If you knew the Italian subjunctive well, life would be easier, right?
The above is a simple conditional statement. It happens to use the subjunctive, but in English we don’t really notice it because “knew” just looks like the past tense of “to know.” If you think about it, though, it’s an “unreal” past tense. We’re talking hypothetically (unless of course you’re already an expert on the Italian subjunctive), not about the past.
If we put the above conditional sentence into Italian, we still use a past tense, but it’s a subjunctive past tense called congiuntivo imperfetto (imperfect subjunctive).
Se sapessi bene il congiuntivo italiano, la vita sarebbe più facile, no?
The imperfect subjunctive has different endings from the other conjugations, so it’s impossible to fake! Sapessi is the first person congiuntivo imperfetto of the verb sapere (to know). Here’s the conjugation chart for sapere (to know).
The second part of the sentence uses the conditional, which in English is formed with “would” or “could” (“life would be easier”). Here again, Italian has its own special conjugation for the conditional, called il condizionale, and only needs conjugating in the present. Sarebbe is the third person singular condizionale presente of essere (to be).
The little princess in Il principe ranocchio (The Frog Prince), new at Yabla this week, is wishing she had her golden ball back, but the reality is that it’s at the bottom of the pond and she doesn’t believe she’ll get it back. So we have another hypothetical situation.
Se solo avessi indietro la mia palla d'oro! Darei tutti i miei bei vestiti e gioielli per lei!
If only I had my golden ball back, I would give all my fine clothes and jewels for it!
Captions 15-16, Ti racconto una fiaba - Il Principe RanocchioPlay Caption
In a nutshell:
If we break down a conditional statement into its two clauses, we come up with these basic elements.
In the subordinate, or dependent clause:
se (if) +
a verb in the congiuntivo imperfetto
And in the main clause:
a verb in the condizionale presente
Here are some examples where the person is the same in both parts of the sentence. The verb conjugated in the subjunctive is essere (to be). The verb conjugated in the conditional is comprare (to buy).
Se io fossi ricca, comprerei una casa.
If I were rich, I would buy a house.
Se tu fossi ricca, compreresti una casa?
If you were rich, would you buy a house?
Se lei fosse ricca, comprerebbe una casa.
If she were rich, she would buy a house.
Se loro fossero ricchi, comprerebbero una casa.
If they were rich, they would buy a house.
Se noi fossimo ricchi, compreremmo una casa.
If we were rich, we would buy a house.
Se voi foste ricchi, comprereste una casa.
If you (pl.) were rich, you would buy a house.
Note that you can switch the two clauses around like this:
Lei comprerebbe una casa se fosse ricca.
She would buy a house if she were rich.
Try the same thing with avere (to have). Here’s an example to get you started.
Se avessi tanti soldi, lavorerei molto meno.
If I had a lot of money, I would work much less.
To get even more practice, keep on using the model, but change the adjectives, the subjunctive verb, and the conditional verb along with the person. If you’re a bit unsure, just change one element in one clause at a time (the person, the subjunctive verb, or the conditional verb). If you’re more advanced, be adventurous!
Keep in mind that the personal pronouns are present when they need to clarify who’s doing what, or for emphasis. Otherwise, they can be included in the verb in both the conditional and the subjunctive. It can get tricky between the first and second person, which have the same endings, and between the third person and polite second person, which have the same endings (see conjugation charts). It’s a good idea to practice it both ways.
Don’t worry. Even though the grammar itself might seem daunting and complicated, before you know it, verbs in the subjunctive will become part of your everyday Italian speech.