Italian You Won’t Learn in Class: “Wrong” Ways to Use the Imperfect Tense

Mar 24, 2015

In a continuing series of posts, Riccardo Cristiani, the head Italian teacher at Dante Learning, shows how to "bend time" by using the imperfetto “the wrong way”  in everyday Italian:

Blog parli italiano

 Bending Time

A guest post by Riccardo Cristiani

I recently wrote a post on my blog about the possible (and formally wrong!) use of the imperfetto in spoken Italian. I think it’s a fun topic–and  useful if you want to understand how some complicated Italian grammar is simplified in daily conversational language.

If you are a beginner and know basic grammar, I’m sure you already have come across the imperfetto, a past tense with no equivalent in English. Normally, we use it for describing usual or intermittent actions in the past or past actions without a clear beginning or end. In other words, it’s an incomplete, “imperfect” past tense — hence the name.

The imperfetto  matches quite remarkably the English “would + infinitive” and “used to + infinitive,” as in these examples:

Che cosa facevi quando eri un bambino? — What would you do when you were a child? 

Mangiavi spesso al ristorante in Italia? —  Did you use to eat at the restaurant (when you were) in Italy?

The fact of being “imperfect” gives this tense a lot of flexibility and, in spoken Italian, it is widely used well beyond its theoretical boundaries. Some examples:

Imperfetto ipotetico

Some of you probably got stuck studying the Italian periodo ipotetico, a complicated and very elegant use of the congiuntivo and condizionale, for building conditional sentences. For example, in English you would say:

• If I had won the lottery, I would have bought a new house. It means that you didn’t win the lottery, but if you had …

Similarly, in Italian we can say:

• Se avessi vinto alla lotteria, avrei comprato una casa nuova. (congiuntivo trapassato + condizionale passato)

This is the right formula for creating the Italian third conditional. However, in spoken language many people tend to simplify and go with:

Se vincevo alla lotteria, compravo una casa nuova (imperfetto + imperfetto)

Is this correct grammar? No, but the imperfetto is rapidly replacing the condizionale passato, sometimes even the congiuntivo. Whether it’s right or wrong (wrong!), this is a widespread trend.

Imperfetto di cortesia

One of the first things you  learn in Italian  is the use of the condizionale instead of the presente indicativo for polite requests. For example:

 "Vorrei un bicchiere di vino" instead of "Voglio un bicchiere di vino." ("I’d like a glass of wine" instead of "I want a glass of wine.") This is very polite — and correct.

An alternative to the condizionale in spoken Italian is the imperfetto:

• "Volevo un bicchiere di vino" ("I wanted a glass of wine.") Of course, you want it now, not in the past, but the imperfetto softens the tone of an order. It’s just like the English “I wanted to ask…”

Imperfetto as a possibility in the future

This is an extreme but rather common case where we can use the imperfetto and describe an event occurring in the future. For example:

Che film volevi vedere domani?  – Which movie did you want to watch tomorrow? 

It sounds absurd, but it’s possible in everyday speech. The person asking this question is talking about a previous discussion. The person addressed wanted to watch a movie, which will be on TV tomorrow–but which one is it?

It’s a typical simplification, common in the informal language. The speaker breaks down a complex sentence and makes up a simpler one, connecting a past event (the previous knowledge) and a future event (the topic of the discussion).

Conclusion: Don’t get me wrong. You should study Italian and follow the correct grammar, spelling rules, syntax and logic. Only once you master and understand the basics will you be able to use consciously some “wrong” grammar in spoken Italian, bend the rules, oversimplify the language–and relax and be happy as you chat.

Alla prossima!

Dante-Learning is an online Italian language school based in Milan and Tokyo, with students from many countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan.

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

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