The Infamous Italian Subjunctive: A User’s Manual

The Italian subjunctive, known as il congiuntivo , is used to talk about hopes, fears, doubts and other unreal vagaries.

Using the subjunctive correctly comes with some challenges, but can make all the difference in your fluency.

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.

Contents

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.

All you have to do is remove the final –o from that io conjugation and add the subjunctive –are, ere and –ire endings.

For example, let’s take strizzare  (to squeeze, to wink) as our —are verb and vivere  (to live) as our –ere / –ire verb. The io present indicative form of strizzare is strizzo , while the io present indicative form of vivere is vivo .

Here’s how you’d turn them into their present subjunctive forms:

PronounStrizzoVivo
I Io strizzi
I squeeze
Io viva
I live
You (informal singular) Tu strizzi
You squeeze
Tu viva
You live
He Lui strizzi
He squeezes
Lui viva
He lives
She / You (formal singular) Lei strizzi
She / You squeeze
Lei viva  
She / You live
You (plural) Voi strizziate
You squeeze
Voi viviate
You live
We Noi strizziamo
We squeeze
Noi viviamo  
We live
They Loro strizzino  
They squeeze
Loro vivano
They live

For convenience’s sake, I lumped together the “lei” which refers to the third-person singular pronoun for women and the “Lei” which refers to the formal second-person pronoun that means “you,” since their corresponding present subjunctive verbs are similar. However, I should note that the “lei” that means “she” is often written with a lowercase “L” (except when starting a sentence), while the “Lei” that also means “you” is written with an uppercase “L.”

Memorization shortcuts for –are verbs:

  • All regular —are verbs are conjugated as above to form the subjunctive present.
  • The tu and the noi subjunctive –are forms wind up being identical to their indicative forms for regular verbs.

Memorization shortcuts for –ere and –ire verbs:

  • The endings are identical across regular –ere and –ire verbs. 
  • 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. For example, in the sentence “ Strizzo lo straccio  (I squeeze the rag),” you can use “Strizzo” by itself without the io because it’s obvious from the verb form that the subject is “I.” But in a sentence like “ Mi pare che lei mi strizzi l’occhio  (I think she winks at me),” you say 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 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 the verbs andare (to go), bere (to drink), potere  (to be able to), venire  (to come) and uscire  (to go out), for example. Their respective io forms would be vado , bevo , posso , vengo and esco .

Here’s what their present subjunctive verb forms would look like:

PronounVadoBevoPossoVengoEsco
I Io vada
I go
Io beva
I drink
Io possa
I can
Io venga
I come
Io esca
I go out
You (informal singular) Tu vada
You go
Tu beva
You drink
Tu possa
You can
Tu venga
You come
Tu esca
You go out
He Lui vada
He goes
Lui beva
He drinks
Lui possa
He can
Lui venga
He comes
Lui esca
He goes out
She / You (formal singular) Lei vada
She / You go
Lei beva
She / You drink
Lei possa
She / You can
Lei venga
She / You come
Lei esca
She / You go out
You (plural) Voi andiate  
You go
Voi beviate
You drink
Voi possiate
You can
Voi veniate
You come
Voi usciate
You go out
We Noi andiamo  
We go
Noi beviamo
We drink
Noi possiamo
We can
Noi veniamo
We come
Noi usciamo
We go out
They Loro vadano
They go
Loro bevano
They drink
Loro possano
They can
Loro vengano
They come
Loro escano
They go out

As you can see, 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. 

The five big verbs to learn that don’t follow any of the already noted subjunctive patterns are avere (to have), essere (to be), dare (to give), sapere (to know) and stare  (to stay). 

PronounAvere (To have)Essere (To be)Dare (To give)Sapere (To know)Stare (To stay)
I Io abbia
I have
Io sia
I am
Io dia
I give
Io sappia
I know
Io stia
I stay
You (informal singular) Tu abbia
You have
Tu sia
You are
Tu dia
You give
Tu sappia
You know
Tu stia
You stay
He Lui abbia
He has
Lui sia
He is
Lui dia
He gives
Lui sappia
He knows
Lui stia
He stays
She / You (formal singular) Lei abbia
She / You have
Lei sia
She / You are
Lei dia
She / You give
Lei sappia
She / You know
Lei stia
She / You stay
You (plural) Voi abbiate
You have
Voi siate
You are
Voi diate
You give
Voi sappiate
You know
Voi stiate
You stay
We Noi abbiamo
We have
Noi siamo
We are
Noi diamo
We give
Noi sappiamo
We know
Noi stiamo
We stay
They Loro abbiano
They have
Loro siano
They are
Loro diano
They give
Loro sappiano
They know
Loro stiano
They stay

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.

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.

When to Use 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!

Lei pensa che gli studenti siano ancora sul treno. — She thinks that the students are still on the train

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. 

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.

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 are in my home.

While the above sentences are correct, many 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 cannot 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:

Cosa stanno facendo adesso? — What are they doing now?

Mi pare che stiano bevendo 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.

If, on the other hand, you are thinking about offering someone something to drink or you want to give someone a gift, you can say:

Cosa possiamo regalare ai suoi genitori? — What can we give to his parents?

Mi pare che loro bevano grappa. I think they drink grappa.

Okay, prendiamo una bottiglia. — Okay, let’s buy a bottle.

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 is 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.

When to Avoid the Present Subjunctive

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.

 

If you’ve made it this far, 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, like in online lessons. This 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.

Another good way to practice the subjunctive is to watch real media. By this I mean the types of TV shows, interviews, music videos and documentaries that native Italians actually watch. This way, you can get a feel for when and how subjunctive appears “in the wild.”

This is the basis of the FluentU language learning program.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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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!

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