Imperfetto in Italian

The imperfetto in Italian is the second most common past tense in the everyday language (the first would be passato prossimo), so it’s very important that you learn it well if you want to talk about past events with your Italian friends.

Ero in camera mia.
I was in my room.

kid sitting in its messed bedroom

In this lesson, we will see how to form and when to use the imperfetto in Italian.

Let’s get started! Iniziamo!


When do you use the imperfetto in Italian?

The imperfetto is generally used in the spoken and written language to talk mainly about past events that lasted for an indefinite period of time or occured more than once.

It can translate both the English present perfect, past simple and past progressive, so there’s really no equivalent in this language, and you should pay special attention to the context the imperfetto is used to learn how to use it correctly.

The imperfetto in Italian puts emphasis on the action itself, rather than telling you when the action happened. The imperfetto tells you that the action was once valid.

Mia zia aveva i capelli bianchi.
My aunt had white hair.

The imperfetto can also translate sentences starting with I used to….

Andavo spesso a pescare da piccolo.
I used to go fishing a lot when I was a child.

man posing with the fish he caught

Usage of the imperfetto in Italian

The imperfetto in Italian is used for…

Describing someone’s or something’s state of being in the past…

La stanza aveva una forma rettangolare.
The room had a rectangular shape.

Il tempo era molto brutto ieri. Pioveva e tirava vento.
The weather was very bad yesterday. It was raining and windy.

I miei nonni vivevano in una baita in montagna.
My grandparents lived in a hut in the mountains.

Conoscevo una delle vittime dell’incidente.
I used to know one of the victims of the accident.

L’altro giorno avevo un tremendo mal di stomaco.
The other day I had a terrible stomachache.

man with a bad stomachache

Past actions happening simultaneously (this is translated into English with the past progressive tense)…

Mentre io leggevo, mio fratello giocava alla PlayStation.
While I was reading, my brother was playing PlayStation.

La mamma riposava mentre il papà cucinava.
Mom was resting while Dad was cooking.

man who's having trouble cooking food

Translating the English expression I used to…

Quando ero bambino, andavo spesso a casa dei miei amici.
When I was a child, I used to go to my friends’ houses a lot.

Da ragazza, mia mamma era solita andare in vacanza in Sardegna.
When she was a girl, my mom used to go on vacation to Sardinia.

Translating the English expression I knew that… / I didn’t know that…

Sapevo cosa dire, ma non riuscivo a dirlo.
I knew what to say, but I couldn’t say it.

Non sapevo che Elisa e Lorenzo si fossero sposati.
I didn’t know that Elisa and Lorenzo got married.

Translating the English expression I wanted to… / I didn’t want to…

Non volevo disturbarti.
I didn’t want to bother you.

Volevo chiederti una cosa. Hai un minuto?
I wanted to ask you something. Do you have a minute?

shy kid trying to talk to some other kids

Finally, the imperfetto in Italian is also used for storytelling and romance books along with the passato remoto tense.

Tutte le estati facevamo escusioni in montagna. Una volta, mi imbattei in uno scoiattolo sul sentiero e…
Every summer we used to go hiking in the mountains. Once, I came across a squirrel on the path and…


How do you form the imperfetto in Italian?

The good news is that the imperfetto in Italian is very easy to conjugate.

You just have to take the stem of the verb you want to conjugate and add these endings (there are very few exceptions, as we’ll see in a moment):

  • -avo/-evo/-ivo
  • -avi/-evi/-ivi
  • -ava/-eva/-iva
  • -avamo/-evamo/-ivamo
  • -avate/-evate/-ivate
  • -avano/-evano/-ivano
pronounmangiARErompEREdormIRE
iomangiavorompevodormivo
tumangiavirompevidormivi
lui/leimangiavarompevadormiva
noimangiavamorompevamodormivamo
voimangiavaterompevatedormivate
loromangiavanorompevanodormivano

What’s the stem of a verb?
Italian infinitive verbs end in -ARE, -ERE and -IRE.
Cut off this part and you are left with the root verb.
Examples:
tremare ➡️ trem-
piovere ➡️ piov-
cucire ➡️ cuc-
Italian verb endings for each tense are added to these root forms of the verb.

woman drenched in the rain

For example, you could say…

Camminavamo sulla spiaggia e ascoltavamo musica.
We walked on the beach and listened to music.

Quando era bambina, mia mamma voleva diventare veterinaria.
When she was a child, my mom wanted to be a veterinarian.

Mia sorella leggeva sulla poltrona.
My sister was reading in the armchair.

Il gatto dormiva davanti al camino.
The cat was sleeping in front of the fireplace.

fireplace on a wintry night

I told you that there are very few exceptions to the conjugations of the imperfetto in Italian. There are very few irregular verbs that have an irregular stem:

  • essere (to be, all irregular)
  • fare (to do, fac- stem)
  • dire (to say, dic- stem)
  • bere (to drink bev- stem)
  • produrre (to produce, produc- stem)
  • tradurre (to translate, traduc- stem)
  • all other verbs in –urre

For ease of use, I’ve listed the imperfetto conjugations for some of these verbs in the table below.

pronounesserefarebere
ioerofacevobevevo
tuerifacevibevevi
lui/leierafacevabeveva
noieravamofacevamobevevamo
voieravatefacevatebevevate
loroeranofacevanobevevano

For example, you could say…

I clienti bevevano birra da grandi boccali.
The customers drank beer from big mugs.

I latrati dei cani facevano molto rumore.
The barks of the dogs made a lot of noise.

Io e Paolo eravamo amici per la pelle.
Paolo and I were best friends.

two friends hugging their shoulders

Imperfetto or passato prossimo?

Passato prossimo is used for actions that happened at a certain point in time. That’s why it is often used with adverbs of time like already, just and yet like the English present perfect tense, and yesterday, last night and last year like the English past simple tense.

Ho appena fatto il letto.
I’ve just made the bed.

Ieri non ho fatto colazione.
I didn’t have any breakfast yesterday.

The imperfetto in Italian is also used for actions that happened in the past, but we don’t know exactly when. It doesn’t have a definite beginning and end. The action itself is ongoing, and this tense is also used for repeated actions. That’s why you’ll often see it with adverbs of frequency.

Ero solito tornare a casa all’una del pomeriggio.
I used to come home at one o’clock in the afternoon.

Quando andavo all’asilo, mi piaceva colorare con i pastelli a cera.
When I was in kindergarten, I liked to color with wax crayons.

young kids coloring with crayons

The imperfetto in Italian is also used to introduce an ongoing action that is interrupted by another, sudden action (which is conjugated in the passato prossimo tense).

Mentre pulivo il pavimento, qualcuno ha bussato alla porta.
While I was cleaning the floor, someone knocked on the door.

And that’s the end of our lesson on the imperfetto in Italian! If you still have any doubts about this tense, feel free to leave a comment.


What next?

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Now that you’ve seen the imperfetto in Italian, you might want to keep learning Italian online with these free Italian resources:

Or you might also want an excellent offline Italian grammar resource to take with you at all times (Amazon).

Title: Italian All-in-One For Dummies
Language: English / Italian
Publisher: For Dummies
Pages: 672

Learn to speak Italian like a native? Easy.
Italian All-in-One For Dummies appeals to those readers looking for a comprehensive, all-encompassing guide to mastering the Italian language. It contains content from all For Dummies Italian language instruction titles, including Italian For Dummies, Intermediate Italian For Dummies, Italian Verbs For Dummies, Italian Phrases For Dummies, Italian Grammar For Dummies, and Italian For Dummies Audio Set.

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