"Taking time": Volerci e Metterci
In this edition of “Talk Like A Native”, I’ll review what I just discovered about a couple of Italian expressions for describing the amount of time that something takes.
As always, there are subtle little differences that probably only make sense to an Italian speaker and still manage to frustrate the English learner.
And, if you haven’t already learned that there are probably ten ways to use “ci” that don’t involve using it as an indirect personal pronoun (“to us” or “for us”), then you might be able to understand what follows.
Otherwise, I’d consider this to be a fairly “advanced” topic, and it will only confuse you if you are just starting out!
Volerci gets used when the statement is impersonal; no people are specifically mentioned, only actions:
Quanto tempo ci vuole?
How much time (“How long”) does it take?
Ci vuole molto tempo per decidere.
It takes a long time to decide.
Ci vuole un’ora per preparare la pizza.
It takes an hour to prepare (make) the pizza.
Ci vogliono due giorni per pulire tutta la casa.
It takes two days to clean the whole house.
Ci vogliono solo pochi minuti a piedi.
It is only a few minutes on foot (“a few minutes walk”).
As you can see above, Volerci comes only in two forms (in the present tense): Ci vuole and Ci vogliono .
Ci vuole is used when the unit of time is unspecified or singular. “Ci vuole un’ora”, but “Ci vogliono due giorni”.
NOTE: When you use this expression in the past tense, or in any way that requires an auxiliary verb with it, then the choice is always essere:
- C’è voluto un mese per finire questo lavoro
It took one month to finish this job. (Or, more literally, “One month was wanted to finish this job”)
Also, if you use the future or conditional tense or another one that normally changes the verb endings then stick to “First person” for singular and “Third person” for non-singular instances-- Ci vorrà or Ci vorranno (“it will take”) with the future tense, for example.
Now as soon as you want to introduce people into the description, however, then you have to switch to another verb form.
You’ve probably guessed already; that form is: Metterci.
I’m not sure why “metterci” makes sense; “to take” is normally “prendere” but that probably implies physical movement (taking something) rather than a concept (taking time).
At any rate...
Andare da Venezia a Vicenza ci mette un’ora in treno.
To go from Venice to Vicenza it takes him (or her) one hour on the train.
Quanto tempo ci metto?
How much time (“How long”) does it take me?
Ci metto quattro ore per finire il lavoro.
It takes me four hours to finish the job.
You may have already just spotted another big difference in the two words in this discussion. Instead of having only two forms like volerci uses, i.e. “ci mette” and “ci mettono”, “Metterci” is always conjugated to match the person or persons doing the action.
So you can have “(io) Ci metto”, “(tu) Ci metti”, “(lui/ lei) Ci mette”, and so on.
Similar to volerci, metterci can be used in the past tense (and with other tenses, naturally).
Unlike volerci, the auxiliary verb used isn’t essere; it is avere.
And since the normal base verb “Mettere” is irregular, then you’re going to have to remember that entire past tense conjugation— Ho messo, Hai messo, Ha messo, etc.
Also; now the amount of time isn’t as inportant as it was with Volerci, for singular and unspecified durations or for specified lengths of time. They are the same:
Ci abbiamo messo una settimana.
It took us a week.
Ci abbiamo messo tre settimane.
It took us three weeks.
Ci hanno messo due ore ad arrivare.
It took them two hours to arrive. (Or, more literally, “Two hours they have taken to arrive.”)
An excellent explanation!
Two observations, which I hope won't make the topic more complex than it already is (whoever finds them confusing can simply disregard them).
Volerci gets used when the statement is impersonal; no people are specifically mentioned, only actions
Volerci (time) a... / per... translates to the English construction "to take (time) to... / for...".
Since in English a sentence cannot lack a subject, either a dummy pronoun ("it") must be used (e.g. it takes 30 minutes to cook this pie), or a nominal clause must act as the subject (e.g. cooking this pie takes 30 minutes).
