Italian Subjunctive Guide
The subjunctive (Il congiuntivo) can be tricky to grasp for English speakers, as it's rare in our language. I'm putting this guide together in the hopes that it will help those who struggle with this aspect of Italian.<h1>What is the subjunctive?</h1>
The subjunctive is a verb mood. What does that mean? A verb mood, of which there are four, shows the meaning behind a verb, not the time at which it occurred - the subjunctive ≠ a tense. The four verb moods which exist are the indicative, the subjunctive, the conditional, and the jussive. The indicative is the easier form which is learnt first - used for things like facts or definite situations, like “He was here”. The conditional is used for situations which are dependent on other situations to be able to occur, like “I would go, if I had the time“. The jussive is the form used for the “Let's ...“ and imperative forms of the verb, like “Let's eat” and “Eat!”. The subjunctive, however, is used in situations of doubt, desire, opinion, and others, which will be shown later.<h1>How to conjugate the subjunctive - Present Tense</h1>
To conjugate the subjunctive in the present tense, take the io form of the verb, remove the final -o, then add the personal endings:
Note that for io, tu, lui/lei & loro for -ire verbs, the -isca/-iscano form is used when the verb ends in -isco in the io form of the indicative (e.g. “Finire“ - “Finisco“), and the -a/-ano form when the io form of the indicative doesn't end in -isco (e.g. “Dormire“ - “Dormo“).
So, let's look at these endings on some verbs:
There are, of course, irregular verbs in the subjunctive. Some of these are:
- Essere: Regular = Si-; For noi & voi = S- (For example, “Io sia“, “Noi siamo“)
- Stare: Regular = Sti-; For noi & voi = St- (For example, “Lui stia“, “Loro stiano“)
- Avere: Regular = Abbi-; For noi & voi = Abb- (For example, “Tu abbia“, “Voi abbiate“)
- Andare: Regular = Vad-; For noi & voi = And- (For example, “Io vada“, “Noi andiamo“)
- Dovere: Regular = Debb-; For noi & voi = Dobb- (For example, “Lei debba“, “Voi dobbiate“)
- Fare: This verb acts like an -ere verb. Regular = Facci-; For noi & voi = Facc- (For example, “Tu faccia“, “Noi facciamo“)
Regular = io, tu, lui/lei & loro
There are other irregular verbs; these are just some of them and how they work.<h1>How the present subjunctive is used</h1>
The use of the present subjunctive can be hard to get the hang of at first, as it appears so seldom in English (an example being “I suggest that he go“). If you've already encountered the subjunctive in other languages like French, it will be a bit easier, as many of the “subjunctive phrases” will carry over to Italian. Likewise, getting familiar with the subjunctive in Italian first will help when it comes to using it in other languages.
If there is doubt within a situation, the subjunctive is used. For example, phrases like “Credo che...“ (I believe that...), “Penso che...“ (I think that...), “Non sono certo che...“ (I'm not sure that...) all use the subjunctive. Let's look at some example sentences - words in Italics are “subjunctive phrases“, and words in Bold are verbs in the subjunctive.
- Credo che il suo compleanno sia in agosto - I think his birthday is in August
- Non penso che loro vadano domani - I don't think they'll go tomorrow
- Suppongo che debba aiutarti - I suppose I ought to help you
- Dubito che ci sia abbastanza tempo - I doubt there is enough time
Note that after these types of “subjunctive phrases“, the “che“ can be omitted:
- Credo (che) abbia ragione - I think you're right
- Penso (che) sia bella - I think she is pretty
If there is a wish or an order, something which may not end up happening, the subjunctive is used. Some phrases which require the subjunctive are “Voglio che...“ (I want (that)...), “Desidero che...“ (I wish (that)...), and “Insisto che...“ (I insist (that)...). Let's look at some example sentences of this use:
- I miei genitori vogliono che io impari il tedesco - My parents want me to learn German
- Insistiamo che mangiate qualcosa - We insist that you eat something
- Mio fratello spera che non piova domani - My brother hopes it doesn't rain tomorrow
3. Impersonal statements
Statements like “È bene che...“ (It's good that...), “È difficile che...“ (It's unlikely that...), and “È necessario che...“ (It's necessary that...) use the subjunctive. “È“ can be replaced with “Sembra“ for the same effect. However, remember that the subjunctive is used where there is uncertainty - so statements like “È certo che...“ (It's certain that...) wouldn't be used with the subjunctive. Also, if you use “Mi sembra che...“ (It seems to me that...), the subjunctive isn't used. Here are some example phrases:
- È strano che non possa venire - It's strange that she not be able to come
- Sembra difficile che io vada con te - It seems unlikely that I'll go with you
- È necessario che tutti lavorino insieme - It's necessary that everyone work together
Here is a list of phrases which use the subjunctive:
4. Direct effect
If an action affects you directly (e.g. “I don't like that...“), the subjunctive is used. Some phrases which use the subjunctive in this way are “Mi disturba che...“ (It bothers me that...), “Mi piace che...“ (I like that...), and “Mi sconvolge che...“ (It upsets me that...). Some examples are:
- Non mi piace che stia sempre aspettando - I don't like that I'm always waiting
- Mi disturba che non si ricordi di me - It bothers me that he doesn't remember me
- Mi sconvolge che alcune persone non abbiano abbastanza da mangiare - It upsets me that some people don't have enough to eat
5. Fixed expressions
Some fixed expressions use the subjunctive. Some examples of such expressions are “Benché...“ (Although...), “Nonostante che...“ (Despite...), and “A meno che...“ (Unless...). Here are some examples:
- Benché mi piaccia il gelato, non ne voglio nessuno - Although I like ice cream, I don't want any
- Lei va alla festa nonostante che sia molta stanca - She is going to the party despite the fact that she is very tired
- A meno che non mi rompa la gamba, giocherò a calcio - Unless I break my leg, I'll play football
- Inviagli un messaggio prima che sia troppo tardi! - Send him a message before it's too late!
