italian-subjunctive

The Infamous Italian Subjunctive: A User’s Manual

Feeling overwhelmed by the Italian subjunctive?

This bit of grammar, known as il congiuntivo, is used to talk about hopes, fears, doubts and other unreal vagaries.

To make matters even more nebulous, it’s quite a fraught subject—even for Italians!

So what are you, a poor language learner, to do when it comes time to approach this monster?

Should you even bother?

To be completely honest, you could skip over the subjunctive and still have a fine (life)time in Italy chatting up locals in bars, enjoying fine seafood

You might even fall in love, get hitched and live out the rest of your days in the country without ever using the subjunctive, should you so choose. People would understand your subjunctive-free Italian just fine in almost all cases.

Unlike in sister languages Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, the Italian use of the subjunctive is a bit more limited (as in French), and Italians are tending to use it less and less over the generations. In particular, less “educated” speakers use it less.

All that said, the subjunctive does remain in use by all speakers in at least a few situations, so using it yourself will help you sound more like a native and help you communicate a bit more accurately.

And the rest of the time, using the subjunctive correctly makes you, especially as a foreigner, seem smart. I can’t tell you how many times my correct use of the subjunctive has led to compliments of my Italian over the years (and helped people overlook my wayward flailings for the correct preposition).

So let’s take a careful look at the present subjunctive: how it’s formed and when to use it.

Before tackling this post, you should have a very good handle on your present tense irregular verbs and an intermediate level of Italian in general.

Don’t worry, there’s hope for you yet.

The Infamous Italian Subjunctive: A User’s Manual

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Formation of the Italian Present Subjunctive

The reason you first want to completely master the indicative present tense (the “regular” or “normal” present tense) is that we can form the present subjunctive by starting with the io form of the present indicative.

Let’s skip parlare (to speak) for once and use a more fun regular verb as our guinea pig: strizzare (to squeeze, to wink). We’ll take the io present indicative form as we might see in a sentence like:

Strizzo lo straccio. — I wring out the rag.

The next step is to remove the final –o from that io conjugation and add the subjunctive –are endings as follows:

io strizzi — I squeeze
tu strizzi — you (informal singular) squeeze
lui / lei / Lei strizzi — he / she / you (formal singular) squeeze
noi strizziamo — we squeeze
voi strizziate — you (plural) squeeze
loro strizzino — they squeeze

The above bolded endings are applied to all regular –are verbs to form the subjunctive present.

Here’s a memorization shortcut for –are verbs: Note that the tu and the noi subjunctive –are forms wind up being identical to their indicative forms for regular verbs.

Here’s how we might use such a subjunctive form in a sentence:

Mi pare che lei mi strizzi l’occhio. — I think she winks at me.

For ere and –ire verbs the process is similar; we’ll use as an example a verb that you’ve already undoubtedly seen in the subjunctive: vivere (to live).

We take the present tense indicative io form: vivo (I live).

We again remove the final –o and add the subjunctive –ere and –ire endings as follows:

io viva — I live
tu viva — you (informal singular) live
lui / lei / Lei viva — he / she / you (formal singular) live
noi viviamo — we live
voi viviate — you (plural) live
loro vivano they live

Here’s how one of these subjunctive forms might be used in a sentence that might seem familiar:

Viva Napoli! — May Naples live! / Long live Naples!

Memorization shortcuts for –ere and –ire verbs:

  • Note especially that the endings are identical across regular –ere and –ire verbs. I’m a nice guy, so I don’t list these verb types separately, as your grammar book probably does.
  • The noi forms of the –ere and –ire verbs are identical to their present tense indicative forms.
  • The voi forms for all subjunctive verbs (–are, –ere, –ire) end in –iate.

Nice, huh? But there are two gross wrinkles to be aware of with the regular subjunctive present tense:

  • As you’ve previously seen with many other conjugations (like the simple future in Italian), spelling changes are sometimes necessary to maintain the sounds at the end of stems. With the subjunctive present, verbs ending in –care and –gare get an H to maintain their hard Cs and Gs, so pagare (to pay) becomes io paghi, etc. And verbs ending in –ciare and –giare drop that extra, unneeded I, so that lasciare (to let) becomes io lasci, etc.
  • Notice how the io, tu and lui / lei / Lei forms are all the same for each particular verb? This could lead to some confusion, so you need to use more pronouns in subjunctive singular sentences than you might in the indicative. This is evident in my strizzare examples above, where I wrote “Strizzo” by itself without the io because it’s obvious from the verb form that the subject is “I,” but in my subjunctive sentence I wrote lei mi strizzi,” because otherwise how would you know who was doing the winking?

Irregular Present Subjunctive Verbs in Italian

There are a number of irregular subjunctive Italian verbs; basically anything that’s irregular in the indicative tense that you’ve already learned is also going to be irregular in the subjunctive.

The good news is that for a number of them you can follow the rules above to find many of the subjunctive forms. Let’s take a very common verb, andare (to go), as our example. We know that the io form of the present tense indicative is vado (I go).

