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Servire: a surprisingly tricky verb to use

 

A recent user comment prompted this lesson about servire when it's used to express need. The Italian approach to expressing need bears some explaining. In fact, we have already addressed this before. 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

One way to express need is with the noun il bisogno (the need) and the odd verb bisognare only ever used in the third person singular impersonal. See this previous lesson. We can also use the verb servire (to be necessary, to be useful, to be used). In fact, we have already had a look at this interesting verb in this lesson. Take a look at these two lessons to get up to speed. In the present lesson, we will talk some more about how to use servire. It can be tricky!

 

There has been some discussion about a caption in a recent Yabla video. It's the story of Adriano Olivetti —Yes, that Olivetti: the typewriter guy. This is a fictionalized RAI production, starring Luca Zingaretti, famous as Commissario Montalbano in the well-known Italian TV series of the same name.

 

Here's the Italian sentence:

Serviranno dei fondi.

Here's our original translation:

We'll need funds.

 

 

A learner wrote in to say the translation should be "They will need funds."

 

Indeed, serviranno appears in its third person plural form. So, of course, you would think it should be "they."

 

This comment reminds us that the verb servire doesn't really have a counterpart in English, not one that works the same way, at any rate.

Yabla translators have since modified the translation to be less conversational, but easier to grasp. As a matter of fact, the verb servire is often best translated with the passive voice. As freshly modified, it is easier to see that the third person plural (future tense) serviranno comes from "the funds."

 

 

Serviranno dei fondi.

Funds will be needed.

Caption 63, Adriano Olivetti La forza di un sogno Ep.2 - Part 15

 Play Caption

 

Indeed, Adriano could have said, ci serviranno dei fondi, making it personal, but he didn't (although we can infer it) and that's why it was particularly confusing.

 

In the following example, the indirect object ci (for us, to us) is present, so it's a bit easier to understand. Serviranno, the third person plural of servire, refers to the utensili (the utensils) listed: lemon squeezer, knife, etc.

 

Per quanto riguarda gli utensili, ci serviranno, dunque, uno spremiagrumi per i limoni, un coltello per tagliare i limoni

In regard to utensils, we will need, accordingly, a lemon squeezer for the lemons, a knife to cut the lemons,

Captions 40-44, L'Italia a tavola Involtini di alici - Part 1

 Play Caption

 

In English, especially in speech, we often use "to need" in an active way, as a transitive verb. "I need something." You may have discovered that there is no Italian verb we can use the same way. When we use servire, the thing we need is the subject and we use an indirect object with it. In the following example, Martino is asking himself what he needs to camp out in an old farmhouse. "What is necessary for me to take with me?" 

 

Che mi può servire?

What do I need?

Caption 30, Chi m'ha visto film - Part 9

 Play Caption

 

To make things more complicated, servire also means "to be used."  In this case, servire is used with the preposition a (to, for). We may ask the question:

 

A che cosa serve (what is it used for, what is it for)?

Serve a [insert verb in the infinitive or a noun] (it's used for, it's for [insert a gerund or a noun]).

 

Ecco a cosa serve il brodo vegetale.

That's what the vegetable broth is for.

Caption 95, L'Italia a tavola La pappa al pomodoro - Part 2

 Play Caption

 

The following example shows how needing, being useful, or being used are so close that Italians use the same word.

 

Una fabbrica che funziona, in una società che non funziona, non serve a niente.

A factory that works in a society that doesn't work is useless.

Caption 26, Adriano Olivetti La forza di un sogno Ep. 1 - Part 8

 Play Caption

 

We can translate non serve a niente in a couple of additional ways:

 

Who needs a factory that works, if the society it is part of doesn't work?

A factory that works in a society that doesn't work is of no use to anyone.

A factory that works in a society that doesn't work serves no purpose. 

 

Note: Servire can also mean "to serve" as in serving someone at the table, or at the counter in a post office, supermarket or any other place. But that's much less complicated and not what this lesson was about.

 

PRACTICE

We hope we have been successful in clarifying the verb servire, at least in part. We'll leave you with a few exercises that may further clarify the verb as you do them.

Change these sentences with bisogno or bisogna to one with servire or the contrary. Add personal pronouns where necessary or desirable.

 

Per questa ricetta, ho bisogno di tre uova (for this recipe, I need three eggs).

Di che cosa hai bisogno (what do you need)?

Non c'è bisogno di prendere l'autobus, il posto è a due passi a piedi (no need to take the bus. The place is well within walking distance).

Che bisogno c'era di essere così cattivo (Why did you need to be so mean)?

Servirà un ombrello, visto il cielo (judging from the sky, an umbrella will be necessary).

Serve un altro posto a tavola, perché viene un mio amico (we need another place at the table, because a friend of mine is coming).

Have fun. You'll find some possible solutions here. If you think your solution is correct, but isn't present among the possible solutions, let us know at newsletter@yabla.com.

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

 

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