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Imperfetto vs Passato Prossimo (pt.1)

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

The Italian language offers a wide variety of tenses, aspects, and 'modi', but sometimes you have to deal with two past tense forms at the same time! In this article, we are going to talk about the main functions of the imperfetto.

I will tell you a story, it is not necessarily a good one, but it is useful to our purpose :

C'era una volta un ragazzo italiano che passeggiava su una spiaggia inglese. Il tempo era abbastanza brutto e lui era un tipo freddoloso, ma nonostante tutto ha deciso di comprare un cono gelato. Mentre era in fila ha incontrato un suo vecchio amico. I due andavano insieme a scuola in Italia e adesso vivono entrambi in Inghilterra.


Once upon a time, an Italian guy was walking on a beach in England. The weather was quite bad, and generally he was a person sensitive to cold, but even though he decided to buy a cone of ice cream. While he was queuing, he met an old friend. The two used to be schoolmates in Italy, and now they both live in England. [Eng.]

The end.

This short aimless story might work as a good starting point to understand better when to use the 'imperfetto' and how.

First of all, it is a story, tale about events that happened in a not specified past. As most of the stories we learnt as kids, it starts with 'once upon a time' or, even better in this case, 'c'era una volta'. When was that time?

The imperfetto and its uses

The imperfetto is a tense that concerns past events and it can be used in various situations. Its name gives us a hint about its functions. It doesn't give us information about precise or 'perfect' timing. We use it to approximate the timeframe of the past events we want to tell about. It has many functions but its three mains are :

progressive, continuous, and habitual.

The progressive function expresses an action, in the past, as if it was still in progress. It doesn't determine any information about the beginning or the end of the action. The first sentence of our story uses the imperfetto with this function : ' c'era / passeggiava '. We, as readers, have no idea about when these actions started or ended, we just know that they were happening at the moment of speaking.

The continous function doesn't give any specific information about when the action

take place but it gives us a piece of general information about someone or something

e.g. 'era un tipo freddoloso' - 'Napoleone era basso'

The habitual function informs us on actions that happened in the past regularly or that were 'the norm' at the time of speaking. e.g. 'andavano insieme a scuola'; This action took place in the past but it indicates that it went on for some time. They probably spent years in the same school so it was a regular activty in the past. We could use this function also to describe how things were in the past.

e.g. Nel 1991 usavo il mio walkman tutti i giorni!'

Now you've learnt a bit more about the 'imperfetto' and its uses. In the next article (part 2) we will find out how to mix it with the 'passato prossimo'.

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