The Past Conditional in Italian Explained
In Italian, there is a present conditional and a past conditional.
The key difference between the present conditional and the past conditional is that the first comprises one element, and the second includes two elements, (the auxiliary and the past participle. The auxiliary will be the present conditional of “avere” or “essere”, according to the verb.
In this context:
“farei” is a present conditional and it means I’d do, I would do
“avrei fatto” is a past conditional and it means I would have done,
The Present Conditional and The Past Conditional?
What’s the difference between present conditional and past conditional?
As the names suggest, the present conditional describes a situation that might or not happen in the present, today, or in general.
- Al posto tuo, comprerei una nuova macchina – In your place, I would buy a new car
Instead, the past conditional describes a situation that might have happened in the past (yesterday, last week, or 10 years ago) but didn’t, and you can’t change it.
- 10 anni fa, avrei comprato una casa a Roma ma non avevo soldi – 10 years ago I would have bought a home in Rome, but I didn’t have enough money.
How to construct the Past Conditional conjugations
The past conditional is always a combination of two elements: an auxiliary and past participle. The auxiliary, as in any other compound tense (e.g. the passato prossimo) can be essere or avere. In this case, we’ll use the present conditional of the auxiliaries + the past particple.
INFINITIVE Present Conditional [IT] Present Conditional [ENG] Past Conditional [IT] Past Conditional [ENG]
mangiare mangerei I would eat avrei mangiato I would have eaten
fare farei I would do avrei fatto I would have done
andare andrei I would go serei andato/a I would have gone
dovere dovrei I should avrei dovuto
I should have
potere potrei II could avrei potuto I could have
volere vorrei I would like avrei voluto I would have liked
Generally speaking, the Italian past conditional corresponds to the English use of would have + any verb.
The past conditional can be referred too as a “compound conditional” (condizionale composto) because it combines two elements: an auxiliary and a past participle.
The Past Conditional of ESSERE and AVERE
The first one is irregular, the second is regular.
Past conditional of "ESSERE" Past conditional of "AVERE" sarei stato/a I would have been avrei avuto I would have had
saresti stato/a you would have been avresti avuto you would have had
sarebbe stato/a he/she/it would have been avrebbe avuto he/she/it would have had
saremmo stati/e we would have been avremmo avuto we would have had
sareste stati/e you would have been avreste avuto you would have had
sarebbero stati/e they would have been avrebbero avuto they would have had
Functions of the Past Conditional in Italian?
The past conditional is used to:
1. Say what you would have done if…
- Se avessi avuto più tempo, sarei andata in palestra – If I had more time, I would have gone to the gym
2. Say what you should or shouldn’t have done or what you could or couldn’t have done, with the use of the modal verbs dovere (must) and potere (can)
- avrei dovuto studiare di più, ma non ho avuto tempo – I should have studied more, but I didn’t have time
- avrei dovuto fare una dieta, ma ero in vacanza – I should have been on a diet, but I was on vacation
- avrei potuto chiamarlo, ma non l‘ho fatto – I could have called him, but I didn’t
3. To say I wish or I would have liked
- avrei voluto viaggiare di più da giovane – I wish I had traveled more when I was younger
4. to express the future in the past
- mi ha chiamato per dirmi che non sarebbe venuta – She called me to say that she wouldn’t come
IF I WOULD HAVE: the Past Conditional with the “if clause“
We use the past conditional with the congiuntivo trapassato (perfect subjunctive) to say something that what we would have done if . We are describing something that might have happened in the past under certain circumstances, but eventually didn’t. This is also called “periodo ipotetico di terzo tipo“
- Se avessi avuto più soldi, mi sarei iscritta ad una migliore università – If I had more money, I would have applied to a better school
- Se avessi avuto più tempo, avrei praticato più sport – If I had more money, I would have exercised more
I SHOULD HAVE DONE or I COULD HAVE DONE: The Past Conditional with dovere and potere
For a start, we call modal verbs are dovere, potere, volere. We call them “modal” because, grammar-wise, they have a lot in common. For instance, they are always followed by an infinitive verb.
So, when they are used with the past conditional, to say what one should have done, or could have done, just like in English, they comprise three elements: the auxiliary of the present conditional + past participle of the modal verb* + infinitive verb
- Avresti dovuto studiare di più → you should have studied more
- Avresti potuto chiamarlo → you could have called him
- Avremmo voluto viaggiare di più → we would have liked travelling more or we wish we travelled more
How to choose the correct auxiliary with modal verbs?
A special note goes to choosing the correct auxiliary with the modal verbs in the past conditional.
When thinking of what auxiliary to use, you should look at the modal verb’s infinitive.
Let’s say the verb dovere is followed by andare, then the correct auxiliary to use is essere.
If the verb “fare” follows dovere, the correct auxiliary to use is avere.
- Sarei dovuto andare in palestra, ma non ci sono andata – I should have gone to the gym, but I didn’t
- Avrei dovuto fare i compiti, ma non li ho fatti – I should have done my homework, but I didn’t
If the auxiliary verb is essere, you should make sure that the modal verb’s past participle agrees with the gender and number of the subject.
I should have gone → sarei dovuto/a andare
We could have gone → saremmo potuti/e andare
I would have liked to go → sarei voluto/a andare
I should have traveled → avrei dovuto viaggiare
I could have traveled → avrei potuto viaggiare
I would have liked to travel → avrei potuto viaggiare
I WISH: the Past Conditional of “piacere” & “volere”
The past conditional of piacere and volere is translated into English in the same way.
Mi sarebbe piaciuto studiare arabo → I would have liked learning Arabic
Avrei voluto studiare arabo → I would have liked learning Arabic
Often, the past conditional of piacere and volere is better translated into English with “I WISH“
Mi sarebbe piaciuto uscire con te → I wish I went out with you
Sarei voluto uscire con te → I wish I went out with you
The Past Conditional with the future in the past
We use the past conditional to express the future in the past, that is to say, an action that took place after another one, in the past.
In other words, the future in the past expresses a future event with reference to a past action.
This pattern is very often used with the verbs dire, pensare, credere, immaginare in the passato prossimo or imperfetto form. As you will see in the following sentences, both the actions described happened in the past.
- Speravo che sarebbe venuto a trovarmi → I hoped he would come to see me
- Anna ha detto che mi avrebbe chiamato → Anna said she would call me
- Non credevamo che sarebbe arrivato primo→ We didn’t think he would come first
ATTENTION: the future in the past in English is mainly expressed with a simple (present) conditional.