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Perfecting the Imperfetto

The imperfetto, or “imperfect” past tense is just one of the several past tenses in Italian. As we can see from its name, it’s not perfect, meaning it doesn’t use an auxiliary verb like essere (to be) or avere (to have) plus a participle. It stands alone as a verb and is conjugated and so it is similar in structure to the simple past in English. Attenzione! Knowing when to use it is not always clear-cut, and usage differs from region to region. There may also be more than one possible English translation in a given case.


Perhaps the easiest way to get a feel for this tense is to use it when comparing the past to the present: the way it was then, and the way it is now.


Be aware that there are three basic ways to translate the imperfetto into English. One way is with the simple past tense.


Ma certo che lo conosco. Io venivo sempre qui in vacanza!

But of course I know him. I always came here on vacation!

Caption 79, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP5 - Il Raggio Verde

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In the above example, we’re talking about something in the past. The adverb sempre (always), indicating a repetitive action in the past, along with the fact that it is no longer true, helps us understand that we need the imperfetto.


It wasn’t a one-time, specific action in the past. If it had been, we might have used the passato prossimo:

Sono venuto qui l’anno scorso in vacanza.
I came here on vacation last year.


And if we mention the specific times in the past rather than a span of time, we also use the passato prossimo.

Sono venuto qui tante volte in vacanza.
I have come here many times on vacation.


Note that in the above examples, we use the passato prossimo in both cases, but the English translation changes!


Another way we translate the imperfetto in English is with “would” plus the infinitive, when describing the past as opposed to the present.


In the following example, Marika is explaining how people mopped the floor in the past.


Un tempo si usava un'asta di legno con uno strofinaccio...

In the past one would use a wooden pole with a floor cloth...

Si prendeva lo strofinaccio, si metteva in un secchio.

You would take the floor cloth, you would put it in a bucket.

Captions 20-23, Marika spiega - Le pulizie di primavera

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A third way the imperfetto can be translated is with the English past continuous tense.


E allora che cosa ci faceva nel nostro giardino?

And so what were you doing in our garden?

Cercavo un posto sicuro per passare la notte.

I was looking for a safe place to spend the night.

Captions 3-4, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP6 - Reazione a Catena

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The past continuous exists in Italian, too, as the passato progressivo. Much of the time, it’s interchangeable with the imperfetto, and perhaps a bit more specific in pinpointing the moment of speaking in the timeline.


In the above example, the Italian passato progressivo could have been used with same result in English:

Allora che cosa stava facendo nel nostro giardino?
Stavo cercando un posto sicuro per passare la notte.


So these three ways of translating are important for understanding Italian, and just as important when trying to think and speak in Italian.


Learning suggestions:
To get an overview of this tense in context, do a Yabla search of various verbs in their imperfetto conjugations and see all the examples.

See Marika and Anna talk about their childhoods using the imperfetto!

Can you compare your childhood or youth to the present using the imperfetto as opposed to the presente?


Here’s an example.

Quando ero più giovane avevo più capelli.
When I was younger, I had more hair.
Ora sono quasi senza capelli del tutto.
Now I have almost no hair at all.


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