italian-conditional

The Daydreamer’s Guide to Italian: Imagine What Could Be with the Present Conditional

When you start out in Italian, you generally stick to talking about things as they are.

The Neapolitan tap water is magical, this cheese is delicious, your mother talks all day about her tomatoes.

When you make sentences like this, you’re using the present indicative. It’s an essential tense for Italian learners to master, but if it’s all you know, you’ll be trapped in reality.

What’ll you do when you want to daydream in Italian? Make plans and plan Bs? Or just ask, “what if…?”

That’s when you’ll need the Italian conditional.

The conditional is used for situations that are as simple as making polite requests and as complex as imagining an alternate reality and its consequences. It allows you to wander over to a more interesting, hypothetical world.

Imagine that late in your trip to Italy, you enter longer conversations over your evening’s caffè corretto (espresso + grappa) and start wondering, “If I packed my suitcase with gallons of water and some buffalo cheese and tomatoes, could I recreate a true Neapolitan pizza at home?”

The Italian conditional roughly corresponds to “would” plus a verb in English (but more on that later). This is an intermediate-to-advanced subject. While Italian beginners may want to read about this in order to recognize the conditional when they see it, most wait until after they’ve studied the Italian simple future, which uses the same verb stems. Knowing the imperfect subjunctive is also a good idea, since that form often shows up alongside the conditional in more complex hypothetical sentences.

We’ll start this post with a primer on the Italian present conditional and look at its regular and irregular conjugations, and then see how these are all actually used by Italians. We’ll wrap up with some practice resources so you can apply your new skills.
 


 

Would You Like to Master the Italian Conditional? Here’s Your Guide

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What Exactly Is the Italian Conditional?

The conditional is one of the four moods in Italian. The mood you’re surely most familiar with is the indicative, which is used to talk about how things actually are. For example, in the present tense of the indicative mood you say:

Io parlo italiano. — I speak Italian.

The Italian conditional mood, in contrast, tells of a hypothetical, “if only” world. Often it’s translated into English with the word “would” plus a verb.

Io parlerei italiano se fosse facile. — I would speak Italian if it were easy.

“Would,” however, is a messy word in English with all sorts of uses, so it’s not appropriate to think of the Italian conditional as just a way of translating “would” one-to-one. Instead, it’s best for Italian learners to focus on the types of situations in which you might use the conditional—which is why we’ll show you different types of contexts where you’ll need to use it later in this post.

In this article we’ll focus on the present conditional tense, but do be aware that there’s also a past conditional (io sarei andato — I would have gone) that can be used to talk about hypothetical pasts.

Regular Conjugation Rules for the Present Conditional

For the purposes of learning the conditional, regular –are and –ere verbs can be grouped together as they get the same endings.

We’ll look first at the example of the regular verb parlare (to speak) in the present conditional. The –are ending is removed and the following bolded endings are added.

io parlerei — I would speak

tu parleresti — you (singular, informal) would speak

lui/lei/Lei parlerebbe — he/she/you (singular, formal) would speak

noi parleremmo — we would speak

voi parlereste — you (plural) would speak

loro parlerebbero — they would speak

There are, unfortunately, some spelling changes to worry about (but they’re exactly the same as you probably saw when studying other verb conjugations). These changes, per Italian spelling rules, simply ensure that pronunciation of the last consonant in the stem remains consistent once the conditional endings are added.

  • Verbs ending in –ciare and –giare drop the i before adding all of the above endings. So, for example, cominciare (to begin) becomes io comincerei, tu cominceresti, lui comincerebbe, etc. (I would begin, you would begin, he would begin, etc.)
  • Verbs ending in –care and –gare must have an h added to the end of the verb stem. So legare (to tie) becomes io legherei, tu legheresti, lui legherebbe, etc. (I would tie, you would tie, he would tie, etc.)

Both groups of -ire verbs (verbs that have isc inserted into some present tense indicative conjugations, and verbs that don’t) are treated the same in the conditional.

We’ll look at the example of fuggire (to escape, to run away). We remove the –ire ending and add conditional endings as follows.

io fuggirei — I would escape

tu fuggiresti — you (singular, informal) would escape

lui/lei/Lei fuggirebbe — he/she/you (singular, formal) would escape

noi fuggiremmo — we would escape

voi fuggireste — you (plural) would escape

loro fuggirebbero — they would escape

Strategically lazy studiers will notice that regular –ire verbs are conjugated the same as the -are and -ere verbs we saw above, except for the first letter of the ending.

