Imperfetto Subjunctive for Past Tense (Part 1): Speak Italian!
Can you speak Italian? By now, many of you have passed the beginning stages of learning to speak Italian and can read and comprehend quite a bit of the Italian language. Meraviglioso!
But have you tried to take the next step to speak Italian fluently? Can you use the imperfetto subjunctive mood when you are speaking in the past tense? To express complex feelings in Italian correctly, it is important to use the Italian subjunctive mood. Using the subjunctive mood is difficult for English speakers, as we only rarely use this tense in English, and this is something that I am always working on! The next three blogs in the “Speak Italian” series will focus on how to conjugate and use the imperfetto Italian subjunctive mood, or “il congiuntivo” for speaking in the past tense.
Let’s take that giant step from simple beginning sentences to more complex and fluid sentences in Italian by using the imperfetto subjunctive mood while speaking in the past tense. In this segment, we will discuss the phrases that take the subjunctive mood when in the past tense and how to conjugate the imperfetto subjunctive mood for avere, essere and stare. Example sentences will follow!
In each blog in the “Speak Italian” series about the imperfetto subjunctive mood (“il congiuntivo”), we will first present phrases in the past tense that take the imperfetto subjunctive mood.
Then, we will review how to conjugate the imperfetto subjunctive mood.
Finally, we will present common phrases from daily life that take the Italian subjunctive mood.
Remember these examples as “anchors” in your knowledge for when you must speak Italian and try out the imperfetto subjunctive mood in your next Italian conversation!
Enjoy the first blog in this series, “Imperfetto Subjunctive for Past Tense (Part 1): Speak Italian!”
Some of this material is adapted from our textbook, Conversational Italian for Travelers © 2012 by Stella Lucente, LLC, found on www.learntravelitalian.com. Special thanks to Italian instructor Maria Vanessa Colapinto.
Introducing… Italian Phrases That Take the Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood
Italian has a subjunctive mood that is used to express beliefs, thoughts, or hopes with the verbs credere, pensare, and sperare.
The subjunctive mood is also said to “open up” a conversation to discussion about a particular topic by expressing doubt, uncertainty, desire, or a feeling.
Certain phrases are commonly used to start a sentence in order to introduce the subjunctive mood, and these initial phrases will be in the indicative tense (the “usual” present or past tense). These initial phrases imply uncertainty and trigger the subjunctive mood in the phrase to follow.
We have already learned to use the imperfetto subjunctive mood with the conditional tense in our blogs about Italian hypothetical phrases! Now, as stated before, we will focus on the use of the imperfetto subjunctive mood after introductory phrases that are in the past tense.
These groups are listed below:
Groups 1-6: “Noun Clauses”
- Phrases that use the verbs credere (to believe), pensare (to think), and sperare (to hope). These verbs use the pattern: [verb + di + infinitive verb] to describe the beliefs, thoughts, or hopes that one has. When the subject in the introductory phrase is not the same as the subject in the subjunctive clause that follows, the pattern changes to: [verb + che + subjunctive verb].*
- Impersonal constructions that begin with, “It is…” such as, “È possibile che…”
- Phrases that express a doubt, such as, “I don’t know…” or “Non so che…”
- Phrases that express suspicion, such as, ” I suspect that…” or “Sospetto che…”
- Phrases that express uncertainty, such as, “It seems to me…” or “Mi sembra che…” and ” To wonder if…” or “Chiedersi se… “
- Impersonal verbs followed by the conjunction che, such as, “Basta che…” “It is enough that,” or “Si dice che…” “They say that…
*When the speaker in the introductory phrase will carry out the action in the phrase to follow, Italian will use the following construction to link the phrases for credere, pensare, and sperare : di + infinitive verb. Example: Penso di andare a Roma domani. = I think I will go to Rome tomorrow. (Use pensare a when thinking ABOUT something or someone.)
Points to remember about the subjunctive mood:
In Italian, the introductory phrases that take the subjunctive mood (those that trigger doubt, uncertainty, desire, or a feeling) usually end with a linking word, also known as a conjunction, which will be che. In this situation, che means that. The clause that follows our introductory phrase will then describe what the uncertainty is about.
Note that the simple present or past tenses can also be used after the introductory phrases listed below, rather than the subjunctive mood, if you are speaking about a fact or something you believe to be true. This use will make perfect sense to the Italian listener, even when the subjective mood is otherwise commonly used.
|Italian Phrases That Take the Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood|
To follow is a (long) list of phrases that can be used to introduce the subjunctive mood, with examples from the passato prossimo past tense in the first two columns and the imperfetto past tense in the last two columns.
