The Imperfect Tense (l’imperfetto) is another past tense in Italian. Unlike the passato prossimo, which is used for defined actions in the past, the imperfect is used for actions without a set starting and ending point.
The imperfect has three primary uses:
Descriptions or Background Information: This could include things like general physical or emotional states, appearance, age, weather conditions, etc. For example:
- Paolo era alto. (Paolo was tall).
- Il bambino aveva due anni. (The child was two years old.)
Habitual Actions: These are actions that were repeated over and over in the past.
- Quando ero piccola, andavamo sempre al mare. (When I was little, we always went to the beach.)
Actions in Progress or Interrupted Actions: In these cases, we catch the middle of the action.
- Parlavo con mia madre quando ha suonato il telefono. (I was talking to my mother when the phone rang.)
Because English does not have an imperfect tense, we can use a variety of different structures to translate it. Consider the following paragraph:
When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an artist. I used to draw pictures every day. I would take out my markers and I would color all afternoon.
In Italian, all of the phrases in bold would be in the imperfect. We must remember, then, that there is not a one-to-one correspondence to a certain structure in English. Likewise, when we see the simple past (“went,” for example), only context can tell us which Italian past tense is appropriate.
Because of this, it can sometimes be hard for English speakers to know when to use the imperfect and when to use the passato prossimo. Apart from being used in a similar way to the English present perfect (“have gone,” for example), the passato prossimo is used for completed actions in the past tied to a specific point in time or a specific length of time. We use the imperfect for the “midpoint” of an action, but the passato prossimo for the “beginning” or “end”.
Consider these sentences:
- Ieri sono andata dal dentista. (Yesterday I went to the dentist.)
In this case, I went to the dentist once, and this is a completed action.
In contrast, we can say:
- Quando abitavo a New York, andavo dal dentista ogni anno. (When I lived in New York, I went to the dentist every year.)
Here, going to the dentist is a repeated, habitual action. It does not have a clear ending or starting point.
We could also say:
- Andavo dal dentista quando ho visto il cane. (I was going to the dentist when I saw the dog.)
In this case, we have two actions. One, “andavo” (I was going), is an ongoing action (an action in progress), so we use the imperfect. The other, “ho visto” (I saw), is a complete action, confined to this set moment in time, so we use the passato prossimo.
Here is a simple way to construct the Italian imperfect past tense. Take the infinitive form of the verb (in most cases) and remove the -re from the end of it, replacing it with the following:
- -vo for “I”
- -vi for “you”
- -va for “he/she/it”
- -vamo for “we”
- -vate for “you” (plural)
- -vano for “they”
Let’s use the Italian verb vedere (to see) as an example:
- io vedevo (I saw) -or- (I was seeing)
- tu vedevi (you saw) -or- (you were seeing)
- lui/lei vedeva (he/she saw) -or- (he/she was seeing)
- noi vedevamo (we saw) -or- (we were seeing)
- voi vedevate (you all saw) -or- (you were all seeing)
- loro vedevano (they saw) -or- (they were seeing)
This works with all regular verbs, but there are obviously some exceptions. The most important being the imperfect past tense of essere (to be):
- io ero
- tu eri
- lui/lei era
- noi eravamo
- voi erate
- loro erano
|era veloce||he was fast|
|stavo meglio||I was better|
|sapeva||he knew (something)|
|mi piaceva||I liked|
|conosceva||he knew (someone)|
|aspettavo||I waited for|
|suonavano||they played (an instrument)|