Italian Language Blog

How To Use The Imperfetto Posted by on Jul 2, 2018 in Grammar

Today we’re going to continue exploring the complex topic of using the past tense in Italian.

In Using The Passato Prossimo In Italian – Part 1 and Part 2 we looked at how to construct the present perfect tense using the auxiliary verbs essere and avere followed by a past participle. Whereas the passato prossimo describes an event which has been completed in the past, the imperfetto (imperfect) describes past actions that are incomplete, or that took place over a period of time.

You can recognise the imperfetto by its characteristic endings -evo, -avo orivo.
Here, for example, is the verb avere (to have) in the imperfetto:
io avevo – I had
tu avevi – you had
lui/lei aveva – he/she/it had
noi avevamo – we had
voi avevate – you (plural) had
loro avevano – they had

The exception to this pattern is the irregular verb essere (to be).
io ero – I was
tu eri
– you were
lui/lei era
– he/she/it was
noi eravamo
– we were
voi eravate
– you (plural) were
loro erano
– they were

Now, the million dollar question is: ‘How do I know when to use the passato prossimo and when to use the imperfetto?’ Well, that’s what we’re here to clarify, so let’s get to it!

La vecchia locomotiva a vapore avanzava molto lentamente. The old steam locomotive advanced very slowly. Photo by Geoff.

We use the imperfetto to:

1) describe the way that people, objects or places were in the past.
da piccola avevo i capelli ricci = when I was a child I had curly hair
era un uomo buffo = he was a humorous man
la strada era fangosa = the road was muddy

2) describe situations and factual conditions (used a lot in literature)
la città era deserta, non si vedeva un’anima = the town was empty, there was not a soul to be seen
era buio e la pioggia cadeva gentilmente = it was dark and a light rain was falling

3) describe states of mind or health
avevo sonno = I was sleepy
gli faceva male la testa = he had a headache
erano tristi = they were sad

4) describe what used to happen, such as habits or actions that repeated themselves
da ragazzi, ci incontravamo al cinema ogni sabato mattina =
when we we’re kids we met up at the cinema every Saturday morning
d’estate andavo sempre a Montorio con la mia famiglia = I always used to go to Montorio with my family in the summer 
il cane correva alla porta ogni volta che suonava il campanello
= the dog would run to the door whenever the doorbell rang

Sometimes you’ll find both the imperfetto and the passato prossimo in the same sentence.
mentre guardavo la televisione è suonato il telefono = while I was watching television the phone rang
dov’eri quando è arrivato Giovanni? = where were you when Giovanni arrived?
quando ci siamo svegliati pioveva = when we woke up it was raining

N.B. when the exact time or duration of an action is specified we use the passato prossimo
Giovanni è vissuto in Inghilterra dal 2002 al 2007
= Giovanni lived in England from 2002 to 2007
ha studiato l’inglese per cinque anni = he studied English for five years
Yet if we want to talk about the things that Giovanni did regularly or habitually during the period of time that he was in England we would use the imperfetto:
question: cosa faceva Giovanni in Inghilterra? = what did Giovanni do whilst he was in England
answer: studiava l’inglese, visitava musei, andava a concerti, faceva amicizie … = he studied English, visited museums, went to concerts, made friends …

If you have any questions don’t hesitate to leave a comment. A presto.

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  1. Lisa:

    Ciao tutti,
    Se ho risposto in un modo diverso per esampio, “Giovanni studied English in England for 5 years.”
    Would it be correct to say in Italian “Giovanni ha studiato i’inglese in Inghilterra da cinque anni” using the passato prossimo because the specific time period of 5 years has been stated?
    If I responded to the

    • Geoff:

      @Lisa Salve Lisa, the correct translation of “Giovanni studied English in England for 5 years” is ‘Giovanni ha studiato l’inglese in Inghilterra per cinque anni’, not da cinque anni’.
      You would only use ‘da‘ if Giovanni was still studying English in England: ‘Giovanni studia l’inglese in Inghilterra da cinque anni’, which in English would be ‘Giovanni has been (and still is) studying English in England for five years’.

