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Discovering the passive voice in Italian

Learning Italian by ear is the best way to jump in, to start talking to people, to communicate. Listen, repeat. And sometimes you'll get it wrong. You'll leave out a little word, you'll get the gender wrong. And a lot of the time you don't really know the grammar of what you are saying. This happens in one's own language as well. But if you are communicating, you are already doing a lot more than people who are scared to utter even one word without knowing the grammar. 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

 

Sometimes, though, you get curious or you get stymied. Why do they say this or that? 

 

This lesson has three main sections. If you are already well-versed in how to use the passive voice, you can skip to venire and andare (this might or might not be new for you) or you can skip all the way to the si passivante. However, you might have better luck understanding the si passivante if you go through all the steps.  If, on the other hand, it's all pretty daunting, skip right down to The passive voice goes with transitive verbs!, then read about Venire (to come) and andare (to go) but skip the last section on the si passivante.

 

A while back, one of our readers did get curious and stymied when she saw the following caption in a documentary video about the beautiful southern Italian city, Matera, and asked, "Why did they use essere instead of avere here?" After all, sistemare is a transitive verb.

 

Quando si è sistemata la piazza nel millenovecentonovantuno, ci si è accorti che il palombaro, cioè questa grande cisterna, era colmo fino all'orlo.

When the piazza was renovated in nineteen ninety-one, they noticed that the "palombaro", that is, this large cistern, was full to the brim.

Captions 12-13, Meraviglie EP. 1 - Part 15

 Play Caption

 

Her question was actually quite well-founded. It turns out it has to do with a grammatical phenomenon called the si passivante (the si that "fakes" or "allows" a passive voice). Frankly, some of us non-native speakers have lived in Italy and spoken Italian for years without even hearing a peep about this si passivante. There are a great many Italians, too, who will say, Boh? (who knows?) when you ask them about the si passivante, so don't worry if you don't get it. But if you are slightly nerdy, you might just want to know (read on or scroll way down...).

 

Daniela has recently mentioned this in a video about the passive voice in Italian, so it has come up again. And it's time to do some explaining. We'll get there, little by little, but let's back up a bit, hoping to make things clear as we go. In fact, let's back way up.

 

The passive voice goes with transitive verbs!

To understand the passive voice, let's start out with the active voice (backing up even further). And let's keep it simple.

We have an active sentence with a subject, a transitive verb, and an object.

Active: Il contadino guida il trattore (The farmer drives the tractor). 

Il contadino is the subject (and the agent), guidare (to drive) is the verb in the third person singular, and il trattore (the tractor) is the direct object.

 

To form the passive, we take the direct object from the active sentence, put it at the beginning (in the subject slot), use the conjugated auxiliary essere (to be) + the past participle of the verb, the preposition da (by), and then the agent (the ex-subject). Here's what it looks like:

Passive: Il trattore è guidato dal contadino (the tractor is driven by the farmer).

 

So the Italian passive voice, at least at this point, is similar to English. And just as in English, we add the preposition da (by) before the agent (il contadino [the farmer] in this case).

 

Just to see what happens, let's use some plurals. Here, the subject is plural (the students) and the object is singular (the winner).

Gli studenti scelgono il vincitore (the students choose the winner).

 

Let's put in the passive and see what happens.

Il vincitore è scelto dagli studenti (the winner is chosen by the students).

The verb essere agrees with the new subject, il vincitore (a masculine noun), so there is an o at the end of scelto.

 

If it had been la vincitrice, it would have been:

La vincitrice è scelta dagli studenti.

 

1,2) After you have read the rest of the lesson, maybe you will be able to use another verb in place of essere for the two sentences above. Let's say we are talking about the rules of the competition.

 

But what if the subject (of the active sentence) is singular and the object is plural?

Il presidente della classe sceglie i candidati (the president of the class chooses the candidates). 

 

I candidati sono scelti dal presidente della classe (the candidates are chosen by the president of the class).

 

We notice that the agreement is between the new subject (ex-object) and the verb (i candidati sono scelti).

 

3) Here, too, try using another verb in place of essere. We're talking about the rules of the competition.

 

As Daniela said in her lesson about the passive voice, we can use the passive voice when we have a transitive verb such as scegliere (to choose). 

That is key. That's the main thing you have to remember about the passive voice as we move on to murkier waters.

 

OK so far?

 

Let's go one step further into the weeds. Let's go into a compound tense such as the passato prossimo (that conjugates like the present perfect, but is often translated with [and represents] the simple past tense).

