Look at the following sentences:
- They sell stamps in the grocery store.
- You need to exercise in order to stay healthy.
- People work too hard around here.
- One should respect the feelings of others.
All of these sentences have a subject that is impersonal. They or you in the first two examples do not refer to particular individuals, but rather to a general public, just as people and one do in examples three and four.
In Italian, the si impersonale – a combination of si and the verb – is used to convey the same idea. No extra subject (like tu, loro, la gente, uno, etc.) is required.
To form the si impersonale, use the si pronoun in front of the lui/lei or loro form of the verb. Have a look at the Italian versions of the examples above:
- Si vendono i francobolli al supermercato.
- Si deve praticare l’esercizio fisico per stare sani.
- Si lavora troppo da questa parte.
- Si devono rispettare i sentimenti degli altri.
Lui/Lei vs. Loro Forms
How do you decide whether to use the lui/lei or the loro form of the verb? Use the following guidelines:
- If there is no direct object in the sentence (as in #3), use the lui/lei form. Other examples include:
- Di sera si va al cinema. In the evening people go to the movies.
- A che ora si esce la mattina? What time to you all leave in the morning?
- Con chi si deve parlare? Who do we have to talk with?
- If there is a direct object in the sentence, use the lui/lei form of the verb if the object is singular and the loro form of the verb if the object is plural. #1 has a plural object (francobolli), hence a plural verb (vendono). #2 has a singular noun (l’esercizio), hence a singular verb (deve). Other examples include:
- A casa mia si mangia molto gelato. At my house, you eat a lot of ice cream.
- Ai ristoranti più popolari non si accettano le prenotazioni. At the most popular restaurants, they don’t accept reservations.
- Non si sa mai la verità. One never knows the truth.
Si Impersonale with Two Verbs
If two verbs are used (as in #2 & #4), only the first one is conjugated, while the second one remains an infinitive. Remember, you still look to the direct object (if there is one), to decide between the lui/lei or loro form of the first verb. In #4, the verb takes the loro form (devono) because of the plural noun (sentimenti).
✽ A direct object is the entity that is acted upon by the verb. It can be a person (the friend I invited), an object (the book I read), a place (the city we visited) or an abstract concept (the time I wasted). It is not the agent carrying out the action (in the examples above, I and we) but rather the recipient or the product of that action, and there is no preposition (a, in, con, da, di, etc.) mediating the relationship between the verb and the object.
Si impersonale with Reflexive Verbs
If you use a reflexive verb in the si impersonale, the first si becomes a ci. For example:
- Ci si diverte alla spiaggia. You have fun at the beach.
- All’università durante l’estate ci si alza molto tardi. At the university during the summer you get up pretty late.
Si impersonale with Adjectives
If you use an adjective with the si impersonale, for some strange reason, the adjective always uses its masculine plural ending, even though the verb used with the si is singular. For example:
- Si è sempre contenti quando si ricevono complimenti dagli altri.
- Dopo la lunga passeggiata si è molto stanchi. After the long walk, people are really tired.
You are always happy when you get compliments from others.
Si impersonale Through the Tenses
You can use the si impersonale in any tense. Follow the same rules above for the future, imperfect, and all other simple tenses. The compound tenses (like the passato prossimo, future perfect, and past conditional) are a bit tricky. With these, always use essere in combination with the si impersonale and passivante. If your sentence has a direct object, the verb form (lui/lei or loro) will still depend on the object. If your sentence has a direct object, the
ending of the past participle will agree with that object. For example:
- Si è mangiata la pizza?
- Si sono lavate le mani?
- Si è pulito il bagno?
- Si sono comprati i biglietti?
If there is no direct object, the past participle ends in -o if that verb generally goes with avere, and -i if it generally goes with essere. For example:
- Si è telefonato al ristorante per fare una prenotazione?
- A che ora si è partiti?
- Perché si è andati via?
✽ If the si impersonale construction has multiple verbs or if it is extended over two phrases in a sentence (connected by a conjunction like e, o, perché, quando, se, etc.), don’t forget to use a si with every new verb: e.g.
Quando si è al mare, si nuota, si prende il sole e ci si diverte con gli amici.
✽ Because you are already expressing the impersonal you through si, any other references to this impersonal subject (tu, loro, uno) would be extraneous.
Passive (Il passivo)
What does it mean for a verb to be passive? Take these two examples:
- The president held a press conference yesterday.
- A press conference was held by the president yeterday.
In the first example, the verb is active, meaning the subject of the sentence (the president) carries out or executes the action (held). In the second example, rather, the verb is passive, because the subject of the sentence (a press conference) is acted upon. Recall that in writing classes, passive constructions are often discouraged when the agent of the action (like the president) is mentioned. Passive constructions tend to water down the significance of the action, and strong writing often relies on use of the active voice to make its points lucidly and persuasively. However, the passive voice is often useful when the agent of the action is unknown or impersonal. For example:
- When were those dormitories built?
- My car was stolen.
- Are many Italian dictionaries sold here?
In Italian, a passive voice certainly exists. It is much like English. It is formed by putting essere in the appropriate tense and adding the past participle of the main verb.
|English||Italian||Passive Verb Tense|
|When were those dormitories built?||Quando furono costruiti quei dormitori?||passato remoto|
|My car was stolen||La mia macchina è stata rubata.||passato prossimo|
|Many Italian dictionaries are sold here.||Qui sono venduti molti vocabolari italiani.||presente|
|A new prime minister will be elected next year.||Un nuovo primo ministro sarà eletto l’anno prossimo.||futuro|
|During our time at the hotel the room was cleaned every day||Durante il tempo all’albergo la camera era pulita ogni giorno.||imperfetto|
✽ Do not get overwhelmed by the details of putting verbs of different tenses in the passive. It is easier than you think. Think of the passive as a mere combination of the verb essere (in the proper tense) together with the past participle of the main verb. For example:
|La lettera è scritta.||The letter is written.|
|La lettera è stata scritta.||The letter was written.|
|La lettera sarà scritta.||The letter will be written.|
|La lettera sarebbe scritta.||The letter would be written.|
In all these sentences, you use the lui/lei form of essere (which agrees with the singular subject, la lettera), putting it in the proper tense (present, passato prossimo, future, conditional) and combining it with the past participle of scrivere, scritta (which ends in -a in order to agree with the subject, la lettera).
Passivo o si impersonale?
In Italian, the passive is used much less than it is in English. In place of the passive, you often use the si impersonale:
|When were those dormitories built?||Quando furono costruiti quei dormitori?||Quando si costruirono quei dormitori?|
|My car was stolen||La mia macchina è stata rubata.||Si è rubata la mia macchina.|
|Many Italian dictionaries are sold here.||Qui sono venduti molti vocabolari italiani.||Qui si vendono molti vocaboli italiani.|
|A new prime minister will be elected next year.||Un nuovo primo ministro sarà eletto l’anno prossimo.||Si eleggerà un nuovo primo ministro l’anno prossimo.|
|During our time at the hotel the room was cleaned every day.||Durante il tempo all’albergo la camera era pulita ogni giorno.||Durante il tempo all’albergo si puliva la camera ogni giorno.|