Basic translations are given in our tables, but remember that the imperfetto past tense can also be translated as “was… ing.” Therefore, “Speravo che” means, “I hoped,” and “I was hoping.” In the last section, we will then present examples for the past tense.
| Passato Prossimo Past
Groups 1 and 2
Groups 1 and 2
|Ho creduto che||I believed that||Credevo che||I believed that|
|Ho pensato che||I thought that||Pensavo che||I thought that|
|Ho sperato che||I hoped that||Speravo che||I hoped that|
|È stato possibile che||It was possible that||Era possibile che||It was possible that|
|È stato probablile che||It was probable that||Era probabile che||It was probable that|
|È stato bene che||It was fine/good that||Era bene che||It was fine/good that|
|Sarebbe stato bene che||It would have been good that|
|È stato giusto che||It was right that||Era giusto che||It was right that|
|È stato meglio che||It was better that||Era meglio che||It was better that|
|È stato incredible che||It was incredible that||Era incredibile che||It was incredible that|
|È stato un peccato che||It was a shame that||Era un peccato che||It was a shame that|
|È stata una vergogna che||It was a disgrace that||Era una vergogna che||It was a disgrace that|
|È stato normale che||It was normal that||Era normale che||It was normal that|
|Passato Prossimo Past
Groups 3, 4, and 5
Groups 3, 4, and 5
|Non ho saputo che||I didn’t know that||Non sapevo che||I didn’t know that|
|Non ho saputo dove||I did’t know where||Non sapevo dove||I didn’t know where|
|Non sono stato sicuro che||I wasn’t sure that||Non ero sicuro che||I wasn’t sure that|
|Non ho avuto idea che||I had no idea that||Non avevo idea che||I had no idea that|
|Non vedevo l’ora che…||I couldn’t wait that|
|Non c’è stato nulla che||There was nothing that||Non c’era nulla che||There was nothing that|
|Mi è parso* che||It seems to me||Mi pareva che||It seemed to me|
|Mi è sembrato* che||It seems to me||Mi sembrava che||It seemed to me|
|(Può darsi che only used in present tense)||(Perhaps)|
|Ho avuto l’impressione che||I had the impression that||Avevo l’impresione che||I had the impression that|
|Ho supposto che||I supposed that||Supponevo che||I supposed that|
|Ho immaginato che||I imagined that||Immaginavo che||I imagined that|
|Ho sospettato che||I suspected that||Sospettavo che||I suspected that|
|Ho dubitato che||I doubted that||Dubitavo che||I doubted that|
|Sono stato(a) convinto che||I was convinced that||Ero convinto che||I was convinced that|
|(A meno che only used in present tense)||(Unless)|
|Ho convenuto che||It was best that||Conveniva che||It was best that|
|È bastato(a) che||It was enough that||Bastava che||It was enough that|
|(Malgrado che only used in present tense)||(In spite of that)|
|Si è detto che||It was said that =
One says/said that
|Si diceva che||It was said that|
|Hanno detto che||They said that||Dicevano che||They said that|
|C’è stato bisognato che|| It was necessary that =
There was a need for that
|Bisognava che||It was necessary that|
* Use the phrases “Mi era parso che” and “Mi era sembrato che” when the phrase that follows will refer to another speaker’s actions. Do NOT change the ending of parso or sembrato. In this case, parso and sembrato refer to “it” in the phrase, “It seems to me that…” and so are invariable.
However, when saying, “It seems to me…” followed by an adjective that describes how the speaker himself feels about something, the last letter of parso and sembrato must match in gender and number what is being described.
So, to describe how a beautiful girl seemed to me, I would say:
Mi era parsa bella. – or – Mi era sembrata bella. = She seemed beautiful to me.
Finally, a word of caution:
DO NOT USE THE SUBJUNCTIVE WITH THE FOLLOWING THREE PHRASES!
Forse = Perhaps
Per me = For me
Secondo me = According to me
The above may seem like exceptions to the rule, but perhaps… because these phrases already express doubt or your personal opinion… in the Italian way of thinking, it would be redundant to use these phrases along with the subjunctive!
How to Conjugate Italian Verbs “Essere,” “Avere,” and “Stare” in the Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood
Listed in the table below are the imperfetto subjunctive forms for the Italian auxiliary verbs avere, stare, and essere, which are often used with the conditional and past tenses in written and spoken Italian.
