When should I use the imperfect?

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The imperfect in Italian is always a little tricky at first, but once you have got the hang of it, it will begin to come naturally - I promise! 

So the imperfect is a tense that is usually translated into English as "was doing...". For example "mangiavo" would usually be translated as "I was eating". In effect this means that the imperfect in Italian often talks about events which have not finished, or have no definite end.

However, there are few annoying problems with this. Let's look at them now:

Habitual Action

When we want to say "I used to..." in Italian we simply use the imperfect. So if we wanted to say "I used to watch Cbeebies everyday", we would say "guardavo Cbeebies ogni giorno"


If we want to describe something, or someone, especially when we are writing, we will often use the imperfect, whilst English uses the perfect. For example if we want to say "he had long eyelashes", we would say "aveva le ciglia lunghe"

Background information

This one is nice and easy as it correlates with English usage. For example, "Marco was eating spaghetti when Enrico started to cry" translates to "Marco mangiava spaghetti quando Enrico ha cominciato a piangere"

Stylistic Effect

You don't need to worry too much about this unless you're going to be doing lots of creative writing. Still, it's good to recognise it, and understand it. So, we sometimes use the imperfect to describe events in the past that we want to make especially vivid, or give the impression that they happened successively. This is particularly common in sports' journalism, headlines, and descriptions of dreams or fantasies


If you haven't yet come across the subjunctive then you may ignore this section. For those of you who have, the imperfect subjunctive is used in "if clauses". It expresses the notion "if one were to...". For example if we want to say "If the government were to continue, I would be angry", we would use the imperfect subjunctive to produce "Se il governo continuasse, io sarei furioso/a"

These are the main uses of the imperfect and cover 99% of the times you may need to use it

Hope that helps, 


Still unsure? Send me a message and we can set up a tutorial!!

Benjamin A. GCSE Italian tutor, A Level Italian tutor, GCSE French tu...

About the author

is an online A Level Italian tutor with MyTutor studying at Oxford, Magdalen College University

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