      A presto, Geoff 🙂

      • Lisa:

        @Geoff Grazie Geoff,

        Queste “pesky” preposizioni. Mi fanno impazzire.


        • Geoff:

          @Lisa Non c’è di che Lisa! 🙂

  2. RayL:

    Shouldn’t “the dog would run” use the conditional not the imperfetto?

    Il cane “correrebbe”

    • Geoff:

      @RayL Salve Ray,
      firstly, the action is set in the past, so ‘would’, in the sentence ‘the dog would run to the door whenever the doorbell rang’, is not a conditional. It carries the meaning of ‘used to’. For example, the sentence ‘when we we’re kids we met up at the cinema every Saturday morning’ could equally be written ‘when we we’re kids we would meet up at the cinema every Saturday morning or ‘when we we’re kids we used to meet up at the cinema every Saturday morning.
      A sentence that uses the condizionale ‘correrebbe’ would be: ‘se il cane non fosse legato correrebbe verso la porta’ (if the dog wasn’t tied up it would run to the door). If you wanted to set it in the past it would be: ‘se il cane non fosse stato legato sarebbe corso verso la porta’ (if the dog hadn’t been tied up it would have run to the door).

      Saluti da Geoff

  3. Nini Rukmini:

    thank you very much .

  4. Chippy:

    Yet again, so very useful, thanks Geoff. How about the sentence: “Since I was a child, I’ve always sucked my thumb.” ??

    • Geoff:

      @Chippy “Since I was a child, I’ve always sucked my thumb.” is either Fin da piccolo/a ho sempre succhiato il pollice or Succhio il pollice fin da piccolo/a.
      If it was something that you used to do but don’t any more you’d use the imperfetto: Da piccolo/a succhiavo il pollice = ‘when I was a child I sucked my thumb’.


  5. Elsa:

    You always explain things so well Geoff. This was great revision for me. Thank you.

    • Geoff:

      @Elsa You’re welcome Elsa, thanks for your comment. 🙂

  6. Chippy:

    Thanks for that Geoff. Just as well I don’t suck it any more as “Da piccola, succhiavo il police” is easiest to remember!

    • Geoff:

      @Chippy Yep, when my Italian was still basic it used to frustrate me like hell having to present a simplified or modified version of my life to Italian friends in order to fit in with what I was actually capable of saying!

      P.S. glad you broke the habit …. 🙂

  7. chippy:

    🙂 !! C

  8. Joanna Whiteside:

    Thanks Geoff – all verym illuminating.

    How about the case: (after having looked for my keys) Where were the keys? They were in my hand bag. imperfetto or passato prossimo?

    • Geoff:

      @Joanna Whiteside Ciao Joanna, good question!

      In this case you’d use the imperfetto: Where were the keys? They were in my hand bag. = Dov’erano le chiavi? Erano nella mia borsa.

      In fact, your question has prompted me to slightly modify the beginning of that blog because it made me aware of an ambiguity.
      The explanation now says: “Whereas the passato prossimo describes an event which has been completed in the past, the imperfetto (imperfect) describes past actions that are incomplete, or that took place over a period of time“.

      Hopefully it’s now a bit clearer that the action described by your hypothetical sentence is something that took place over a period of time in the past, i.e. the loosing and finding of the keys.

      Here’s another example to illustrate the difference between the two forms:
      Ho trovato le chiavi! = I found the keys (passato prossimo)
      Bene, dov’erano? = Good, where were they? (imperfetto)

      Finally, yes, it’s often difficult to know which to use, and like so many aspects of language it only really makes sense when you are hearing and using it every day. Learning at a distance is tough!

      Alla prossima, Geoff 🙂

  9. Joanna Whiteside:

    Thanks Geoff.

    I actually had this debate with an Italian lady, and she said exactly the same as you (phew!), but she could not explain why. So thanks for explaining.

    • Geoff:

      @Joanna Whiteside Non c’è di che Joanna. It can sometimes be very difficult to explain something that you ‘just know’ to be right.

      P.S. your email address makes me slightly nostalgic for the Suffolk countryside where I grew up! 🙂

  10. Jan Mackay:

    Perfetto….grazie mille! 😉

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