Imperfetto means “imperfect”, not finished. It’s an Italian past tense. A complete guide, free quiz and premium podcast for members.
Imperfetto “non perfetto”, is an important Italian past tense. It’s part of the indicativo mood, a group of tenses that describe real events.
The imperfetto describes a situation or a frequent action in the past. It always needs a context in order to make sense, as it is incomplete (imperfect!) by itself. For example, if you simply say to an Italian speaker …
… he or she will wait for you to put it in context, in the past, and ask “Quando”?
Ieri ero stanco.
That means that yesterday I was tired. It’s a situation in the past.
The imperfetto is often studied with the passato prossimo, a perfect past tense which instead describes complete actions in the past.
Ieri ho lavorato.
The action is complete. When I finished to work, I completed the action. By contrast, I don’t know when I began to be tired or when I finished. It was a situation, not an action.
Let’s see a complete overview of the imperfetto: to be, to have and regular verbs.
-are –> Quando ero in vacanza, mangiavo il gelato tutti i giorni
-ere –> All’università, leggevo tanti libri
-ire –> Qualche anno fa, non capivo l’italiano
You can use the imperfetto with…
Two actions happening simultaneously in the past
Mentre cucinavo, Laura preparava il tavolo.
In this case, the two actions are not complete, they were happening at the same time.
A past ongoing action/situation interrupted by a complete action
Mentre facevo la doccia, Luigi ha telefonato.
Here we have an ongoing action / situation (fare la doccia – imperfetto) interrupted by an action (telefonare), which began and finished (passato prossimo).
A frequent action or condition in the past
Quando ero studente, andavo spesso ai concerti.
The time of the frequent action is not well defined. So it is the situation. I was a student…
A condition with no connection with the present
Da bambino, ero molto magro.
This is a classic example of imperfetto. When I was a child… This time and the condition (ero magro, I was skinny) have no connections with the present.
A routine in the past
Lo scorso inverno, guadavo la televisione tutti i giorni.
Here I describe a recurrent action in a generic past (lo scorso inverno) so the imperfetto emphasizes the repetition of the routine.
An action in the near past
Oggi avevo una una lezione di inglese.
This is a rare case, I can use the imperfetto for describing a complete action. I am authorized to do that, because this action is part of my routine, I usually have English classes.
Quoting someone about a past, present or future action
Franco ha detto che andava in vacanza in Spagna
This last case is quite common in spoken Italian. The imperfetto here replaces the condizionale passato, which is used to define the “future in the past”. (Franco ha detto che sarebbe andato in vacanza in Spagna).