The last use of the subjunctive is starting a sentence or clause with “Che“, then using the subjunctive. This is used to show desires and thoughts. For example:
- Che nessuno mi faccia ridere! - No one make me laugh!
- Lei non è venuta a scuola oggi. Che abbia la febbre? - She didn't come to school today. Could it be that she has a fever?
The subjunctive also directly exists in the imperfect tense. To conjugate it, take the io form of the verb in the imperfect tense, remove the -evo, and add the following endings:
Here are the endings on the verbs we looked at for the present tense:
The verb Avere is regular in the imperfect subjunctive, however the verb Essere isn't. To conjugate Essere, remove the i- at the beginning of the -ire conjugation, then add fo- add the beggining of the new endings. For example, the -ire imperfect subjunctive conjugation for noi is -issimo. Remove the i-, which leaves us with -ssimo. Then add fo-, which gives us “fossimo“ - the imperfect subjunctive conjugation of Essere for noi.<h1>How the imperfect subjunctive is used</h1>
The imperfect subjunctive is used, for the most part, in the same cases as the present subjunctive. Generally, the preceding phrases are either in the conditional or imperfect tenses. So while the present subjunctive would be used with “Voglio che...“ (I want (that)...), the imperfect subjunctive would be used with “Vorrei che...“ (I would like (that)...) and “Volevo che...“ (I wanted (that)...). This carries across for all aspects:
- Non credevo che avesse diciotto anni - I didn't think he was eighteen
- Vorremmo che venissi alla partita - We'd like you to come to the game
- Sarebbe essenziale che bevessimo acqua - It'd be essential that we drink water
- Mi piacerebbe che le vacanze fossero più lunghe - I'd like the holidays to be longer
However, if a structure like the “impersonal statements“ is used to refer back to a past event, this will remain in the present tense:
- È bene che tutti potessero venire - It's good that everyone was able to come
- Non penso che mi vedesse - I don't think he saw me
Se + Conditional
Unique to the imperfect subjunctive is the “Se + Conditional“ sentence. This is used to state hypothetical actions - which is why the subjunctive is used. This type of sentence is the only sentence where the subjunctive is still fairly identifiable in English - “If I were rich, I'd buy a mansion“. This type of sentence works exactly the same in Italian:
- Se potessi imparare qualsiasi lingua in soltanto un giorno, quale sarebbe? - If you could learn any language in a day, which would it be?
The sentence structure can also be flipped, starting with the conditional clause and then using the imperfect subjunctive. For example:
- Mi piacerebbe il congiuntivo se fosse più facile! - I'd like the subjunctive if it were easier!
“Come se“ is the translation of “As if“ in Italian, which always uses the imperfect subjunctive. It works in the exact same ways as in English:
- È come se non mi conoscesse - It's as if she didn't know me
- Come se io non sapessi quella cosa! - As if I didn't know that!
The perfect and pluperfect subjunctive tenses also exist in Italian. These are formed by either using the present subjunctive of Avere/Essere + Past Participle, or the imperfect subjunctive of Avere/Essere + Past Participle. For example:
- È raro che tanta gente sia andata in spiaggia - It's rare that so many people have gone to the beach
- Se mi avessi detto la verità, ti avrei potuto credere - If you'd told me the truth, I would have been able to believe you
I hope this helps!/Spero che questo aiuti!
Check out my other subjunctive guides!
129 Comments This discussion is locked.
Earlier this morning, while surfing the internet for a translation, I ran across an Italian forum and I was thrilled to find that I was able to follow the ongoing discussion (having to look up only a handful of words!)