Il presidente ha scelto una ragazza  (the president chose a girl).

 

Let's see what happens in the passive voice:

Una ragazza è stata scelta dal presidente (a girl was chosen by the president).

 

So far, so good. Fin qui ci siamo.

 

Now, we're going to put a little wrench in the works (mixing metaphors?).

 

Venire (to come) and andare (to go) 

There is another verb pair that Italians use to form the passive voice, more often than you might think: venire (to come) and andare (to go). Who knew? These have a slightly different feeling and purpose. We could look at these verbs as more of an active-type, passive tense (although perhaps that's an oxymoron). If you think of times when we use "get" instead of "to be" in passive sentences, it might make more sense. We often use venire when we're talking about how things are done, or things that are done on a continuing basis, and we use andare when we're talking about things that have to get done. 

 

Let's start with venire.

 

If I am telling you the rules of how candidates are chosen, for example, or how they get chosen, I might use venire (to come). 

 

Active: Il presidente sceglie il vicepresidente. The president chooses the vice-president.

Passive: Il vicepresidente viene scelto dal presidente. The vice-president gets chosen by the president.

 

4a, 4b, 4c, 4d, 4e, 4f) Try putting these sentences in the imperfetto (this is how they did things in the past), in the simple future (this is how they are planning to do things), and in the conditional (how, hypothetically, things could work).

 

The rule is that venire and andare are only used in simple tenses. In compound tenses you use essere. This is a good thing to know, perhaps, but you probably won't want to even try it. We already use the past participle of the transitive verb in the passive voice, so having another one in the same sentence would make a big mess. So don't worry about it. You can use these with the simple future or imperfetto (see the solutions to the exercise above).

 

The comforting thing is, however, that if you just listen, and notice that, "Oh yeah! People do use this venire in the passive sometimes," you will get accustomed to hearing it in certain types of situations. Certain moments just call for it and pretty soon, you will get a feel for it because you will have heard it so many times. And then, you will start using it yourself, with a smile on your face, and plenty of well-earned pride. You just need to pay attention and be aware that it exists.

 

Let's talk about andare, which might seem a bit weirder, but here's a typical example.

Non ho i soldi per riparare il tetto, ma va fatto. Piove in casa! (I don't have the money to repair the roof, but it has to be done. The roof is leaking!

 

The repairman walks on my kitchen floor with his dirty shoes and apologizes.

 

Ho sporcato il pavimento, mi dispiace (I got the floor dirty, sorry).

 

I reply (even if it's not true...):

 

Non fa niente. Va lavato (Don't worry. It needs to get washed). 

 

Il pavimento is masculine, so I used the o ending on the past participle of lavare.

 

5) What if the repairman speaks while he is walking on the floor?

6) What if the repairman doesn't really want to involve himself personally. Maybe he would use the si passivante!?! 

 

Let's say I am helping you make lunch. I take the lettuce out of the fridge and ask you:

 

Va lavata l'insalata (does the lettuce need to get washed)?

-No, è già lavata (no, it's already washed).

 

You notice that insalata is feminine, so the past participle of lavare agrees with it and therefore has a feminine ending.

 

There's a great example of using andare to form the passive in the movie (on Yabla) "Sei mai stata sulla luna?." A lawyer is telling Guia she has to take care of the guy who works the land she inherited. He uses the conditional to "soften the blow." She wants to know if she has a choice.

Andrebbe sistemato anche lui. Andrebbe o va? -Va. Va.

He should get taken care of as well. He should be or he has to be? -He has to be. He has to be.

Captions 54-56, Sei mai stata sulla luna? film - Part 4

 Play Caption

 

So the answer is: Va sistemato (he must get taken care of). She has no choice.

 

The si passivante

The verb sistemare brings us to the matter that started this whole ball rolling: the si passivante. Since we can't very well write a book (this lesson is already way too long), you might want to check out the lessons about the particella (particle) si. Si has various functions, and it's hard to be sure which is which sometimes, but since we are deep in the weeds, we will try to persevere. In fact, the si passivante is a variation on the si impersonale and like venire and andare, is only used with simple tenses, not compound ones. It's also only used with transitive verbs (because it has to do with the passive voice).

 

The following example is what our reader wrote to us about.

Quando si è sistemata la piazza nel millenovecentonovantuno, ci si è accorti che il palombaro, cioè questa grande cisterna, era colmo fino all'orlo.