Irregular Forms of the Present Conditional

The good news is that the conditional verb endings are basically regular in Italian (e.g., all tu forms end in esti). The bad news is that there are some minor irregularities in the stems of the verbs—though at least these are the same irregularities you’ve already seen if you’ve studied the simple future tense.

The most brutally odd are the changes that essere (to be) undergoes (and this is a verb you’ll use a lot in the conditional).

io sarei — I would be

tu saresti — you (singular, informal) would be

lui/lei/Lei sarebbe — he/she/you (singular, formal) would be

noi saremmo — we would be

voi sareste — you (plural) would be

loro sarebbero — they would be

Here are some additional common irregular verbs in the conditional that you should be aware of. It’s easiest to think of them as falling into two groups when you’re preparing to study them.

In first group, the first vowel of the ending gets eliminated. Otherwise the endings are the same.

Andare (to go) — io andrei, tu andresti, lui andrebbe, etc…

Avere (to have) — io avrei

Cadere (to fall) — io cadrei…

Dare (to give) — io darei…

Dovere (to have to, must) — io dovrei…

Fare (to make, to do) — io farei

Potere (to be able to) — io potrei…

Sapere (to know) — io saprei…

Stare (to be) — io starei…

Vedere (to see) — io vedrei…

Vivere (to live) — io vivrei…

In the second group of irregulars, Italian contracted infinitives get shortened as is their tendency, and the first vowel of the ending is dropped, which leaves a double rThis double consonant generally takes a fair amount of exaggeration for most Italian learners to pronounce correctly.

Once again, otherwise the endings always remain the same for each pronoun.

Bere (to drink) — io berrei, tu berresti, lui berrebbe, etc…

Condurre (to drive) — io condurrei…

Tenere (to hold, to keep) — io terrei…

Venire (to come) — io verrei…

Volere (to want) — io vorrei…

Tricky pop quiz! Verresti, vedresti, vivresti, vorresti… can you tell what each of those mean? If not, take another careful look at the stems above. These are verbs that learners often mix up in this tense.

(Answer: “You would come, you would see, you would live, you would want.” All are tu conjugations. Now, how would they change for the plural voi?)

When to Use the Italian Present Conditional

Being Extra Polite

The easiest way to use the Italian conditional is for simple, very polite requests. It may’ve even been one of the first things you learned, if you memorized phrasebook-like expressions for ordering food and drinks with vorrei… (I would like…). That’s of course the present conditional of the verb volere (to want).

Now that you know the conjugations, you can also use it in the plural.

Vorremmo tre birre per favore. — We’d like three beers please.

But this use isn’t just for the verb volere. The conditional can also be brought out to “lighten up” phrases, especially when you’re asking for something.

Mi compreresti uno zaino per favore? — Would you buy a backpack for me, please?

Quali date andrebbero bene per te? — Which dates would be good for you? (Literally “would go well…”)

Hypothetical Events

Whenever I’m staying in Naples, I use the conditional mood a lot. Nothing ever seems to go as planned there. And so I have a great opportunity to talk about a hypothetical world in which things would, in theory, work out a bit better.

Andrei in treno, ma il sito web di Trenitalia è davvero un disastro! — I would go by train, but the Italian national train company’s website is really a disaster!

Also sometimes Naples comes to visit me, at least in theory. Again, the conditional.

Raffaella dovrebbe venire da me, ma non ho molto fiducia in lei. — Raffaella is supposed to come to my place, but I don’t have much confidence in her.

The conditional along with the verb dovere (to have to, must) can be translated as “should” or “is supposed to,” among other things. This is a quite common way of talking about what’s meant to happen.

Also notice how in complex sentences like my gripe about Raffaella, it’s normal that part of the sentence stays in the indicative (the reality-based part). So, non ho molto fiducia uses the standard present tense indicative, because of my real-world, completely justified mistrust. But when I talk about what Raffaella does, things go off into the fantasyland, if-only, wistfully sighing conditional mood: dovrebbe venire.

You’ll also use the conditional if you pose hypothetical questions.

Come vivreste nei miei panni? — How would you live [if you were] in my place (literally “cloth”)?

Sometimes hypothetical phrases can be quite simple. So to keep things interesting, let’s see some examples with the trickiest irregular verbs from before.

Vedreste peggio qua. — You would see worse here.

