The progressive tense
In Italian, how can you say that something is happening at the time you’re speaking?
This idea can be described in English using the present progressive:
“I am reading an article,”
whereas in Italian it can be represented using either the usual present tense:
“Leggo un articolo,”
or the “presente progressivo“:
“Sto leggendo un articolo.”
But how about actions that were in progress in the past?
In this case, you can use what we call the past progressive tense.
This tense is also often referred to as past continuous or imperfect continuous.
Review the present progressive tense here.
How to form the past progressive in Italian
The “stare + gerund” combination can also be used with the past tense to highlight that something happened in the past at the moment of speaking (an ongoing action).
This can be represented using the imperfect tense of the auxiliary verb “stare” and the gerund of the main verb that comes after it.
Here is the “stare” conjugation in the Italian past tense:
Stavo lavando i piatti, quando qualcuno ha bussato alla porta.
I was washing the dishes when the doorbell rang.
When to use the past progressive
Stavamo mangiando, quando abbiamo sentito qualcuno urlare.
We were dining when we heard someone screaming.
As you can see, this tense highlights an activity that occurred in the past.
Keep in mind that the past progressive is frequently replaced by the Italian “Imperfetto”:
“Mangiavamo quando abbiamo sentito qualcuno urlare”.
So, when we want to describe an activity in progress in the past, we can use either the imperfect indicative or the imperfect progressive form with the same meaning:
Mentre Maria stava mangiando/mangiava la pasta, Paolo stava ascoltando/ascoltava la musica.
While Maria was eating/ate the pasta, Paolo was listening/listened to music
Mentre Simone stava leggendo/leggeva, Chiara e Francesca stavano chiacchierando/ chiacchieravano.
While Simone was reading/read, Chiara and Francesca were chatting/chatted.
When not to use the past progressive
This tense in Italian, like the “present continuous,” cannot describe a state of events in the past.
You should use the “Imperfetto” for this.
Che cosa indossava?
What was she wearing?
Indossava una sciarpa blu e un cappello rosso.
She was wearing a blue scarf and a red hat.
The past progressive is not used to express habitual actions in the past, as these can only be expressed by the imperfect indicative.
Quando ero piccola mi piaceva il gelato al limone.
When I was younger I liked lemon ice cream.
Quando vivevo a Rimini mi alzavo tardi e poi andavo in spiaggia
When I lived in Rimini I got up late and then went to the beach.
Nel 2010 andavo in palestra tutte le mattine.
In 2010 I went to the gym every morning.
In Italian, only use the past progressive for actions that were in progress at some point in the past.
To make it, use the past simple tense of the Italian verb “stare” and the gerund of the main verb.
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