Italian Preterite Tense VS. Imperfetto – 2 Tricky Forms… Don’t Let This New Lesson Slip Through You Fingers!

The Italian preterite tense is sometimes a difficult subject for English speakers when they learn the Italian language.

They often confuse the preterite with the imperfect and vice versa.

Both tenses describe actions that took place in the past.

But I think English speakers just learning Italian have a tendency to confuse the two because in English in certain instances we sometimes use the same form of a verb to describe an action that took place in the past.

But in Italian, in the same instance, you cannot use both the preterite or the imperfect. Only one is correct.

For example, in English , we can use the past tense of the verb “to go” (i.e. “went”) to describe two different actions that took place in the past.

1. I went to the neighborhood market three times.
2. When I was young, I went often to the neighborhood market.

(Note: In English, for number “2” you could also say “When I was young, I used to go to the market.”)

Both sentences use the same verb “went” to describe the action that took place in the past. But in Italian, you cannot use the same verb tense. In the first sentence, you must use the preterite of “andare” (andai), and the imperfect verb tense (andavo) in the latter.

(Preterite Tense)

Andai al mercato locale 3 volte.

(Imperfect Tense)
Quando ero giovane, andavo spesso al mercato di quartiere.

We will cover the “imperfect” verb tense in greater detail in a future lesson. But for now, think of the “imperfect” as a verb tense used to describe “how things used to be” or to describe an action that was continuous or habitual in the past.

However this is a “grammar rule” for the past Italian tenses: in fact, more often than not, the preterite tense is replaced by the present perfect.

Don’t get me wrong: the preterite tense is very common in the written Italian, and, in the spoken language is still used in some regions like Tuscany and in Southern Italy.

So if you are in Milan or Venice (North Italy), you will hear Italian people say:

Sono andato al mercato locale 3 volte.

(Imperfect Tense)

Italian Preterite Tense – Examples

The Italian preterite tense is generally used to tell what happened:

  • during a fixed period of time (either stated or implied)
  • a specific number of times
  • during an enclosed period of time

Here are some examples (with the present perfect version in brackets):

(1) During a fixed period of time:

Ieri comprai (ho comprato) un martello. = Yesterday, I bought a hammer.

(2) A specific number of times (either state or implied):

Lui perse (ha perso) le chiavi tre volte. = He lost the keys 3 times.
Ieri andai (sono andato) al cinema. = Yesterday I went to the cinema.

(It is implied that you went to the hardware store one time).

(3) During an enclosed period of time.

Ti aspettai (ho aspettato)per mezzora! = I waited for you for half an hour!

The Italian Preterite Tense of Regular Verbs

The following are some regular verbs in the Italian preterite tense.

“ARE” Verbs (amare = to love)

Io amo
Tu ami
Lei/lui ama
Noi amiamo

Voi amate

Loro amano

“ERE” Verbs (vedere = to see)

Io vedo

Tu vedi

Lei/lui vede

Noi vediamo

Voi vedete

Loro vedono

“IRE” Verbs (dormire = to sleep)

Io dormii

Tu dormisti

Lei/lui dormì

Noi dormimmo

Voi dormiste

Loro dormirono

Here are more examples:

Stamattina feci (ho fatto) colazione alle 6.

I had breakfast at 6 this morning.

La scorsa settimana comprasti (hai comprato) una borsa.

Last week you bought a bag.

La mamma mise (ha messo) la torta nel forno.

Mom put the cake in the oven.

Ieri lei preparò (ha preparato) una cena buonissima.

Yesterday she cooked a very good dinner.

Andammo (siamo andati) in Grecia 5 volte.

We went to Greece 5 times.

Italian Preterite Tense – Exercises

Now let’s try some on your own. The answers follow:

1. The boy ate shrimp two times.
2. Today they decided to tell the truth
3. Did you use the hoe in the yard today?
4. Mom turned on the oven a two o’clock.
5. Last summer, the soldiers marched in the parade.
6. He suffered a lot from her illness this year..

Italian Preterite Tense (Passato Remoto) VS. Imperfect (Imperfetto) – What’s the difference? (Italian Audio)

Italian Preterite Tense – Answers

1. Il ragazzo mangiò (ha mangiato) gamberetti due volte.
2. Oggi decisero (hanno deciso) di dire la verità
3. Oggi usasti (hai usato) la zappa in cortile?
4. La mamma accese (ha acceso) il forno alle due.
5. La scorsa estate i soldati marciarono (hanno marciato) alla parata.
6. Soffrì (ha sofferto molto) per la sua malattia quest’anno.

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