When the piazza was renovated in nineteen ninety-one, they noticed that the "palombaro", that is, this large cistern, was full to the brim.

Captions 12-13, Meraviglie EP. 1 - Part 15

 Play Caption

 

First let's note that if we have a transitive verb such as sistemare, in an active sentence anyway, we usually use the auxiliary avere, as in the following example:

Hanno sistemato la piazza (They renovated the piazza or they have renovated the piazza).

 

If we put it in the passive voice, the rule is that we need the auxiliary essere (or in some cases, venire) + da (by) + past participle of the verb. The participle has to agree with the (new) subject. 

 

So we could say:

La piazza è stata sistemata [dal comune] (the piazza was renovated [by the town]).

 

We can also leave out the part in brackets. La piazza is the subject, but not the actor or agent. The town is the agent.

 

We can use different tenses in the passive, such as, for example, the future:

La piazza sarà sistemata... (the piazza will be renovated).

 

Or

La piazza è sistemata regolarmente dal comune (the piazza is renovated regularly by the town). 

La piazza viene sistemata regolarmente dal comune (the piazza gets renovated regularly by the town).

 

But in the caption in question, it's a little different. We have that pesky si that can mean so many things and cause confusion for non-native speakers. It's not a true passive sentence. It's also not a reflexive sentence because the piazza can't renovate itself. Here it is again:

Si è sistemata la piazza (the piazza was renovated).

 

We have a transitive verb, sistemare, and we have the (ex-) object of sistemare (la piazza) but we don't have an agent at all One key aspect is that we could also put the sentence in the plural. Let's say there are 2 piazzas.

Si sono sistemate le piazze (the piazzas were renovated).

 

The passive aspects that are present are: sistemare is a transitive verb, the auxiliary verb essere is used, and the past participle of the verb is used.

 

The passive aspects that are not present, are: there is no preposition da (by) and there is no agent. So, si is a kind of prop-word (or, we could say, a kind of si impersonale). It stands in for the absent agent. Since the sentence has the feeling of a passive voice, because of some of its characteristics, such as the past participle, the particle si is called a si passivante (a si that makes something passive).

 

So it looks kind of like a passive sentence, it sounds kind of like a passive sentence, but it isn't a true passive sentence. It still gets translated like the passive, however, because there's no real equivalent for the si passivante in English. 

 

The sentence also looks like it uses an impersonal si. But a characteristic of the [normal] si impersonale is that it is always in the third person singular, and is often used with intransitive verbs (so there won't be a direct object). It is often a stand-in for an unspecified person. In our case, we have seen that we could have used the same construction in the plural. 

 

The si also looks like the reflexive si. Sistemarsi does exist as a reflexive verb. Here's an example of the reflexive verb sistemarsi (to get settled): The person is talking to a female.

Stai bene? Sei arrivata? Ti sei sistemata? Sei in clinica?

Are you well? Did you get there? Did you settle in? Are you at the clinic?

Captions 15-16, Sposami EP 1 - Part 8

 Play Caption

 

We have come to a stopping place on our grammatical journey. There's undoubtedly more to say, and there will be questions. But once you get into the swing of things, all these different passives, and all these different si's will just start being part of your baggage. And with Yabla videos, you will start noticing how things work, how people say things. You'll go back to listening and repeating, but with more awareness. 

 

Extra credit

 

1) Il vincitore viene scelto dagli studenti (the winner gets chosen by the students).

2 La vincitrice viene scelta dagli studenti.

3) I candidati vengono scelti dal presidente della classe (the candidates are chosen by the president of the class).

4a) Active: [In quell'epoca] il presidente sceglieva il vicepresidente. [In those days,] the president would choose the vice-president.

4b) Passive: Il vicepresidente veniva scelto dal presidente. The vice-president would get chosen by the president.

4c) Active: Il presidente sceglierà il vicepresidente. The president will choose the vice-president.

4d) Passive: Il vicepresidente verrà scelto dal presidente. The vice-president will get chosen by the president.

4e) Active: Il presidente sceglierebbe il vicepresidente. The president would choose the vice-president.

4f) Passive: Il vicepresidente verrebbe scelto dal presidente. The vice-president would get chosen by the president.

5) Sto sporcando il pavimento, mi dispiace (I'm getting the floor dirty, sorry).

6) Si è sporcato il pavimento, mi dispiace (the floor got dirty, I'm sorry).

 

Thanks for reading. Let us know if you have questions, or examples to try out. We'll try our best to help out.

You can write to us at newsletter@yabla.com

 

 

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