When I think back on travels through Italy, I’m bound to remember feelings.
Mouthwatering desire for a piece of cheese, wistful affection for a Neapolitan, excruciating misery at the train station, drunk…
And when I want to discuss my feelings and doubts about those bygone times in Italian?
Then I’ll need to get out my subjunctive past tenses.
This is a useful but fittingly frightful grammar topic. The subjunctive is a “grammatical mood” for talking about things doubted or felt, and within that category there are various tenses. If you’re reading this, you’ll hopefully have already mastered the Italian present subjunctive tense.
Now, in the present article, we’ll be looking in depth at three Italian past subjunctive tenses: the perfect subjunctive, the imperfect subjunctive and the pluperfect subjunctive.
It should go without saying that you need to already really know the indicative mood (“regular”) past tenses in Italian—those are much more immediately useful and will help you understand what’s happening in the subjunctive.
And if you’re more of a beginner I’d suggest first gaining comfort with present tense regular and irregular verbs, commands and basic vocabulary you’re likely to need on your first trips.
Still here, advanced Italian learners? Now let me pile on just a little more discouragement!
Italian speakers themselves are pretty shaky with the subjunctive, not to mention the past subjunctive. So usage patterns are far from firmly established compared to other tenses, and what one Italian expert might feel is “correct” may not seem so to another. Particularly in speech, Italians are actually prone to giving up on the past subjunctive and just applying other tenses.
That said, these tenses are all in at least some use by Italians and considered a part of speaking the language correctly.
As a foreigner, employing them can gain you compliments, and they do have some genuine expressive power as well, providing nuance about the unreality or emotionality you shade over your past adventures.
In this article, we’ll first cover the conjugations of the three tenses, and then we’ll have a large section on how to use them.
Rearview Italian: Powering Through the Past Subjunctive
Formation of the Italian Past Subjunctive Tenses
The perfect, imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive look similar in some ways to their indicative-mood counterparts, so keep those in mind as you progress.
Formation of the Perfect Subjunctive
The perfect subjunctive is like the Italian passato prossimo except that the helper verbs (essere and avere) are used in their subjunctive present tense forms.
Just a reminder, for avere those forms are:
abbia, abbia, abbia, abbiamo, abbiate, abbiano
And for essere:
sia, sia, sia, siamo, siate, siano
Just as with the indicative passato prossimo, the choice of avere or essere depends on the main verb; you’ll make the same choice in the perfect subjunctive.
Once we have our helper verb, we add the standard past participle of the main verb.
This gives us perfect subjunctive formations like:
che io abbia scoperto — that I discovered
che tu abbia parlato — that you (informal) spoke
che voi abbiate avuto — that you (plural) had
che noi siamo andate — that we (a group of women) went
As you can see above, past participles (like scoperto and avuto) that are irregular in the indicative passato prossimo are likewise so in the subjunctive. And the participles also modify according to the same rules as well (as we see with andate).
Formation of the Imperfect Subjunctive
The imperfect subjunctive is the trickiest of the three in terms of conjugations. It corresponds in the indicative to the past imperfect.
For regular imperfect subjunctive verbs, you can remove endings of the infinitives and add the following endings.
For –are verbs like ridestare (to reawaken):
che io ridestassi
che tu ridestassi
che lui / lei / Lei ridestasse
che noi ridestassimo
che voi ridestaste
che loro ridestassero
For -ere verbs like vedere (to see):
che io vedessi
che tu vedessi
che lui / lei / Lei vedesse
che noi vedessimo
che voi vedeste
che loro vedessero
For –ire verbs like starnutire (to sneeze):
che io starnutissi
che tu starnutissi
che lui / lei / Lei starnutisse
che noi starnutissimo
che voi starnutiste
che loro starnutissero
As a shortcut for memorization purposes, note that the imperfect subjunctive endings above are identical across all verb types except for the initial a, e or i of the ending.
Note that the io and tu forms are identical for each verb. It can thus be necessary to use the subject pronouns for clarity more than you would with other tenses.
There are also, unfortunately, irregular imperfect subjunctive verbs. With the exception of essere (to be), they take the –ere imperfect subjunctive endings above. And most often, the stem is the same as the stem of the past imperfect io form.
So for fare (to do, to make) we have io facevo in the past imperfect, and then adding the –ere imperfect subjunctive endings we get:
che io facessi
che tu facessi
che lui / lei / Lei facesse
che noi facessimo
che voi faceste
che loro facessero
The verbs dare (to give) and stare (to be) follow the same formula, as do verbs with contracted infinitives. (Note that the conjugations of stare can also serve as the base for yet another tense, the imperfect continuous subjunctive: che io stessi parlando (that I was speaking), etc. That forms the subjunctive that corresponds to the imperfect continuous indicative.
