Imperfect

Italian imperfect
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Imperfetto

They say practice makes perfect, so how can one of the most common Italian past tenses be imperfect? In grammatical terms, "perfect" means "complete," so the Italian imperfect tense is used to describe an incomplete or ongoing action or state of being.

The imperfetto is usually equivalent to "was" or "was ___-ing" in English (past progressive) and is used for all of the following:

1) Descriptions (age, feelings, health, time, weather…)

Pioveva, ma aveva l’ombrello.   It was raining but she had an umbrella.
Quando avevo 6 anni, ero spesso malato e avevo paura dei cani.   When I was 6 years old, I was often sick and I was afraid of dogs.

2) Habitual actions or states of being

Mi annoiavo spesso.   I was often bored.
L’anno scorso andavamo al cinema ogni venerdì.   Last year, we went (we would go) to the movies every Friday.

 There’s an odd quirk in English with regard to the word “would.” In the "Last year …" example just above, we can use "would" to refer to this habitual action in the past – it’s perfectly correct and grammatical. In Italian, this example requires the imperfect. In contrast, when we use “would” for something that could or might happen in the future (I would leave if I were you), Italian requires the conditional mood.

So when you see the word "would" in English, it’s vital to know whether you’re talking about the past or the future in order to choose the correct Italian verb form.

 Pro tip: if you can replace "would" with "used to," you need the imperfect.

3) Actions or states of being with unspecified endings

Andavo al parco perché volevo fare una passeggiata.   I was going to the park because I wanted to take a walk.

4) Background information

Ero in ufficio quando ho sentito la notizia.   I was at the office when I heard the news.

5) Indirect speech

Mi ha detto che aveva fame.   He told me he was hungry.

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Imperfetto - Italian imperfect