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The subjunctive is called a mood, like the conditional (including the present and past conditional) and the indicative (including the present, past, and future tenses you have likely learned before). The subjunctive is used in Italian in a variety of special situations, which you can read about below. There are three major steps to learning the subjunctive:

  • Learning the forms: Subjunctive forms seem daunting at first, in part because there are many verbs which have irregular subjunctive forms. However, many of these irregularities are similar to the irregularities found in the indicative (like the -g that appears in verbs like venire and tenere). Further, in most cases, once you know the irregularity of the -io form, it is easy to derive the remaining forms (-tu, -lui/lei, etc.).
  • Learning the uses: The second challenge is knowing when to use the subjunctive instead of the indicative. The subjunctive is used in relative or dependent clauses that are introduced by the word che. They express conditions of subjectivity and uncertainty, as opposed to conditions of certainty and fact. Learning when to use the subjunctive is largely a matter of familiarization and practice.
  • Distinguishing the four tenses of the subjunctive: There are four subjunctive tenses: present, past, imperfect and trapassato (past perfect). Two of these tenses are derived from two others. When deciding which of these tenses to use, you rely on rules regarding the tense of the sentiment expressed in the first clause (before the che) and the relationship in time between the action of the subjunctive clause (a dependent clause) and the feeling or opinion expressed in the main clause.


I. Present Subjunctive (Il congiuntivo presente)

parlare mettere dormire capire
io parli metta dorma capisca
tu parli metta dorma capisca
lui, lei, Lei parli metta dorma capisca
noi parliamo mettiamo dormiamo capiamo
voi parliate mettiate dormiate capiate
loro parlino mettano dormano capiscano

Note that the io, tu and lui/lei/Lei forms for each verb in the present subjunctive (that is, all the singular forms) are identical. Because of this, it is more common to use the subject pronouns with singular verbs in the present subjunctive, in order to avoid confusion over which subject you are talking about. For example, Penso che tu parli bene italiano.

Note that the noi and voi endings are the same for verbs of all three classes (-are,-ere,-ire).

Note that the endings for -are verbs begin with an -i, and the endings for -ere and -ire verbs begin with an -a, the opposite of what you might think.

Note that the class of -ire verbs that have an -isc inserted into their root in the indicative preserve this irregularity in the subjunctive.

Irregular verbs in the subjunctive include the following (io form provided):

  • andare: vada
  • avere: abbia
  • dare: dia
  • dire: dica
  • dovere: debba
  • essere: sia
  • fare: faccia
  • potere: possa
  • rimanere: rimanga
  • sapere: sappia
  • stare: stia
  • tenere: tenga
  • usicre: esca
  • venire: venga
  • volere: voglia

II. Past subjunctive (Il congiuntivo passato)

The past subjunctive is formed by putting avere or essere in the present subjunctive and supplying the past participle of the main verb at the end. For example: io abbia ricevuto, tu sia andato via, voi siate partiti, loro abbiano dimenticato.

III. Imperfect subjunctive (Il congiuntivo imperfetto)

parlare mettere dormire capire
io parlassi mettessi dormissi capissi
tu parlassi mettessi dormissi capissi
lui, lei, Lei parlasse mettesse dormisse capisse
noi parlassimo mettessimo dormissimo capissimo
voi parlaste metteste dormiste capiste
loro parlassero mettessero dormissero capissero

Irregulars include essere (io fossi, tu fossi, lui/lei fosse, noi fossimo, voi foste, loro fossero), fare (io facessi, etc.), bere (io bevessi, etc.) and dire (io dicessi, etc.), in other words, all verbs which are irregular in the regular imperfect (indicative).

IV. Past Perfect Subjunctive (Il congiuntivo trapassato)

You form the past perfect subjunctive (also called the pluperfect subjunctive) by putting avere or essere in the imperfect subjunctive and then adding the past participle of the main verb at the end. For example: io avessi ascoltato, tu fossi arrivato, noi fossimo usciti, voi aveste imparato.

When learning the past and past perfect subjunctive, it is a good opportunity to review knowledge relevant to the passato prossimo, for instance, which verbs go with essere v. avere, how the ending of the -ato, -uto and -ito verb agrees with the subject of the sentence, and which -ato, -uto and -ito verbs (called past participles) are irregular.

Primary Uses of the Subjunctive

The subjunctive is used to express emotion, desire, commands and opinions. A caveat is that most subjunctives occur in relative or dependent clauses. A dependent clause is a part of the sentence that contains a verb but hangs on to (or “depends on”) another verb clause (i.e. it cannot stand alone). In English, this dependent clause is often introduced by the word that. For example:

  • I hope that you can come.
  • I know that you are very busy.
  • I heard that Marilena is coming back to study.

In Italian, the that in this context is expressed with the relative pronoun che. The following list of subjunctive
cases assumes that the verbs in question are in a dependent clause (i.e. the one following che), not an independent clause.

I. Expressing Emotions

essere contento che Sono contenta che voi veniate stasera. We are happy that you all are coming tonight.
essere sorpreso che Maria è sorpresa che Sandro sia tornato. Maria is surprised that Sandro came back.
avere paura che Abbiamo paura che Claudia non abbia superato l’esame. We’re afriad that Claudia didn’t pass the exam.
essere triste che Sono triste che mia nonna non stia bene. I’m sad that my grandmother is sick.

