I have read an odd sentence in an Italian language learning tool:

Dovevo vendere tutte le mie cose per comprare quest'automobile. (= I had to sell all my things to buy this car)

Is there any context in which the "imperfetto" tense would be used as it is here, instead of the "passato prossimo" tense? I suspect that the English translation is wrong and here the imperfect tense is equivalent to the conditional tense, as can be done in informal speech AFAIK. In that case, the correct translation would be "I should sell all my things to buy this car".

2 Answers 2


As always, only the context may say the actual meaning of this sentence. Anyway, taken by itself, the apparent meaning is, as in the first translation given, “I had to sell all my things to buy this car”. Moreover, the use of the imperfetto rather than passato prossimo or passato remoto tends to suggest that something else happened next. Say,

Dovevo vendere tutte le mie cose per comprare quest'automobile. Poi però mio cugino mi ha prestato i soldi.

That would be a so-called “imperfetto di conato”.

The use of imperfetto indicativo as an alternative to tenses of condizionale or congiuntivo is more frequent in other kinds of sentence, especially conditional clauses. “Se lo sapevo non venivo” is a more colloquial variant of “Se l'avessi saputo non sarei venuto”.

(By the way, as you see, conditional is a mood, not a tense, and has its own imperfect.)

There are other contexts in which you'd use an imperfetto indicativo as in the sentence given. For instance, when telling dreams and the like: that sentence might be part of such a narrative. For this one, the “conato” one and more, a good source is the entry on imperfetto of the Treccani Enciclopedia dell'Italiano (in Italian).

  • 1
    Off topic: I know I am a bit invasive, Alan, but I keep thinking that learning a language from online tools is not the best way, and this question is one more confirmation. Working with sentences out of any context is not really meaningful: in every language, most sentences may have a meaning wildly varying depending on their context. It is almost as if you were trying to learn to play the piano concentrating on single notes. The notes form melodies and chords: in themselves, they say little. You are forcing us to guess which song some particular note you found online belongs to.
    – DaG
    Sep 27, 2019 at 9:33
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    I said it in the past, but online tools can be really useful to force repetition (I know that using Anki and Duolingo greatly improved my German vocabulary, and they also helped "interiorizing" the declensions at the point I don't need to think about them anymore). They do an admirable job as "exercise books" - and in fact many of your criticisms apply also to old fashioned exercise books. (cont)
    – Denis Nardin
    Sep 27, 2019 at 9:36
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    (cont) The problem arises when someone thinks they can be the only thing they use to learn the language (as opposed to grammar books, novels, and of course the old fashioned "having a conversation with someone").
    – Denis Nardin
    Sep 27, 2019 at 9:36
  • @DaG: I would add that such tools may be useful as long as one uses them with a critical mind. It seems to me that this is what Alan is doing here.
    – Charo
    Sep 28, 2019 at 12:05

The sentence you quoted refers to an informal speech, the correct italian phrase require conditional tense, so the prhase should be:

Avrei dovuto vendere tutte le mie cose .... (I should have sold all my things)

Keep in mind that the above phrase imply that the event could be not happen.

Although there is a case where imperfetto tense has the right meaning, that is when you are telling nowadays about something running in the past that now it has happened. for example:

Dovevo vendere tutte le mie cose, e l'ho fatto, oggi ho questa macchina. (I had to sell all my stuff, I did it, and now I got this car).

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    I actually disagree that the conditional tense is required: the meaning of the sentence in the question is different, and I'd rather express it with either the passato prossimo or the passato remoto: "Ho dobuto vendere tutte le mie cose per comprare quest'automobile".
    – Denis Nardin
    Sep 27, 2019 at 8:25
  • I see your point of view, but the whole context is missing, so the original meaning the author was talking about is not clear. Sep 27, 2019 at 8:29
  • Ok, but Alan said that maybe the translator was wrong, so I replied with my point of view. Sep 27, 2019 at 8:31
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    Yeah, sorry. That was a hasty comment. I deleted it, and you're perfectly right. I still don't think that this is the intended meaning, but let's see if other answers pop up :).
    – Denis Nardin
    Sep 27, 2019 at 8:34

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