Italian School of Dallas

The Imperfetto

The imperfetto is one of the easiest tenses to conjugate in Italian, in fact even many verbs that are usually irregular, like finire or andare, they conjugate regularly in the imperfect.

Take a look at the endings:

-are                            -ere                           -ire

-avo                           -evo                           -ivo

-avi                            -evi     -ivi

-ava   -eva     -iva

-avamo   -evamo                     -ivamo

-avate   -evate                        -ivate

-avano                       -evano                       -ivano


Amare Vivere Finire

amavo vivevo finivo

amavi vivevi finivi

amava viveva finiva

amavamo vivevamo finivamo

amavate vivevate finivate

amavano vivevano finivano                                                                   

However, it is often quite tricky to learn when to use the imperfect, and when to use the passato prossimo. So here are some guidelines:

First of all, keep in mind that the imperfetto is the tense that is used to show an incomplete action in the past, meaning that the starting and finishing moments of such action are not well defined. 

Because of its incomplete nature, the imperfetto is used:


1) To describe people, objects or places, situations and factual conditions in the past:


Da piccola avevo i capelli biondi (when I was a child I used to have blond hair); 


Mio nonno era un uomo coraggioso (my grandfather was a brave man); 


La spiaggia era molto affollata (the beach was very crowded);


Pioveva e faceva freddo (it was raining and it was cold);


Ero preoccupato (I was worried);


I miei amici si trovavano in una situazione molto difficile (my friends found themselves in a very difficult situation)




2) To describe habitual or repeated actions in the past:


Ogni sabato sera ci incontravamo in pizzeria (every Saturday evening we used to meet at the pizzeria); 


Da bambino in estate andavo sempre al mare (As a child in the summer I always used to go to the sea); 


Il mio cane Skip, correva alla porta ogni volta che suonava il campanello (my dog Skip, would run to the door every time that the bell rang).


Da piccoli andavamo sempre a scuola in bicicletta (as children we would always ride our bicycles to school)


The following expressions usually signal the use of the imperfect and indicate repetition of action in the past:


Di solito  (usually)

Ogni giorno  (every day)

Tutti i giorni  (every day)

Da bambino/a (as a child)

Da piccolo/a  (as a child)

Da giovane  (when I was young)

Quando ero bambino/a  (when I was a child)

Quando avevo … anni   (when I was … years old)

Sempre  (always)

Spesso  (often)




3) To describe a past action that was interrupted by another action.  In that case the interrupting action will most likely be in the passato prossimo, while the action that was interrupted will be in the imperfetto:


Mentre cucinavo, mia madre ha telefonato (while I was cooking my mother called);


Quando è arrivato Gino, io studiavo (When Gino arrived I was studying);


I ragazzi andavano in bicicletta al parco quando è cominciato a piovere (the kids were riding their bicycles in the park when it started raining);


Dov’eri quando è arrivato Giovanni? (where were you when Giovanni arrived?);




4) When describing two or more actions going on at the same time, in the past:


Mentre gli altri passeggeri leggevano, ascoltavano la musica o dormivano, io ero nervosa e non riuscivo a fare niente.(while the other passengers were reading, listening to the music, or were sleeping, I was nervous and could not do anything);


Leggevo e ascoltavo la musica (I was reading and listening to the music);


Mentre i ragazzi mangiavano guardavano la televisione (while the kids were eating, they were watching tv)


Note that when the exact time or duration of an action is specified, the passato prossimo is used:


Giovanni è stato in Inghilterra per 3 mesi (Giovanni was in England for 3 months); 


Ho studiato il francese per quattro anni (I studied French for four years); 


Mario ha dormito fino alle 11 (Mario slept until 11 o’clock).


Ho vissuto alle Hawaii per 13 anni  (I lived in Hawaii for 13 years).


But: we would use the imperfetto to say non sapevo che eri malato’ (I didn’t know that you were ill) because the sentence does not specify for how long we did not know and when we got the information; while we would use the passato prossimo to say ‘solo ieri ho saputo che eri malato’ (I only found out yesterday that you were ill), as the time, ieri, is specified.