the pasta
  • Prima dove vivevi?
  • = Where did you use to live?
  • Prima vivevo a Genova, ma ora vivo a Roma
  • = I used to live in Genoa, but now I live in Rome
  • to describe feeling, people, objects, landscape or situations in the past
Da giovane Luca era alto e bello = when Luca was young he was tall and handsome
Ieri alla festa avevo mal di testa = I had a headache at the party yesterday
La campagna era arida = The countryside was arid
Dalla finestra della camera da letto c’era una splendida vista del lago = There was a wonderful view of the lake from the bedroom window
C’erano circa cinquanta persone alla festa = There were about fifty people at the party
  • Generally after time expressions “quando“, “generalmente“ “di solito” and “normalmente”
Generalmente studiavo in biblioteca I generally studied in the library
Di solito andavo al mare in macchina I usually went to the seaside by car
  • to talk about actions or series of events in the past which happened at the same time and continued for a certain amount of time. Be carefully “mentre“ is always followed by the “imperfetto” and also, when in English you need “past continuous”, we can use “Imperfetto” or “Imperfetto” continuous (Che facevi/stavi facendo ieri alle 2? = What were you doing at 2 yesterday?)
Mentre andavo a scuola ho incontrato Marta = While/as I was going to school I met Marta
Mentre insegnavo, Peter imparava = While I taught, Peter learned
Mentre ballavo, Luca cantava la canzone = While I danced, Luca sang the song
  • also is commonly used instead of the conditional to express requests
Buongiorno, volevo (better vorrei) un caffè, per favore = good morning, I’d like a coffee, please
Volevo (better vorrei) vedere la carta dei vini, per favore = I’d like to see the wine list, please

.

An important difference between Italian and English:

At time you use the Present perfect or the Past simple, but we use only the “Passato prossimo” and we cannot use “Imperfetto” (in Italian is easier) because we only consider that the event happened:

You say: Or: We use the “Passato prossimo”:
I have lost my book I lost my book yesterday Ho perso il mio libro (ieri)
Have you seen Lisa? When did you see Lisa? Hai visto Lisa?/Quando hai visto Lisa?
Marco has not arrived yet Marco didn’t arrive on Saturday Marco non è ancora arrivato/ Sabato Marco non è arrivato
Rita has gone home Rita went home ten minutes ago Rita è andata a casa (dieci minuti fa)
Have you ever gone to Florence? Did you go to Florence last week? Sei mai stato a Firenze?/La settimana scorsa sei stato a Firenze?

5 Responses to “The Italian “Imperfetto””

  1. Kathy Marin said

    Salve Monica,
    I am an ESL teacher who has taught primarily the US alone (target language English). I am an intermediate (Read/write) speaker of Spanish, primarily learned
    “on the street” from working in Spanish speaking communities. I recently begun studying Italian in a bit of an experiment. I am learning on the internet (I have no communicative context to learn in). I watch videos all the time (using Youtube and webcast Italian TV) and listen to short conversations on whatever site I can find these on! You can only imagine the idiomatic language I’m hearing (a good thing!) but it is also confusing at times, of course. In language learning, I always tell my students, one must have a tolerance for ambiguity. So, once again, I am practicing this for myself.

    I have been learning grammar mostly by “guessing,” using whatever knowledge I have of Spanish to make guesses as to the correct structures to use in Italian. I always recommend to my students of English that they attempt to “guess” at meanings and structures and then confirm their hypothesis afterwards. This works well to some extent, the “struggle” with language does make one have to think deeply about the way it is produced. However, I am happy to have some grammar explanations to either confirm or to correct what I have been guessing! Thanks for your lovely website. I hope sometime I can speak to your more about language teaching.

    Buon Natale,
    Kathy Marin

  2. Annette said

    Ciao Monica,

    non è stato niente
    or
    non era niente

    questi sono sempre intercambiabile: era e è stato

    Grazie mille,

    Annette

  3. Azi Izang said

    che Dio vi benedica. amen.
    Grazie tante,
    Azi Izang

  4. Ciao Monica!
    my husband and I are at scuola media in Scalea (where we live for part of the year) and are studying l’Italiano per Stranieri. We love it!
    But now we are studying imperfetto. E` difficile!!!!
    your explanation/lesson is wonderful!

    grazie mille ~

    Cheryl Mauro

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