The true weirdo irregular verb in this tense is essere (to be):
che io fossi
che tu fossi
che lui / lei / Lei fosse
che noi fossimo
che voi foste
che loro fossero
Formation of the Pluperfect Subjunctive
To form the pluperfect subjunctive, you’ll follow the pattern of the passato prossimo but use the imperfect subjunctive of avere or essere as your helper verbs.
It’s easier than it might sound.
The avere helper verb thus becomes:
avessi, avessi, avesse, avessimo, aveste, avessero
And as we saw, essere becomes:
fossi, fossi, fosse, fossimo, foste and fossero
The choices of avere vs. essere are as usual, and the past participles are the same as with the passato prossimo (whether regular or irregular).
To use the same example verbs as we saw with the perfect subjunctive, we thus get:
che io avessi scoperto — that I had discovered
che tu avessi parlato — that you (informal) had spoken
che voi aveste avuto — that you (plural) had had
che noi fossimo andate — that we (a group of women) had gone
Uses of the Italian Past Subjunctive Tenses
The conditions for triggering the past subjunctive are quite similar to those for the present subjunctive: talking about doubts, feelings and unreality.
The past subjunctive tenses, however, tend to often carry some sort of past—or at least “previous”—meaning.
As we go through some uses of the subjunctive tenses below, you’ll get an idea of contexts in which they might be used, but it’s up to you to keep practicing to make the usage really stick. One of the best ways you can do this (aside from talking to native speakers) is with authentic content, like the videos on FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons, as you can see here:
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At the end of this post, we’ll touch on some additional ways to practice.
Feelings and Doubts
Past Doubts and Feelings About the Past
To start, let’s see how the perfect subjunctive (the subjunctive counterpart to the passato prossimo) can be used when indicating past doubts and feelings about past events. In these cases, the feeling or doubt tends to have occurred at the same (past) time as the event in question.
È stata una delusione che il sottomarino sia esploso. — It was a let-down that (when) the submarine exploded.
Mi è dispiaciuto che abbiano rinviato la convocazione per mercoledì. — I was sorry that (when) they delayed the summons to Wednesday.
Present Doubts and Feelings About the Past
Now let’s look at some uses for the perfect subjunctive to indicate current doubts and feelings about past events.
È deprimente che lo scrittore abbia guadagnato così poco per un articolo. — It is depressing that the writer earned so little for an article.
Temo che loro abbiano già deciso. — I fear that they have already decided.
Credo che l’inverno passato lui sia venuto a Firenze. — I believe that last winter he came to Florence.
Non credo che lui abbia tenuto un comportamento professionale alla riunione. — I don’t believe that he behaved professionally at the meeting.
Penso che lei non mi abbia mai amato. — I think that she never loved me.
Credo che lei mi abbia tradito. — I believe that she cheated on me.
But in contrast also note that when talking about present feelings about past events, phrases are often instead formulated with perché (because) and in other ways that don’t lead to a dependent past subjunctive clause. Then, the indicative past tenses are used instead, as in the following examples.
Sono arrabbiato perché l’inverno passato lui non è venuto a Firenze. — I’m angry that last winter he didn’t come to Florence.
Va meglio ora che ci siamo imbacuccati. Fa freddo! — It’s better now that we got bundled up. It’s cold!
The perfect subjunctive can be used with some conditional phrases in the main clause as well, in order to express doubts about past events.
Potrebbe essere che abbiano bucato. — It could be that they got a flat tire.
Future Doubts and Feelings
But it’s not all just about the past! The perfect subjunctive can be used to talk about future doubts and feelings concerning an event or situation that will have happened previously, or may not exist.
Cercherò una stanza che non sia già stata affittata. — I will look for a room that hasn’t already been rented out. (We’re talking about a room whose existence may be imaginary.)
Sceglieremo una sceneggiatura che lei non abbia già letto. — We will select a film script that she has not already read.
Feelings and Doubts About the Hazy, Undefined Past
Moving on, the imperfect subjunctive corresponds pretty neatly to the indicative past imperfect and is thus used to talk about our feelings and doubts about pasts with hazier, incomplete, undefined ends.
Ho avuto l’impressione che facessero la spesa. — I had the impression that they were doing the shopping (in the supermarket).
Non vedevo l’ora che arrivasse il mio nuovo zaino con le ruote! — I couldn’t wait until my new backpack with wheels would arrive.
Era divertente che ci fossero tanti altri ballerini nel nostro albergo. — It was fun that there were so many other dancers in our hotel.
Quando ho sentito il tuono, pensavo che iniziasse a piovere. — I believed that it was starting to rain when I heard the thunder.