II. Expressing Desire, Wish or Hope

sperare che Spero che voi possiate laurearvi quest’anno. I hope that you all can graudate this year.
volere che Vorrei che tu mi dicessi la verità. I would like you to tell me the truth.
augurare Mia madre augura che io abbia studiato di più. My mother wishes that I had studied harder.

III. Expressing Opinions and Impressions

pensare che Penso che tu sia onesta. I think that you are honest.
credere che Crediamo che ci siano troppi compiti in questo corso. We think there is too much work in this class.
sembrare che Sembra che Luigi non voglia più uscire con noi. It seems that Luigi doesn’t want to go out with us anymore.
parere che Pare che piova domani. It seems like it’s going to rain tomorrow.

IV. Impersonal Expressions

È importante che È importante che siate cortesi. It’s important that you be polite.
È necessario che È necessario che tutti finiscano il progetto entro domani. It’s necessary that everyone finish the project by tomorrow.
È bello che È bello che tu abbia tanti amici italiani. It’s great that you have a lot of Italian friends.

For verbs that expess certainty, fact, or objectivity, use the indicative, for example:

sapere che to know that
È un fatto che It’s a fact that
È vero che It’s true that
È chiaro che It’s clear that
È certo che It’s certain that
È sicuro che It’s certain that
dire che to say that
scrivere che to write that

If the subject of both clauses is the same, you do not need to use the subjunctive, but rather an infinitive. Contrast the following:

same subject different subjects
Voglio uscire.
I want to go out.
Voglio che tu esca.
I want you to go out.
Siamo contenti di uscire.
We are glad to go out.
Siamo contenti che voi usciate.
We are glad that you all are going out.

Here is what you need to keep in mind when determining which tense of the subjunctive to use (present, past, imperfect, pluperfect):

  • Present Subjunctive:
    Spero che tu arrivi in tempo.
    I hope that you arrive on time.

    Use the present subjunctive when the main verb (sperare) is in the present tense and when the action in the dependent clause (arrivare) takes place simultaneous to or after the action in the main clause (sperare) (i.e. it hasn’t happened yet).

  • Past Subjunctive:
    Spero che tu sia arrivato in tempo.
    I hope that you arrived on time.

    Use the past subjunctive when the main verb (sperare) is in the present tense and when the action in the dependent clause (arrivare) takes place before the action in the main clause (sperare) (i.e. it already happened.)

  • Imperfect Subjunctive
    Speravo che tu arrivassi in tempo.
    I hoped that you arrived (that you would arrive) on time.
    Spererei che tu arrivassi in tempo.
    I would hope that you arrived on time.

    Use the imperfect subjunctive when the main verb (sperare) is in any past tense (e.g. imperfect or passato prossimo) or in the conditional and when the action in the dependent clause (arrivare) takes place simultaneous to or after the action in the main clause (sperare) (i.e. it hasn’t happened yet).

  • Past Perfect Subjunctive
    Speravo che tu fossi arrivato in tempo.
    I hoped that you had arrived on time.

    Use the past perfect subjunctive when the main verb (sperare) is in any past tense (e.g. imperfect or passato prossimo) or in the conditional and when the action in the dependent clause (arrivare) takes place before the action in the main clause (sperare) (i.e. it has already happened).

You can also use the imperfect subjunctive if the main verb is in the present but you are referring to a habitual or ongoing event in the past rather than a one-time event. E.g. È un peccato che piovesse ogni volta che cercavamo di uscire.

Secondary Uses of the Subjunctive

I. After Conjunctions

You use the subjunctive after the following conjunctions:

a meno che (non) unless
affinché in order that
a patto che provided that
a condizione che on the condition
benché although
perché so that
prima che before
purché provided that
sebbene although
senza che without

For example:

Vado a classe benché non stia bene. I’m going to class although I’m sick.
Voglio vedere i miei cugini prima che partano per Europa. I want to see my cousins before they leave for Europe.

Affinché, perché, senza, and prima are only used with the subjunctive if the subjects in the main and relative clauses are different. If they are the same, an infinitive works just fine. For example:

Devo chiamare mia sorella prima di uscire. I have to call my sister before I leave.
Studio molto per superare il mio esame. I’m studying a lot in order to pass my exam.

Perché also means because, and in this case does not take the subjunctive.

II. With Superlatives

When linking a relative clause to a superlative statement, use the subjunctive in the relative clause. For example:

La chimica organica è il corso più difficile che io abbia mai seguito. Organic Chemistry is the most difficult course that I have ever taken.
Marco è il ragazzo più intelligente che io conosca. Marco is the smartest guy I know.

III. With Negatives

When using a relative clause introduced by a negative, use the subjunctive in that relative clause. For example:

Non c’è nessuno che possa aiutarmi con i miei compiti di matematica. There’s no one who can help me with my math homework.
Non c’è niente che i bambini abbiano voglia di mangiare. There’s nothing that the kids feel like eating.

IV. With Indefinites

The subjunctive is also used in relative clauses that start with an indefinite expression. For example:

Conosci qualcuno che parli cinese? Do you know someone who speaks Chinese?
Voglio comprare qualcosa che si usi per tenere lontani gli zanzari. I want to buy something that will keep mosquitos away.

Subjunctive: Practice