In our last two blogs, we showed how to use the imperfetto subjunctive tense with conditional verbs when we need to make hypothetical phrases in Italian. We saw that in these cases, the conjunction “se” for “if” introduces the dependent clause with the imperfetto subjunctive verb.
In this blog, we will focus on the use of the imperfetto subjunctive with the Italian past tense. In these cases, the conjunction che will introduce the dependent clause with the imperfetto subjunctive verb.
In our conjugation tables, che is included in parentheses in the subject pronoun column as a reminder that these verb forms are often introduced with the conjunction che. Also, make sure to include the subject pronoun in your sentence after che for clarity, since the singular forms are identical.
Practice the imperfetto subjunctive verbs out loud by saying che , the subject pronoun and then the correct verb form that follows!
Avere—to have—Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood
|(che) io||avessi||I had|
|(che) tu||avessi||you (familiar) had|
|avesse||you (polite) had
|(che) noi||avessimo||we had|
|(che) voi||aveste||you all had|
|(che) loro||avessero||they had|
Essere—to be—Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood
|(che) io||fossi||I were|
|(che) tu||fossi||you (familiar) were|
|fosse||you (polite) were
|(che) noi||fossimo||we were|
|(che) voi||foste||you all were|
|(che) loro||fossero||they were|
Stare—to stay/be—Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood
|(che) io||stessi||I stayed/were|
|(che) tu||stessi||you (familiar) stayed/were|
|stesse||you (polite) stayed/were
|(che) noi||stessimo||we stayed/were|
|(che) voi||steste||you all stayed/were|
|(che) loro||stessero||they stayed/were|
Example Phrases Using “Stare” in the Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood with the Past Tense
To follow are some examples of when the Italian subjunctive mood in the past tense might be used in conversation during daily life.
Notice that English uses the simple past tense to express the same idea, but we use our verbs a bit differently to make the subjunctive. In stead of saying “I was,” we use “I were.” Or, alternatively, “were + infinitive form or gerund. ”
English examples: “If I were to go…” or “If I were going…” Also, “had + past participle,” such as, “If I had seen…”
In our first blog about the subjunctive mood, we presented example sentences using stare (to stay/to be). We mentioned in our first blog that stare in the present subjunctive comes up very commonly in email greetings; especially if there has not been recent communication, it is customary to mention a hope that all is well with friends and family. We will present the same examples using a reference to the past to include in conversation.
With these particular phrases in which we talk about “hoping,” in most cases, the imperfetto form of the past tense will be used. However, if we “hope” for just one instant in time, with that time frame mentioned in the sentence, we can use the passato prossimo, which is given in the same column in blue text.
| Past Tense
|Tu sei stato bene.||You were well.||Speravo che tu stessi bene.
Ieri, ho sperato che tu stessi bene.
|I hoped (was hoping) that you (familiar) were well.
Yesterday, I had hoped that you (familiar) were well.
|Lei è stata bene.||She was well.||Speravo che lei stesse bene.
Ieri, ho sperato che lei stesse bene.
|I hoped (was hoping) that she was well .
Yesterday, I had hoped that she was well.
|Lui è stato bene.||He was well.||Speravo che lui stesse bene.
Ieri, ho sperato che lui stesse bene ieri.
| I hoped (was hoping) that he was well (yesterday).
Yesterday, I had hoped that he was well.
|La famiglia è stata bene.||The family was well.||
Speravo che la tua famiglia* stesse bene.
|I hoped (was hoping) that the family* was well.
Last year, I had hoped that the family was well.
|Tutti sono stati bene.||Everybody
|Speravo che tutti stessero bene.
L’anno scorso, ho sperato che tutti stessero bene.
|I hoped (was hoping) that everybody was well.
Last year, I had hoped that everybody was fine.
*Famiglia = family and is a collective noun that takes the third person singular.
Example Phrases Using “Avere” in the Past Tense Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood
As we noted in our first blog about the Italian subjunctive, we often close an email with a hope as well—for a nice weekend, for instance, or that we will see the person we have contacted sometime soon.
In a similar way, if we have been separated from someone for some amount of time, when we email or meet that person again, we may include a hope that time spent has gone well in the past. In this case, the phrases we most commonly use will need to use avere (to have) in the imperfetto subjunctive mood.
Again, the examples presented below are from our first blog on this topic. An example of how one might use the same phrase in the past tense is given in the imperfetto form – the most likely form to be used in these examples.
|Buona settimana!||Have a good week!||Speravo che tu avessi una buona settimana.
||I hoped (was hoping) that you had a good week!|
|Buon fine settimana!||Have a good weekend!||Speravo che tu avessi un buon fine settimana.
||I hoped (was hoping) that you had a good weekend!|
|Have a good day.