In Italian, instead, the subject seems to be lacking (a dummy pronoun is never used):
- Ci vogliono 30 minuti a / per cucinare questo sformato.
So one may think that volerci is an impersonal verb, like the ones that describe weather events, such as piovere, nevicare, fare caldo/freddo, etc.:
- Piove da 30 minuti = It has been raining for 30 minutes ("it" is the dummy pronoun acting as the subject, which in Italian is completely lacking)
But focusing more carefully on the verb, piove is third person singular (no agreement with minuti, plural).
Instead ci vogliono is third person plural, which agrees with minuti. If we change the sentence using a singular noun (e.g. un'ora):
- Ci vuole un'ora a / per cucinare questo sformato. = It takes an hour to cook this pie.
Since the verb always agrees with the subject of the sentence, the time (30 minuti, un'ora) is actually the subject of the sentence in postponed position, i.e. after the verb.
So volerci is not an impersonal verb like piovere, in that it takes a specific subject. It belongs to the group of so-called procomplementary verbs, which change their meaning into a more idiomatic one when the basic verb (here volere) takes one or two clitic pronouns (in this case ci), whose meaning is therefore not literal.
So the Italian sentence sounds more or less as 30 minutes [subject] are needed for cooking this pie.
Now as soon as you want to introduce people into the description, however, then you have to switch to another verb form, metterci.
This is correct.
However, in the colloquial language, also volerci can be used for introducing people, by adding a second clitic pronoun, an indirect object, which sounds as "to me", "to you", "to him", etc.
Compare the following sentences:
- Ci vogliono 2 ore per arrivare lì. = It takes 2 hours to get there.
Now let's use metterci with a person (e.g. "you"):
- Ci metti 2 ore per arrivare lì. = You take / It takes you 2 hours to get there.
Colloquially, using volerci this can turn into:
- Ti ci vogliono 2 ore per arrivare lì. = It takes you 2 hours to get there. (literally: "it takes to you 2 hours to get there")
Mi ci vogliono... = It takes me...
Gli ci vogliono... = It takes him...
Vi ci vogliono... = It takes you (plural)...
The third person feminine is rarely used (it sounds uncommon, but it is perfectly grammatical):
Le ci vogliono... = It takes her...
The third person plural is usually dealt with by using gli (for either gender) instead of loro, which lacks a clitic form and therefore should stand after the verb:
Gli ci vogliono... = It takes him.../them... (the context disambiguates whether it is singular or plural)
The only real limitation is the first person plural, whose object pronoun is ci. This would produce a rather unpleasant repetition:
Ci ci vogliono... = It takes us...
so this construction is simply not used (it is in fact considered wrong), and only metterci can be used:
Ci mettiamo... = It takes us...
Andare da Venezia a Vicenza ci mette un’ora in treno.
This example would benefit from editing.
The correct options are:
- Per andare da Venezia a Vicenza ci vuole un’ora in treno.
- Andare da Venezia a Vicenza richiede un’ora in treno.
Since when using volerci the subject is the time (un'ora), andare da Venezia a Vicenza can only be either a subordinate clause or an indirect object, therefore it must take a preposition (ad andare... / per andare...).
Alternatively, the verb can be changed (→ richiedere = "to be required / needed", "to take"), what allows the sentence to use Andare da Venezia a Vicenza as a subject (i.e. the infinitive form is used as a noun: "Going from Venice to Vicenza..."), and the time (un'ora) turns into the direct object.
A third alternative option can be to use metterci impersonally, by adding the impersonal pronoun si:
- Per andare da Venezia a Vicenza ci si mette un’ora in treno.
I think for the sentence about Venice they wanted "Per andare da Venezia a Vicenza (lui/lei) ci mette un'ora in treno," since they translated it as "it takes him/her."
To Mabby as to why you use "mettere," think of it as meaning how much time you put (mettere) into something (ci). : )