Re-energized I came to DL and continued with my studies, truly believing I was making some sort of progress ... ... ... until I ran into this sticky!!!
Now, I'm back to thinking I'll never be able to learn Italian! Well, thanks a lot!!!
Naaah, thank you for taking the time to put this together! Who knows, one day it may actually make sense and stick ... One can only hope! ;-)
I hope so! I noticed that I started to take a second look when 'che' appears. (I know it's not the key to subjunctive but it seems to always be a part of it.)
PS: In your 'What is the subjunctive?' paragraph, the sentence "The four verb moods which exist are the indicative, the subjunctive, and the jussive." <-- is missing the 4th one, 'conditional' ;-)
For those of you who might be curious, the Latin subjunctive is not super hard to make. It's really predictable, and there's like one or two verbs for which you actually have to remember it.
For example, to be present indicative: sum es est sumus estis sunt
To be present subjunctive: sim sis sit simus sitis sint
But seriously, fantastic job on this article. Super thorough, and incredibly informative.
Hello, nice guide :)
I just want to help you with some little changes I'd suggest: • in 5. Fixed Expressions of the Presente tense, remember that there's an additional "non" after "a meno che" so it would be "A meno che non mi rompa una gamba" • in How the Imperfect Subjunctive is used, the sentence "Non penso che mi vedesse" would be translated with "I don't think he could see me". "I don't think he saw me" would translate "Non penso che mi abbia visto"
Other than those, I think the rest of the guide is completely ok :)
*source: I'm an Italian grammar freak :P
If you use "mi sembra che" you almost always need a subjunctive! "Mi sembra che sia arrivato". Indicative is acceptable too.
Fantastic guide! Very well written :-) I remember when I first came across il congiuntivo, I thought it was insane... then I realised that I'd been using the various English subjunctives without realising for years! Unfortunately, most English people I've met don't actually use the English subjunctives which makes learning il congiuntivo even harder. What was it Goethe once said? "Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen." :-)
Since I am following this active discussion I have looked at the thread from several different computers and devices in different locations over the last week. I have looked from home (no vpn/firewall), work (very limited internet filter for pornographic websites) and over the verizon cellular network on my phone and tablet. I have used explorer, chrome, firefox and safari on various windows and mac computers. I have tried both chrome and dolphin on android. Same result. Broken picture links. I'm in the U.S.. I'm surprised that I'm alone on this issue, but it would appear that I am.
Grazie per le spiegazioni! C'è una ragione perché "fare" in congiuntivo diventa come se fosse -ere: viene del latino facere! Viva (congiuntivo) l'italiano! Vivat (subjunctivus) lingua latina!
"Nonostante che" is rarely used, "nonostante" is a lot more common. Even though they're both correct, "nonostante" without "che" is what every Italian would use easily ;) Good guide!
Edit: "Nonostante che" is used when there is another element (like a complement) between the expression and the verb.
Brilliant! Thanks ever so much. I have been trying to figure out how to translate the subjunctive when it doesn't really work that way due to its almost total non existence in English. The whole idea of trigger phrases has created a light bulb moment for me. Thank you so much.
Hi, I have some doubt about your statement: " statements like “È certo che...“ (It's certain that...) wouldn't be used with the subjunctive". It's not clear and it's changing with the time because fewer Italians can use the congiuntivo correctly, but phrases that follow "che" (When the verb is the subject of the main verb) sound really weird in simple present. With exceptions of course.
For the students: Italians have a lot of problems with the congiuntivo, if you can use it as foreigner it will really impress us!!!
Gio, the expression "È certo che..." can be used in the indicative and subjunctive: È certo che lui viene and È certo che lui venga", both are correct. I personally would not use the subjunctive if I were talking about a friend coming. However, if I were speaking about my professor Umberto Eco coming to meet me at the University of Bologna I would probably use the subjunctive. I prefer to add a little doubt to the expression just in case Umberto doesn't show :-)
What's the context?
Venice is the "City of Water" = Venezia è la "Città sull'acqua" (both over the sea or near the seashore) -
During the World Water Summit Rome begun the "City of Water" = ...Roma è diventata la "Città dell'acqua" -
The mermaid empire's capital was "The City of Water" = ...era "La Città delle acque" (like the seven seas) -
All the buildings made of Ice, that was a "City of Water" = ...era una "città d'acqua"
"Città di Acqua" is not used, at least is "d'acqua".
Io parlo, tu parli, lui parla, noi parliamo, voi parlate, loro parlano... by the way when we decline a verb by heart we use "egli" instead of lui (same meaning, ancient form), and "essi" instead of loro (like the other, but "essi" is still good if you are speaking about inanimate objects or animals). When uncertain you can skip the pronoun, we do it a lot.