Have a good evening.
|Speravo che tu avessi una buona giornata/buona serata.||I hoped (was hoping) that you had a good day/evening.|
Example Phrases Using “Essere” in the Past Tense Imperfetto Subjunctive Mood
As we discussed in our first blog on the subjunctive, the verb essere (to be) is commonly used when describing someone’s characteristics to someone else. But what if we are not sure that someone possesses a certain characteristic, or we would like someone to possess a characteristic we fear they may not have?
These thoughts, of course, can take place in the past as easily as in the present. When speaking about the past tense, we must use the imperfetto subjunctive mood in our sentence! Here are a few examples. How many more can you think of?
|Present or Past Tense
Lei era bella.
|She was beautiful.||Mi sembrava che lei fosse bella.
Dieci anni fa, mi sono sembrato che lei fosse bella.
|It seemed to me that she was beautiful =
She seemed beautiful to me.Ten years ago, it seemed to me that she was beautiful.
|L’insegnante era simpatico.
||The teacher was nice.||
Speravo che l’insegnante fosse simpatico.
|I hoped (was hoping) that the teacher was nice.|
|Dio è in cielo.
|God is in heaven.
|I believed that God was in heaven.
When I was ten years old, I believed that God was in heaven.
|L’attrice era brava in quel film.||The actress was great in that film.||
|I thought that the actress was great in that film.|
|Lui era fortunato.||He was fortunate.||
Credevo che lui fosse fortunato.
I believed that he was fortunate.
Last year, I believed that he was fortunate.
|Lei era contenta.||She was happy.||
Mi pareva che lei fosse contenta.
|It seemed to me that she was happy =
She seemed happy to me.
Last month, it seemed to me that she was happy.
|Loro erano bravi cantanti.||They were wonderful singers.||
Può darsi che loro fossero bravi cantanti quando erano giovani.
|Perhaps they were wonderful singers when they were young.|
|Lui era un bravo studente.||He was a good student.||
Dubitavo che lui fosse un bravo studente.
|I doubted that he was a good student.|
|Lei era sposata.||She was married.||Era probabile che lei fosse sposata.||She was probably married.
(It was probable that she was married.)
|Loro erano contenti.||They were happy.||Era possibile che loro fossero contenti.||It was possible that they were happy.|
How to Conjugate and Use
“Chiedersi” – To Wonder
In our previous blog on Italian hypothetical phrases, Italian Subjunctive (Part 4): Italian Hypothetical Phrases of Love, we discussed the verb chiedersi, which is the verb Italians use to describe the idea of “wondering if…” something might happen.
Let’s see how this works in the past tense, in a situation when one might have “wondered if…” something might have happened.
“Mi chiedevo…” literally means, “I asked myself,” which translates into “I wondered.” At first glance, it may seem like chiedersi should fall into the category of improbable hypothetical phrases – especially when this verb is followed by se, such as in the phrase “I wondered if…” But, as we’ve learned in previous blogs, instead, chiedersi follows the same rules as our verbs of uncertainty in Rule 4.
Therefore, when chiedersi is used in the past tense, the phrase that follows will take the imperfetto subjunctive and the trapassato subjunctive forms.
Here are our previous examples for when one is wondering in the past tense about something that may have happened in either the present or the past.
Mi chiedevo se lui fosse un attore bravo in quel film.
I wondered if he is a great actor in that film.
Mi chiedevo se lui fosse stato un attore bravo in quel film.
I wondered if he was a great actor in that film.
Now that we are speaking in Italian in the past tense, we may want to use some of these expressions to refer to recent or more remote past events.
Notice from the list below that ieri (yesterday/last) is used to refer to specific times during the day. Ieri is invariable (the ending does not change). The ending for scorso (last) is gender specific (the ending changes to reflect the gender of the noun it describes).
|l’altro ieri||the day before yesterday|
|ieri mattina||yesterday morning|
|ieri pomeriggio||yesterday afternoon|
|ieri sera||yesterday evening|
|ieri notte||last night|
|l’anno scorso||last year|
|il mese scorso||last month|
|la settimana scorsa||last week|
|lunedì scorso||last Monday|
|martedì scorso||last Tuesday|
|mercoledì scorso||last Wednesday|
|giovedì scorso||last Thursday|
|venerdì scorso||last Friday|
|sabato scorso||last Saturday|
|domenica scorsa||last Sunday|
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
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Italian Subjunctive Past Tense (Part 1): Speak Italian!