The Italian Present Subjunctive: when and how to use it
When learning Italian, you’ll surely come across a few challenging topics. Among these, one of the most notorious is the Italian subjunctive mode. Rest assured. Although it might seem difficult to grasp, it’s easier than you think.
What is the subjunctive in Italian?
The subjunctive is an Italian verb form used to express opinions, feelings, uncertainty, possibility, wishes, or doubts.
When to use the subjunctive?
Most of the time, the subjunctive is used in a dependent clause and so after a main clause.
Main clauses vs. dependent clauses
If you’re not familiar with the idea of the main clause and dependent clause, let’s have a look at it together.
A main clause is a sentence like this:
- Penso che… (I think that)
- Voglio che… (I want that)
- Spero che.. (I hope that)
- Sono felice che…(I’m happy that)
In other words, we can say that a main clause is a sentence that introduces another sentence to which it’s related.
A dependent clause is what’s following the “che”
Let’s have a look at a couple of sentences where you can see a typical use of the subjunctive.
- Penso che (main clause), l’Italia sia un Paese bellissimo (dependent clause with the subjunctive) – I think Italy is a beautiful country
- Spero che (main clause), che domani non piova (dependent clause with the subjunctive), successo negli studi (dependent clause) – I hope tomorrow it will not rain
Why is it important to use the subjunctive in Italian?
Learning how to use the Italian subjunctive correctly means that you will be able to communicate your feelings, opinions, and wishes to the best of your ability.
When do you use the subjunctive in Italian?
It’s easier than you think: the rule of thumb is that the use of the Italian subjunctive is determined by what comes before.
Luckily, there’s a list of verbs and phrases that express opinions, wishes, doubts, feelings, and uncertainties that we can easily memorize.
Once you learn that a certain verb, like “credo” or “penso” or “spero,” defaults to using the subjunctive (or congiuntivo, in Italian), it’ll become easier and automatic to use the subjunctive in the right place.
In the following lists, you’ll see the most common verbs or phrases that are naturally followed by a subjunctive in Italian.
Verbs typically used to express opinion, uncertainty, possibility, or doubt.
- Pensare che – to think that
- Credere che – to believe that
- Immaginare che – to imagine that
- Avere l’impressione che – to have the impression that
- Supporre che – to suppose that
- Dubitare che – to doubt that
- Non sapere che – to not know that
- Non essere sicuro che – to not be sure that
- Non essere certo che – to not be certain that
Verbs typically used to express feelings, such as happiness or fear
- Essere felice che – to be happy that
- Essere dispiaciuto/a che – to be sorry that
- Avere paura che – to be afraid that
- Temere che – to be afraid that
Verbs typically used to express wishes:
- Volere che – to want that
- Desiderare che – to wish that
- Preferire che – to prefer that
- Sperare che – to hope that
The subjunctive with impersonal verbs
The subjunctive is frequently used after impersonal verbs, like the ones that don’t have an explicit subject.
- basta che… – it is enough (that) . . .
- bisogna che… – it is necessary (that)
- vale la pena che… – it is worth (that)
- si dice che… – it’s said (that)
- dicono che… – they say(that)
- sembra che… – it seems (that)
- Si dice l’Italia sia il più bel Paese al mondo – they say Italian is the most beautiful country in the world
The subjunctive with impersonal expressions
The subjunctive is frequently used after impersonal expressions. An impersonal expression is a phrase made of the verb “to be” and any adjective.
- è bene che… it is good (that)
- è difficile che…- it is hard (that)
- è facile che…- it is easy (that)
- è giusto che…- it is right (that)
- è importante che…- it is important (that)
- è male che…- it is bad (that)
- è meglio che…- it is better(that)
- è necessario che…- it is necessary (that)
- è peccato che…- it is a pity (that)
- è possibile che…- it is possible (that)
- è raro che…- it is rare (that)
- è urgente che…- it is urgent (that)
- E’ raro che un bambino studi il cinese – it’s rare for a kid to study Chinese
- E’ possibile che Anna sia in ritardo – it’s possible that Anna is late
When impersonal expressions point out certainty, the indicative is used instead of the subjunctive. The following expressions require the indicative, for example.
- è certo che… – it is certain (that)
- è evidente che… – it is evident (that)
- è ovvio che che… – it is obvious (that)
- è ovvio che mente– it’s obvious that he lies
When is the subjunctive not required in Italian?
All the above verbs and expressions require the subjunctive only when the subjects of the two phrases (main clause and dependent clause) are different, like in the following two phrases (where the subject of the main clause is “io” and the subject of the dependent clause is “lei”).
- Penso che lei sia molto intelligente – I think she’s very smart
- Sono felice che lei abbia superato l’esame – I am happy she’s passed the exam
If the subject is the same in the main clause and in the dependent clause, we can’t use the subjunctive in the dependent clause. Instead, we would use an infinitive construction.
- Lei pensa di essere molto intelligente – she thinks she’s very smart
- Lei è felice di aver superato l’esame – she’s happy she has passed the exam
The Present Subjunctive (Regular verbs)
The regular conjugation of the subjunctive is very easy because the first three persons (io, tu, lei) are the same and the “noi” conjugation is identical to the one of the present tense indicative.
|PARLARE (-ARE verbs)||RIDERE (-ERE verbs)||Domire (-IRE verbs)|
|che io parl-I||che io rid-A||che io dorm-A|
|che tu parl-I||che tu rid-A||che tu dorm-A|
|che lui/lei parl-I||che lui/lei rid-A||che lui/lei dorm-A|
|che noi parl-IAMO||che noi rid-IAMO||che noi dorm-IAMO|
|che voi parl-IATE||che voi rid-IATE||che voi dorm-IATE|
|che loro parl-INO||che loro rid-ANO||che loro dorm-ANO|
The Present Subjunctive (Irregular verbs)
I have been asked often in my classes, what is that SIA there? Or, what is that ABBIA there? What about VADA or FACCIA?
They are the irregular subjunctive conjugations of essere, avere, andare, and fare, in that order.
It’s crucial to learn the irregular Italian subjunctives as they are very common in the spoken language. Remember also that the verbs that are irregular in the indicative are also irregular in the subjunctive.
This is a list of the most common irregular forms of the present subjunctive.
- essere → sia
- avere → abbia
- andare → vada
- fare → faccia
- dire → dica
- dare → dia
- volere → voglia
- dovere → debba
- potere → possa
- tenere → tenga
- stare → stia
Of course, there are more than these. For a more thorough list, I suggest referring to your grammar books. If you don’t have it yet, I recommend using this excellent textbook: Italian verb tenses.
How many forms of the Italian subjunctive exist?
Is the present subjunctive the only subjunctive? No, but it’s the most common one.
The Italian subjunctive is a mode made of four tenses: the present subjunctive, the past subjunctive, the imperfect subjunctive, and the past-perfect subjunctive. Knowing all these tenses will help you master the Subjunctive Tense Consistency (or Consecutio Temporum), which I will tackle in a different article.
- Using the subjunctive is a sign of education. There are also native Italian speakers that misuse or don’t use the subjunctive correctly. You can tell they don’t have a high level of education.
- Verbs that are irregular in the present indicative are also irregular in the present subjunctive.
- The use of subject pronouns (io, tu, lui, noi, voi, loro) is often required, as the first three persons of the conjugation are the same (io vada, tu vada, lui vada).