Italian Imperfect Subjunctive Tense

Il Congiuntivo Imperfetto in Italian

A hand is scratching a lottery ticket
If I won the lottery... Ludsam/Stock4B/Getty Images

“If I were able to live in Italy for the rest of my life, I would be happy.”

How do you express a sentiment like that in Italian?

Before I dive into the nooks and crannies of the grammar with the subjunctive mood, here’s what that sentence would look like:

Se io potessi vivere in Italia per il resto della mia vita, sarei contenta.

In order to create this sentence on your own, you need to use the imperfect subjunctive (il congiuntivo imperfetto). You would use this tense when the main part of your sentence includes the present perfect tense (il passato prossimo), imperfect tense (l’imperfetto) or the conditional tense (​il condizionale) to talk about an unlikely hypothetical situation that starts with se (If) like “If I won the lottery” or to discuss wishful thinking.

Some constructions that might help you understand when to use this are:

Imperfect Tense + ( Che) + Imperfect Subjunctive

  • Credevo che avessero ragione. - I thought they were right.
  • Non era probabile che prendessimo una decisione. - It wasn't likely we would make a decision.
  • Non c'era nessuno che ci capisse. - There was no one who understood us.
  • Il razzismo era il peggior problema che ci fosse. - Racism was the worst problem there was.

Present Perfect Tense + (Che) + Imperfect Subjunctive

  • L’ha aiutata affinché potesse imparare l’italiano. - He helped her so she could learn Italian.
  • Abbiamo organizzato un riunione cosi’ da informare tutti sul da farsi. - We scheduled a meeting so we could brief everybody on what to do.
  • Ho ritenuto giusto che mio figlio decidesse da solo quale universita’ scegliere. - I believed it was right my son could choose by himself which university pick out.

Se + Imperfect Subjunctive + Conditional

  • Se fossi in te, non mi fiderei di lui. - If I were you, I wouldn’t trust him.
  • Se lui mi baciasse, sarei felicissima. - If he were to kiss me, I would be so happy.
  • Se Mario mi invitasse a cena, accetterei subito! - If Mario asked me out for dinner, I would accept immediately!

Conditional + S e + Imperfect Subjunctive

  • Sarei felicissima se lui mi baciasse. - I would be so happy if he were to kiss me.
  • Comprerei un guardaroba nuovo se io avessi tre mila dollari in più. - I would buy a new wardrobe if I had three thousand more dollars.
  • Direi una bugia se dicessi che sono stata bene. - It would be a lie if I said I’ve been great.

Magari (If Only) + Imperfect Subjunctive

  • Magari fosse vero. - If only it were true.
  • Magari potessi venire da noi! - If only you could come over to our place!

TIP: The word “magari” can also be used to mean “maybe” or “yes” depending on context.

You’ll notice that the translations between Italian and English aren’t direct, and that’s because this tense is interpreted differently in Italian than in English. For instance, in the last example, if you wanted to say “He helped her so she could learn Italian”, you might want to translate “could” as “potrebbe”, using the conditional tense. I know it’s confusing at first, but the more you’re exposed to the language and the more you practice, the more intuitive it will become. Plus, as you learn, you can rely on keywords or phrases to help you decide whether or not to use the imperfect subjunctive tense.

Key Phrases

  • Pensare che - To think that
  • Credere che - To believe that
  • Dubitare che - To doubt that
  • Essere importante che - To be important that
  • Bastare che - To be enough that
  • Dirsi che - To be said that
  • Sperare che - To hope that
  • Temere che - To fear that
  • Affinché - So that
  • Prima che - Before
  • Nel caso che - In case that

For conjugations of three regular verbs, see the table below.

Conjugating Verbs in the Imperfect Subjunctive

che io cantassi sapessi finissi
che tu cantassi sapessi finissi
che lui/lei/Lei cantasse sapesse finisse
che noi cantassimo sapessimo finissimo
che voi cantaste sapeste finiste
che loro/Loro cantassero sapessero finissero

What About Irregular Verbs?

Here are some examples of irregular verbs in the imperfect subjunctive.

Fossi Fossimo
Fossi Foste
Fosse Fossero
  • Se io fossi una sirenetta, sarei una brava nuotatrice. - If I were a mermaid, I would be a great swimmer.
  • Non ti piaccio?! Pensavo fossimo fidanzati! - You don’t like me?! I thought we were dating!
Stessi Stessimo
Stessi Steste
Stesse Stessero
  • Mi fa sentire come se stesse cercando di nascondere qualcosa. - It makes me feel like he was trying to hide something.
  • Pensavo stessimo andando dal panettiere. - I thought we were going to the bakery.
Dicessi Dicessimo
Dicessi Diceste
Dicesse Dicessero
  • Voleva che tu gli dicessi la verità! - She wanted you to tell her the truth!
  • Vorrei che Marta non dicesse nulla di questo a Mario. - I would not like for Marta to say anything about this to Mario.
  • E se ti dicessi che nulla di ciò che vedi è reale? - And what if I were to tell you that nothing you see is real?