Il Condizionale: How To Learn Italian’s Conditional Verbs

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.

Il condizionale

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:

-are-ere-ire
-erei-erei-irei
-eresti-eresti-iresti
-erebbe-erebbe-irebbe
-eremmo-eremmo-iremmo
-ereste-ereste-ireste
-erebbero-erebbero-irebbero

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.

Examples

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".

Summary

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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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • I think the conditional tenses, especially in French & Italian, are really easy to use. I don't understand why anyone would say you won't get it right. That's so bizarre to me, especially comparing it to the subjunctive, which a lot of people have trouble with.It's nearly the same thing as in English, except that it's also used to report something that is not yet verified as being true, such as the news. I remember being confused for a while as to why the news kept saying things like 6 people would be dead instead of 6 people are dead.One problem with comparing it to the use of "would" in English though is that we also use "would" as a substitute for the imperfect, instead of "used to." Translating the would in a sentence such as "When I was younger, we would always go camping" as the conditional would definitely be wrong. At least, that's one mistake that learners of French often make, since you need to stop and think about the real meaning of would and most people don't really realize that there are two very different meanings.

  • Yeah, once I figured out how easy it is, I was instantly amazed that anyone would suggest that people aren't going to get it. Not to mention that I think that's the worst advice anyone could ever give!Good point about the second usage of "would". I personally never talk like that, so it doesn't immediately register in my mind that people might use it in that way.

  • Sounds like the subjunctive in Spanish: you don't need to know how to use it, there's no real equivalent in English, the rules surrounding its use are very arbitrary and complicated, you're more likely to screw it up than not and native speakers will understand what you mean if you don't use it when you should, so just don't bother.Meh, bother, but don't be bothered when you screw it up, you'll learn fast enough if you'll just be willing to try and fail a few times, no biggie.A lot of this just goes back to people's fear of failing or looking stupid when learning a new language, they feel like they have to have everything just perfect before they even think of speaking to a native speaker for the first time. Nonsense.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • I think the main reason people are afraid of the conditional is because they are really more afraid of entering into a construction using "congiuntivo imperfetto" (which doesn't really exist in English) and which initially is a difficult grammar concept to grasp. With the congiuntivo imperfetto you need to know how to construct complext phrases using "assi, asse, assimo, aste and assere"!) per esempio: Comperei una villa in toscana se avessi un sacco di soldi! as in your first example. But for the most part it is the "I could, I would, I should" tense. Mi piacerebbe un bel bicchiere di vino! ;-)

  • I disagree completely. I think the subjunctive mood in Spanish is rather important, and used quite a bit. The rules around it are actually pretty straightforward and not at all complicated in my opinion. And there is an English equivalent, it's just that we've phased it out of common speech over the past few generations. In the sentence, "It is important that you call," the phrase "that you call" is subjunctive.At any rate, Spanish doesn't have anything similar to the Italian conditional. There is a subjunctive in Italian, and actually it's four tenses, so it's a bit more complicated than in Spanish.But once you understand something, and once you see/hear it used a few times, it all becomes pretty clear. I have yet to encounter anything in any language that I thought was too hard for people. I hate that I saw such awful advice as "don't bother, because you're sure to get it wrong." That just makes me mad.

  • Yeah, I think your example draws attention to the way that the conditional tends to require the subjunctive to follow it. Unlike the conditional, the subjunctive actually is a bit complicated. (But still doesn't warrant anyone saying things like "don't bother, you'll just get it wrong"!)Thanks for the comment!

  • I don't think the conditional tense is that difficult, either, but I guess we all get a bit overwhelmed when we are unfamiliar with something at first. I agree "don't bother, you'll just get it wrong" is a very unhelpful piece of 'advice'. After having practiced it a bit, I find that the conditional tense is quite useful and pleasant to use. I like the way the endings roll of my tongue :)

  • Yeah, the endings in the conditional are pretty cool, aren't they?
    Have you noticed that they are (give or take) the result of adding the preterite (passato remoto) to the future (futuro semplice)?
    In a sense, the coditional is "the past of the future", or in other words, the completed form of an event that hasn't happened yet. That's logical and and cool in a way that makes my toes curl.

  • Thanks!

  • Yeah, it's a stupid and unhelpful piece of advice. You might as well say 'don't bother learning other languages because it might be a bit tricky'. Fuck that.However, I think you're wrong about the comparison with Spanish. Spanish actually has future subjunctive which doesn't even exist in Italian...In order to illustrate my point, let me make a short comparison:Spanish:Si yo fuera tu, haría esto. (imperfecto)Si hubiera sido tu, habría hecho esto. (pluscuamperfecto)Me gusta que hayas venido. (pretérito perfecto)Quiero que me hagas este favor. (presente)A donde fueres, haz lo que vieres (futuro)Italian:Se io fossi in te, farei questo (imperfetto)Se avessi stato in te, avrei fatto questo (trapassato)Mi piace che tu sia venuto/a (passato)Voglio che mi aiuti (presente)All you need to do is learn the verbal occasions which call for subjunctive, and you're set to go in either language. :-)

  • Curling toes over conjugation endings! You are a geek! And I've just added you to my list of blogs to watch. (I know, that was 6 years ago.)

  • Hey, there are few mistakes in the sentences you made. "Dovrei imparare una lingua straniera" (not estera), "Potrei mangiare questa minestra ogni giorno" (di nuovo doesn't make sense!), "Mi piacerebbe un bicchiere di vino" (not una, bicchiere isn't a feminine noun). The other ones are correct.

    By the way, the conditional tense is easy, the tricky one is the congiuntivo (a lot of italians can't use it properly, but if you're in an academic/working context knowing or not knowing how to use it it's what make the difference)

  • mangerei un sacco se avessi molta fame (not "molto fame") :)

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