We can sort of follow our rules above and use that irregular stem without the –o on the end (vad–) to get some of the subjunctive conjugations:

io vada — I go
tu vadayou (informal singular) go
lui / lei / Lei vada — he / she / you (formal singular) go

loro vadanothey go

Notice I skipped over two pronouns? That’s because they don’t follow this pattern for andare, but rather take a cue from their indicative forms:

noi andiamo — we go
voi andiate — you (plural) go

The noi forms for irregular verbs are very likely to have stems resembling the indicative rather than the other subjunctive forms. The voi forms are a bit of a toss-up; they may resemble either the indicative voi or the other subjunctive stems. Other irregular verbs in this mold include bere (to drink), potere (to be able to), venire (to come) and uscire (to go out).

If you really want to get your irregular subjunctive conjugations down right, I suggest making paper flashcards or the electronic version: an Anki deck.

WordReference has a built-in Italian conjugator that can give you all of the subjunctive conjugations for any verb.

The five big verbs to learn that don’t follow any of the already noted subjunctive patterns are:

These are unfortunately some of the most common verbs in Italian and so also the ones that you’re most likely to come across in the subjunctive.

An Overview of When to Use (and Avoid!) the Present Subjunctive

The Italian indicative mood tells about the world as it is, whether we’re talking about the past, the present or the future:

Ho fatto tutto per amore. — I did everything for love.

Piango tutti i giorni per Raffaella. — I cry every day for Raffaella.

Prenderó il treno domani. — I’ll take the train tomorrow.

The basic idea of the subjunctive is that it’s used to talk about situations that are unreal, uncertain or that we have feelings about. Often the “setup” of the sentence, or main clause, is in the indicative and the less-real secondary clause is in the subjunctive. In these cases the two clauses must have different subjects for the subjunctive to be triggered.

Che peccato che lei sia lontana da me! — It’s awful that she is far from me!

È difficile che noi siamo insieme in febbraio. — It’s unlikely that we’ll be together in February.

In this section, we’ll go into depth on exactly what kinds of unrealities and feelings prompt the subjunctive in Italian. Pay particular attention to which words in the main clause trigger subjunctive use in the second. But first we need to also look at when the subjunctive is not used.

As I noted in the introduction, many Italians, especially those who are less traditionally educated, avoid the subjunctive and employ the indicative even when the subjunctive is considered “correct.” And Italians who grow up speaking the other languages of Italy (often annoyingly disparaged as “dialects”) tend to apply the Italian subjunctive more haphazardly.

The subjunctive is more often used by educated Italians and particularly by Italians who wish to show that they are educated, making it a bit of a class or status marker. The kind of person who liberally employs the subjunctive in Italian may be like the kind of person who thinks they know how to correctly use “whom” or “literally” in English.

As we’ll see in some of the examples below, the present subjunctive and indicative (present and especially the future tense) can sometimes be interchangeable. But since the subjunctive denotes uncertainty, it can also give a shade of uncertainty or unreality to a phrase that would sound more concrete in the indicative.

If, like many learners, you’re coming to Italian after having studied Spanish (or Portuguese or Catalan), note that while the general concept is the same, the same markers for the subjunctive often don’t apply in Italian.

In rare cases, Italian experts disagree about exactly which uses “require” the subjunctive in order to be “correct.” We’ll try as much as possible to stick to the clear-cut cases here.

Feelings

The subjunctive is used when you want to express feelings about something that’s happening.

Loro temono che voi non siate fedeli. — They fear that you are not faithful.

Sono contento che lei balli con me. — I’m happy that she is dancing with me.

Che bello che tu sia da me! — It’s so great that you’re in my home.

While the above sentences are correct, many, perhaps most, Italians would use the indicative, particularly with tu and essere, so they’re likely to say “che sei da me.”

Believing, Thinking, Seeming, Doubts, Uncertainty, Indefinite Situations

When you’re talking about something that may or may not be actually the way that things are, it’s very likely that you’ll trigger the subjunctive. Here are some of the cases in which that happens.

Credo che piova oggi a Napoli. — I believe that it’s raining today in Naples.

Ritengo che la sindaca non possa fare peggio di quello che fa. — I believe / I’m convinced (this verb is a little stronger than pensare/credere) that the (female) mayor can’t do worse than what she is doing.

È facile che noi siamo a San Paolo in febbraio. — It’s probable that we will be in São Paulo in February.

È difficile che lei faccia un buon caffè. — It’s unlikely that she will make a good coffee.

È difficile che quella squadra perda una partita. — It’s unlikely that the team will lose a game.

Mi pare che loro bevano grappa. — It seems to me they’re (probably) drinking grappa.

The above sentence is the “correct” form grammatically—but also gives us a chance to see some possible shades in meaning with the subjunctive. Many Italians would also say it using the indicative form of bere:

Mi pare che loro bevono grappa. — I think they’re drinking grappa.