Vivreste meglio qua. — You would live better here.

Here are a few more relatively simple ways you could see the conditional employed.

Nel caso che ci siano dubbi, potresti chiedermi. — If you should have any doubts, you could ask me.

Questo le farebbe esplodere il cervello. — This would explode her brain.

La canzone dice che la vita sarebbe orribile senza il vino. — The song says that life would be horrible without wine.

The conditional is of course excellent for that most hypothetical of human conditions: love. Here’s a particularly famous Italian lyric that comes to mind and makes use of this:

Potrei ma non voglio fidarmi di te. — I could, but I don’t want to, trust you.

This is from the lovely should-I-stay-or-should-I-go song from Samuele Bersani. The full lyrics are here and they’re worth it.

Based on what you now know about the conditional, what do you think the singer is going to do in real life? Trust his heart to this ridiculous woman? I’m not betting on it.

Conditional + se (if) + Imperfect Subjunctive

A related use of the conditional is in constructions that combine it with the imperfect (past) subjunctive. Here’s a simple example.

Se avessimo i soldi, verremmo da te. — If we had the money, we would come to your place.

The word avessimo is the imperfect subjunctive of avere (to have) and verremmo is of course the conditional of another of those tricky verbs I’ve been telling you to watch for, venire (to come). The order can be changed around, but note that the word se (if) always sticks with the imperfect subjunctive. You don’t use se just before the conditional.

Per un momento ho visto come sarebbe la vita se fossi un ragazzo bello. — For a moment I saw how life would be if I were a beautiful guy.

Yes, this construction involves knowing both the conditional and that horribly irregular past subjunctive quite well, but it’s worth it. You can use it to set up all kinds of situations and then show what would result.

Se loro facessero più ricerche, potrebbero passare del bel tempo in Italia. — If they did more research, they could have a great time in Italy.

Se andassi in Italia, comprerei soprattutto un adattatore da viaggio per la spina che hanno lì. — If I went to Italy, I would buy an adapter for the outlets that they have there.

Berrebbe di più se sapesse che c’è ancora birra qua. — He would drink more if he knew that there was still beer here.

Si terrebbero più cauti se li spaventassimo. — They would be more cautious if we gave them a shock.

Se avessi i documenti, rimarrei in Italia per sempre con Raffaella. — If I had documents, I would stay with Raffaella in Italy forever.

Loro starebbero meglio qua in montagna, se solo avessero il coraggio di partire. — They would be better off here in the mountains, if they only had the courage to leave.

Practice Resources for the Italian Conditional

Since there are plenty of conjugation and usage details to master, my suggestion for you would be to practice at first by carefully writing sentences about yourself based on the structures you’ve seen above. Or create your own hypothetical Italian situations based on what you dream up: what would happen to you if you had the misfortune to fall in love with an Italian? Or, what would you do if someone stole your backpack on an Italian train?

Once you think you’ve perfected your practice sentences, take them to an Italian language partner or online teacher to discover just how badly you’ve screwed it all up. Correct your sentences together and then try to see if you can make new ones in conversation by re-using the words and structures that you’re hopefully, now, starting to grasp.

FluentU is another great way to internalize—rather than just memorize—the rules of the Italian conditional. FluentU provides real-world Italian videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more, that’ve been transformed into a language learning experience.

Each video comes with interactive captions you can click for an instant definition and native pronunciation of any word. You’ll also see what form all verbs are in and FluentU will point you to other videos that use the word, so you’ll know how to use it in any context.

The videos are organized by genre and learning level, making it easy to find something that works for you. Since you choose what videos to watch and how to explore the vocabulary, it’s a flexible but personalized language tool. You can start exploring the video library for free with a FluentU trial.

If you were a glutton for more conditional punishment, you could find plenty of additional resources online both in English and in Italian for continuing your studies. For example, you could practice its conjugation with this online worksheet. And the very best bet would be the textbook “Soluzioni: A Practical Grammar of Contemporary Italian” by Denise de Rome (it’s a bit expensive, but as it’s often updated for university classes, the just-as-lovely older and cheaper editions are easy to come by).

 

I hope you’ve had a lovely jaunt through the Italian conditional. But if not, you could at least now gripe in Italian about this article and its writer, and what you would say if you were to write it yourself.


Mose Hayward blogs while bouncing around Europe, often trying to convince other backpackers to opt for wheels, for gosh sakes.

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