In a lesson with Daniela, we learn another way to set the scene of a story. We talked about using the presente (present simple) and passato prossimo (present perfect) in a previous lesson. Now we’ll talk about using the imperfetto (imperfect tense) to set the scene in the past without specifying the duration or pinpointing the moment in time of an action. We use the imperfetto to describe the characteristics of something in the past.
Allora, l'imperfetto viene usato per fare descrizioni di paesaggi, del tempo, delle qualità di una persona o di una cosa, al passato.
So, the imperfect is used to describe landscapes, weather, features of a person or a thing in the past.
Captions 30-32, Corso di italiano con Daniela - L'imperfetto - Part 2Play Caption
In the following example, Lara, from the popular Commissario Manara TV series, is talking to an old classmate whom she met up with by chance. They are telling each other about their past feelings.
This is how she felt when she was younger:
Mi sentivo un brutto anatroccolo.
I felt like the ugly duckling.
Caption 4, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP6 - Reazione a Catena - Part 14Play Caption
And this is how her friend Massimo felt about her!
Io ero innamorato pazzo di te!
I was crazy in love with you!
Caption 2, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP6 - Reazione a Catena - Part 14Play Caption
The following example describes an ongoing condition in the past.
A scuola avevo sempre problemi con la matematica.
At school, I always had problems with math.
Caption 13, Corso di italiano con Daniela - Aggettivi positivi e neutri - Part 3Play Caption
The following example is interesting because we see the passato prossimo (siamo visti /we saw) used when pinpointing the moment (l’ultima volta / the last time). Still, the imperfetto (eravamo / were) sets the scene.
Ma lo sa l'ultima volta che ci siamo visti dove eravamo?
But you know where we were the last time we saw each other?
Eravamo al porto di Istanbul.
We were at the port of Istanbul.
Captions 23-24, La Ladra - Ep. 2 - Viva le spose - Part 6Play Caption
For how to form the imperfetto, please see Daniela’s previous lesson.
Practice: Try setting the scene in the past using the verbs Daniela talks about in the lesson, and other verbs you know. If you’re not sure how to form the imperfetto of the verb you wish to use, look it up in an online dictionary such as WordReference. Think about the place, how old the person was, what the person looked like, and what the person was wearing. How did the person feel?
Here’s something to get you started.
Quando ero giovane e andavo a scuola, suonavo il flauto nell’orchestra della scuola. Mi piaceva molto. Andavo a scuola in autobus tutte le mattine. Ci mettevo circa venticinque minuti per arrivare a scuola. Non era un’epoca molto felice per me. Non studiavo abbastanza, e quindi mi sentivo sempre a disagio in classe e avevo sempre paura delle interrogazioni. Preferivo stare nella sala di musica a studiare flauto. Cantavo anche nel coro. La maestra del coro era bravissima e tutti l’amavano.
When I was young and was going to school, I played flute in the school orchestra. I liked it a lot. I went to school by bus every morning. It took me about twenty-five minutes to get to school. It wasn’t a very happy time for me. I didn’t study enough so I was always afraid of being called on to answer the teacher’s questions. I much preferred hanging out in the music room to study flute. I also sang in the choir. The director was excellent and everyone loved her.
Of course, when we tell a story, we like to mix the tenses up to create interest and tension, but for now, let’s try to get to where we feel comfortable using the imperfetto and know more or less when and how to use it.