Era sconfortante il fatto che non sentissero bene il cantante. — It was depressing that they couldn’t hear the singer well.
Note in the above examples that the main (feelings-or-doubts) clause was generally happening at around the same time or before the action in the imperfect subjunctive clause.
Feelings and Doubts About Past Events Occurring at Different Times
But if we’re talking about past feelings and doubts about something that had happened even before that, we’ll instead want to employ the pluperfect subjunctive. Contrast for example the following sentences; the first uses the imperfect subjunctive and the second uses the pluperfect subjunctive.
Lui disapprovava che io fumassi. — He disapproved of me smoking. (He was giving me the stink eye while I was smoking, or my smoking was an ongoing thing at that time that he disapproved of.)
Lui disapprovava che io avessi fumato. — He disapproved of the fact that I had smoked. (He returned to the house to find that I had been smoking before he got in, for example.)
Finally, and rather incidentally, to emphasize the ongoing nature of a past smoking problem, many Italian speakers may also be inclined to just employ the imperfect indicative, which of course emphasizes ongoing, uncompleted actions.
Lui disapprovava che io fumavo. — He disapproved of the fact that I used to be a smoker.
This contrast between tenses can be used to help distinguish the order of past events.
Sembrava che non mandasse lo zaino fino a quando lui gli avesse fatto il bonifico bancario. — It seemed (at a time in the past) that they weren’t sending the backpack (at this same point in the past) until he had made the bank transfer (at a time in the past even before that).
Sembrava che non avessero mandato lo zaino fino a quando lui gli avesse fatto il bonifico bancario. — It seemed (at a time in the past) that they had not sent the backpack until after he had made the bank transfer (both of these at points in the past even before that).
If that gives you a headache, here’s a simpler pluperfect subjunctive example of past-before-past-doubts to clear the air:
Non sapevo che fossero tornati dalla Serbia. — I didn’t know that they had returned from Serbia.
Unreal or Hypothetical Situations
The imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive tenses can also be used in ways that don’t actually suggest the past, but rather a hypothetical situation. Fortunately, we sometimes have quite parallel constructions in English, so this shouldn’t seem so strange. To learn these, it helps to recognize some of the trigger words (bolded below) that are used to set up hypothetical situations, and memorize the structures with some simple examples.
I’ve employed some rather awkward, overly literal English translations below, I know, but I hope they help give a sense of what each part of the Italian phrase is doing.
Magari fosse così semplice. — If only it were so simple. (This could well refer to the present—but a hypothetical one.)
Magari io potessi venire in Brasile! — If only I could come to Brazil!
Caso mai lui non fosse ancora arrivato, lascia i pacchi alla sorella. — In the case that he had not yet arrived, leave the packages with his sister.
Caso mai io non trovassi una stanza, andremo in albergo. — In the case that I wasn’t finding a room, we will stay in a hotel.
Anche se lei si fosse svegliata, non aiuterebbe. — Even if she woke up, she wouldn’t help.
Comportati come se non sapessi niente! — Behave as if you know nothing!
Also for hypothetical effect, the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives can be coupled with a clause in the present conditional, in order to present an “if-then” fictional situation.
Parleremmo di tutto se fossero a loro agio con la sessualità. — We would talk about everything if they were comfortable with sexuality.
An imperfect or pluperfect subjunctive clause can also be coupled with a past conditional clause to talk about unreal past hypotheticals and their unreal results.
Mi sarebbe piaciuto che avessi colto le prugne dall’albero. — I would have liked it if you had picked the prunes from the tree.
Practicing the Italian Past Subjunctive Tenses on Your Own
Ready to give this all a go?
Good old-fashioned flashcards are brilliant for memorizing, and you can check any past subjunctive conjugations that aren’t in this article using WordReference’s Italian conjugator.
Also: I love and recommend “Soluzioni: A Practical Grammar of Contemporary Italian” for coming to grips with the use of these tenses.
But nothing beats just trying them out with language exchange partners, whether you find them in your neck of the woods or online.
Or just pay a teacher for classes and have them suffer your feelings for the past. Verbling is a great resource you can sign up for right now to find an online Italian teacher who fits your specifications and who can give you lessons right on the site.
Don’t try to tackle all of these tenses at once. Pick one at a time, and focus on the uses and trigger words that lead to that tense. What can you discuss about your own feelings about past events? What doubts do you have about the past? What hypothetical situations can you dream up? What “if-then” scenarios are relevant to your life at the moment?
After a while the conjugations will start to flow, and you’ll be able to avoid taking that dreaded long pause as you lurch towards the past subjunctive clause. Instead, you’ll just be focused on the hopefully lovely feelings about your past adventures.
Mose Hayward blogs travel tips for Italy and the world, including large wheeled backpacks for European travel.
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