Il condizionale – Italian’s peculiar conditional tense
There is still one verb tense which needs to be understood, but which I have not yet discussed here. And the reason I haven't discussed it yet was because it's use was still somewhat unclear to me.
In fact, the most common explanation I've found online for the conditional tense in Italian was simply: "don't use it, because you're sure to get it wrong." I can't believe that passes for an explanation, but it does!
Well, just as with everything else in language learning, it turns out that using the conditional tense isn't hard at all, and it's certainly not the complicated matter that people make it out to be.
I asked my new Italian friend about this recently, and she gave me a short, simple answer: "it's a polite way to express a desire."
As it turns out, that was an over-simplified explanation. It's only half of the story. But the nice thing about over-simplifications is that they encourage us to try things, whereas big, looming, complicated answers scare us off from learning at all.
So here's my over-simplification: the conditional tense is used where you might use the word "would" in English. (And if you're familiar with Olde Englishe, you know that "would" also expresses desire.) That's it. Easy!
Forming the conditional
The conditional tense has a few strange-looking endings, but they're not difficult. The endings work as followed:
What you'll notice is that the verb endings for -are and -ere verbs both use the ending -ere, while -ire verbs remain as they are. Then, in all cases, the endings -i, -sti, -bbi, -mmo, -ste, and -bbero are added to the end. And another bonus is that all -ire verbs work the same way... no mysterious -isc- mutations.
As you can see, forming il condizionale is pretty simple. Now let's take a look at how to use it, and we'll see how that, too, is pretty easy.
- Mangerei un sacco se avessi molto fame.
- I would eat a lot if I was really hungry.
This first sentence shows the conditional tense being used to form the concept of "would" as one might use it in English.
- Prenderemmo del caffè.
- We would like some coffee.
Next, we see "would" as used to politely express a desire. The phrase literally translates like "we would have some coffee", but since we're politely expressing a desire, it means something more like "we would like some coffee".
- Potrei mangiare questa minestra ogni giorno.
- I could eat this soup every day.
Here, we the concept of "could" is essentially created by attaching the idea of "would" to the verb meaning "to be able to". Thus, to say "could" we essentially say "would be able to".
- Mi piacerebbe una bicchiere di vino.
- I would like a glass of wine.
In this sentence, notice the third-person form is used because of the fact that in Italian (as in many languages) we say "[something] pleases me" rather than "I like [something]". So here, using my "would" shortcut, we're really saying "a glass of wine would please me".
- Dovrei imparare una lingua straniera.
- I should learn a foreign language.
And in the last example, similarly to the way we make "could", you can see that the concept of should is formed by attaching the idea of "would" to the verb meaning "have to". Thus, to say "I should", you really say something like "I would have to".
Now that it's clear how simple the conditional tense is, both in conjugation and in use, it seems a real shame that so many people are being told "don't use it, you're certain to get it wrong". It just doesn't seem that difficult to me.
And actually, I can see that this is an extremely useful concept... one that appears quite often in any normal conversation.
Hopefully I've managed to explain it clearly, and in a way that will prevent others from thinking it's too hard for a foreigner.
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