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if I use "Si può" in a sentence, would that be considered a sentence using the si impersonale?

December 14, 2017



Si può can lead to two different constructions, called "si impersonale" and "si passivante".
In Italian they are very similar, but their English rendering is rather different. Several months ago I had posted a description of them in this page: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/22549672

In the "si impersonale" construction, the verb lacks a subject:

  • si può leggere = one can read

  • si poteva scegliere = one could choose

  • si può dire così = one can say so

In the English rendering, the dummy subject 'one' must be added for syntax reasons (the verb cannot stand without a subject, as in Italian).
Always the 3rd person singular of the verb is used.

Instead, the "si passivante" includes a subject. This is the only difference with the previous construction.
Although the verb is used in its active voice, the 'si' pronoun causes the subject to receive the action, as it does when the passive voice of the verb is used (this is why the costruction is called 'passivating si').
So the English rendering of this construction is the standard passive voice of the verb:

  • il colore si può scegliere = the colour can be chosen

  • i colori si possono scegliere = the colours can be chosen

  • un libro si può leggere = a book can be read

  • i libri si possono leggere = the books can be read

The verb is used in 3rd person singular or plural, according to the subject..

When the modal potere is used, as in the aforementioned examples, if the subject of the "si passivante" is placed after the verb, this shift turns the construction into the "si impersonale":

  • i colori si possono scegliere ("si passivante") = the colours can be chosen


  • si possono scegliere i colori ("si impersonale") = one can choose the colours

This is due to the fact that in the first sentence ("si passivante") i colori is the subject of a verb that takes a passive meaning because of the pronoun 'si' (→ the subject receives the action).
Instead, in the second sentence ("si impersonale"), by effect of the shifted position, i colori turns into the direct object; there is no subject left (→ impersonal construction), so in the English sentence the dummy subject 'one' must be added:

  • un libro si può leggere = a book can be read


  • si può leggere un libro = one can read a book

When the verb dovere is used (another modal verb), if the noun is shifted both interpretations are possible:

  • sull'autobus il biglietto si deve timbrare = on the bus the ticket must be stamped


  • sull'autobus si deve timbrare il biglietto = on the bus the ticket must be stamped  (or)  one should stamp the ticket

Instead, when an ordinary single verb is used, shifting the subject usually does not cause any effect:

  • un libro si tiene sullo scaffale = a book is (usually) kept / should be kept on the shelf

  • si tiene sullo scaffale un libro = a book is (usually) kept / should be kept on the shelf.


I believe so. The equivalent would be "one can..."
EDITED TO ADD: such as "one can take the train from Rome to Milan."


Yes. Si puo entrare? Si puo fumare? (Can one enter? Is smoking permitted?) The subject would be one or anyone.

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