Mastering The Italian Present Subjunctive : A Step-by-Step Guide
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.
When to Use the Subjunctive in Italian?
The subjunctive (il congiuntivo) is an Italian verb form used to express opinions, feelings, uncertainty, possibility, wishes, or doubts.
Most of the time, the subjunctive is used in a dependent clause, which comes after a main clause. Knowing what a dependent clause is will open the door for you to understand how to use the subjunctive.
Main 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 ‘main’ clause always stands at the beginning of a sentence.
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
In 99, 9 % of Italian phrases, the subjunctive is used as a depended clause and for this reason is introduced by a main clause introduced by one of the verbs of phrases that I’ll talk go in this article.
Italian vs. English
What make it a little complex is that in English there’s no subjective. And the translation of the Italian present subjunctive is made with the present simple.
How to Determine if we Need to Use the Subjunctive or Not
It’s easier than you think: the rule of thumb is that the use of the Italian subjunctive is determined by what comes before, in the main clause.
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.
Subjunctive prompts are all those verbs that, when used in a main clause, are followed by the subjunctive.
Verbs to express opinion, uncertainty, possibility, or doubt:
- Penso che – I think that
- Credo che – I believe that
- Immagino che – I imagine that
- Ho l’impressione che – I have the impression that
- Suppongo che – I suppose that
- Dubito che – I doubt that
- Non sono sicuro che – I’m not sure that
- Non sono certo che – I’m not certain that
Verbs to express feelings, such as happiness or fear:
- Sono felice che – I’m happy that
- Sono dispiaciuto/a che – I’m e sorry that
- Ho paura che – I’m afraid that
- Temo che – I’m afraid that
Verbs to express wishes:
- Voglio che – I want that
- Desidero che – I wish that
- Preferisco che – I prefer that
- Spero che – I hope that
The Subjunctive after Impersonal Forms and Expressions
Another use of subjunctive occurs when it’s used after impersonal forms (e.g. verbs that are conjugated that in third personal singular), like the ones that don’t have an explicit subject.
- Basta che… – it is sufficient (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
- Sembra che stia per piovere – it seems like it’s about to rain
The subjunctive is also 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)
- è raro che un bambino studi il cinese – it’s rare for a kid to study Chinese
- è 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 (and NOT è ovvio che menta)
- è sicuro che viene – it’s sure that he comes (and NOT è sicuro che venga)
When Not To Use The Subjunctive in Italian (or when to use the infinitive instead of the subjunctive)
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 present 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 Irregular Forms of the Present Subjunctive
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).