Easy Learning Italian

The imperfect tense - Easy Learning Grammar Italian

What is the imperfect tense?
The imperfect is a tense used to say what was happening, what used to happen in the past and what things were like in the past, for example, I was speaking to my mother.

1  When to use the imperfect tense

  • In English various tenses are used to talk about what things were like in the past, for example, It was raining; I used to like her; I didn’t know what to do. In Italian the imperfect is the tense you use to translate the verbs in all three of these sentences.
  • Use the Italian imperfect tense:
  • to describe what things were like, what people were doing and how people felt in the past.
Faceva caldo.It was hot.
Aspettavano impazienti.They were waiting impatiently.
Eravamo tutti felici.We were all happy.
Avevo fame.I was hungry.
  • to say what people knew, thought or meant in the past.
Non sapevo cosa volevi dire.I didn’t know what you meant.
Pensavo che fosse lui.I thought it was him.
  • to say what used to happen or what people used to do in the past.
Ci trovavamo ogni venerdì.We met every Friday.
Vendevano le uova al mercato.They used to sell eggs in the market.
  • to describe what was going on when an event took place.
Guardavamo la partita quando è entrato lui.We were watching the match when he came in.
È successo mentre dormivano.It happened while they were asleep.
Mentre parlavi mi sono ricordato di qualcosa.While you were talking I remembered something.
Grammar Extra!The imperfect continuous is made with the imperfect tense of stare and the gerund. The imperfect continuous is used to describe what was going on at a particular moment.
Che stavano facendo?What were they doing?
Non stava studiando, dormiva.He wasn’t studying, he was asleep.
  • For more information on the Gerund, see The gerund.

2  How to make the imperfect tense

  • You make the imperfect tense of regular –are, –ere and –ire verbs by knocking off the –re from the infinitive to form the stem of the verbs and adding –vo, –vi, –va, –vamo, –vate, –vano.
  • The following tables show the imperfect tense of three regular verbs: parlare (meaning to speak), credere (meaning to believe) and finire (meaning to finish).
Imperfect tense
of parlare

Imperfect tense
of credere

(io)parlavoI was speakingcredevoI believed
(tu)parlaviyou were speakingcredeviyou believed


he/she was
you were speaking

he/she believed

you believed
(noi)parlavamowe were speakingcredevamowe believed
(voi)parlavateyou were speakingcredevateyou believed
(loro)parlavanothey were speakingcredevanothey believed
Imperfect tense
of finire

(io)finivoI was finishing
(tu)finiviyou were finishing

he/she was finishing
you were finishing
(noi)finivamowe were finishing
(voi)finivateyou were finishing
(loro)finivanothey were finishing
Con chi parlavi?Who were you talking to?
Credevamo di aver vinto.We thought we’d won.
Loro si divertivano mentre io lavoravo.They had fun while I was working.
Una volta costava di più.It used to cost more.

3  Perfect tense or imperfect tense?

  • The Italian perfect tense is used for what happened on one occasion.
Oggi ho giocato male.I played badly today.
Ha finto di non conoscermi.He pretended not to recognize me.
  • The Italian imperfect tense is used for repeated actions or for a continuing state of affairs.
Da studente giocavo a calcio.When I was a student I played football.
Fingevano sempre di avere capito tutto.They always pretended they’d understood everything.
Mi sentivo male solo a pensarci.I felt ill just thinking about it.
Non sorrideva mai.She never smiled.
Ci credevi?Did you believe it?

4  Verbs with an irregular imperfect tense

  • The imperfect of essere (meaning to be) is irregular:
(io)eroI was
(tu)eriyou were

he/she/it was
you were
(noi)eravamowe were
(voi)eravateyou were
(loro)eranothey were
Era un ragazzo molto simpatico.He was a very nice boy.
Eravamo in Italia.We were in Italy.
Erano le quattro.It was four o’clock.
  • bere (meaning to drink), dire (meaning to say), fare (meaning to do, to make) and tradurre (meaning to translate) are the most common verbs which have the normal imperfect endings added onto a stem which is irregular. You just have to learn these.
Di solito bevevano solo acqua.They usually only drank water.
Cosa dicevo?What was I saying?
Faceva molto freddo.It was very cold.
Traducevo la lettera.I was translating the letter.
Grammar Extra!The Italian imperfect tense is used to translate sentences such as How long had they known each other?; They had been going out together for a year when they got engaged; He had been ill since last year.The words for and since are translated by da.
A quel punto aspettava già da tre ore.By then he’d already been waiting for three hours.
Guidavo dalle sei di mattina.I’d been driving since six in the morning.
Da quanto tempo stava male?How long had he been ill?
Key points
  • You make the imperfect tense of regular verbs by knocking off the final –re of the infinitive and adding endings: –vo, –vi, –va, –vamo, –vate, –vano.
  • The imperfect is used for actions and situations that continued for some time in the past.

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