Said with this (“incorrect”) indicative, it sounds much more certain that they’re actually drinking the fine Italian beverage, and also that this drinking is happening in the here-and-now.

Purpose, Exceptions and Contradictions

The Italian equivalents of “so that,” “in order to,” “unless,” “except for” and similar phrases trigger the subjunctive.

Cerco informazioni sui treni così che non vi perdiate domani. — I’m looking for information on the trains so that you will not get lost tomorrow.

Vado a Roma a meno che la carta di credito non funzioni. — I’m going to Rome unless the credit card doesn’t work.

Mangiamo fuori a meno che non piova. — We eat outside as long as it doesn’t rain.

Affinché tu possa parlare bene italiano, devi studiare. — In order for you to be able to speak Italian, you must study.

Concessions

When you need to discuss concessions or conditions, the subjunctive can be used.

Nonostante Raffaella mi ami, mi tortura. — Although Raffaella loves me, she tortures me.

Nel bene o nel male purché se ne parli. — [Saying] Any publicity is good publicity. (More literally: “In the good or the bad, provided it’s spoken of.”)

Wishes and Orders

The subjunctive can be used as a more round-about way of wishing, hoping or giving orders in Italian.

Ci auguriamo che lei cucini per noi. — We hope that she will cook for us.

Bisogna che io sia in ufficio alle 10:00. — It’s necessary that I be in the office at 10:00.

Non vedo l’ora che venga questo cantante in Europa. — I can’t wait for this singer to come to Europe.

Certain Time Expressions

There are a few particular expressions of time that trigger the subjunctive.

È ora che tu cresca! — It’s time for you to grow up!

È ora che tu vada. — It’s time for you to go.

È ora che si guadagni di più. — It’s time that one earns more. (Note that the subject changes grammatically, so the subjunctive is still triggered.)

Prima che tu vada, voglio darti un consiglio. — Before you go, I want to give you advice.

Prima che sia troppo tardi, voglio bere un caffè. — Before it’s too late, I want to drink a coffee.

Antecedents

In some situations, antecedents (that is, referring back to an earlier clause) can trigger the subjunctive.

One is when you’re talking about unspecified/unknown (perhaps fictional) things or people.

Ho bisogno di trovare un appartamento che abbia due camere. — I need to find an apartment that has two bedrooms.

Contrast that with when the antecedent is a known and actual thing and you use the indicative.

Ho un appartamento che ha due camere. — I have an apartment that has two bedrooms.

The second antecedent situation to worry about is when you’re using superlatives (even if you’re talking about a specific, real person).

Lui è il ragazzo più permaloso che conosca. — He is the touchiest/crankiest guy that I know.

Finally, antecedents trigger the subjunctive when preceded by interrogatives (“question words”). Here’s an example with come (how).

Non so come lei abbia l’audacia di fare questo. — I don’t know how she has the audacity to do this.

Talking About the Future

Often when you’re talking about the future you can use the present subjunctive or the future indicative interchangeably. For example, you could say the following in the subjunctive:

Spero che vengano. — I hope that they come.

Or you could equally correctly say it with the future indicative:

Spero che verranno. — I hope that they (will) come.

Finally, many Italians would “incorrectly” just use the indicative present to say the same thing:

Spero che vengono. — I hope that they come.

Exclamations / “May It…”

Unlike most of the examples we’ve seen previously, it’s possible to use the subjunctive in the main clause in exclamations or with “may it be so” sorts of ideas.

For example, a boss might say of an employee:

Che lui esca pure prima di quanto dovrebbe, non mi interessa. — May he leave earlier than he should (is required/expected to); it doesn’t matter to me.

In this sentence, pure reinforces the stated indifference.

Here’s another example:

Che vengano alla festa se vogliono. — May they come to the party if they want to.

The “Viva Napoli!” interjection we saw earlier is also an example of this type of use.

 

If you’ve made it this far, you poor thing, you should be more than ready to try using the subjunctive to talk about your own hopes, fears and doubts about various situations. It can be useful to start by using the same constructions that you’ve seen previously trigger the subjunctive and apply them to situations in your own life.

Since these are usually going to be complex sentences, it can help to start by practicing writing and asking a trusted, educated Italian who knows their subjunctive well to correct it, for example in online lessonsthis is one time when it’s worth paying for a real pro.

Verbling is an online platform that makes it easy to find a qualified Italian teacher to help you out. You can even have your virtual lessons right there on the site, so the whole process is smooth and simple.

Your tutor can also help you try to employ the same patterns in speech.

The less-than-clearly-delineated usage patterns of the subjunctive can make this a frustrating area to study, but never forget that Italians can find it just as unfathomable.

Do your best with it, and they’ll undoubtedly be impressed—you may even end up using it more “correctly” than they do!


Mose Hayward writes about the horrors of Italian grammar and of using Italian trains in an effort to win sympathy so that a certain Neapolitan femme fatale will one day love him.

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