Friday, September 12, 2008

The subjunctive in Italian

Scary subjunctive! What is it, anyhow?

First of all, it is called congiuntivo in Italian, making it sound something like an infectious disease. And some people (including Italians) really seem to view it this way, judging by how they avoid it.

We actually have some pitiful remnants of this verbal form in English. An example: "I strongly suggested that he spend more time studying his Italian." Here, the normal third person singular -s of the present indicative is left out because it is in fact a subjunctive.

But the usage of this form differs from language to language e.g. from French to Italian. Basically the form is not a tense, but a mood. That is, it does not indicate something about the time of the action (present, future, past), but about the view the speaker has about an action. The coloring, we might say. It is therefore used after verbs denoting belief, hope, fear and so on. All of this is subjective (and in fact the subjunctive is subjective), but a number of verbs almost automatically require the form after them in a subordinate clause. Credo che sia Marco. Penso che abbia ragione. Spero che venga. These are the kinds of things that are said in everyday speaking- therefore, you will have to gain some level of mastery of this pesky form sooner or later.

As I said, the subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. This means that you must learn not only the form of the subjunctive itself, but its tense. Credo che sia Marco ("I think it's Marco") becomes Credo che fosse Marco ("I think it was Marco") in the past. Double trouble!

You may have heard that the subjunctive is not used, or rarely used, in Italy at present. While it is true that it is sometimes shunned, ignored, misused, and abused, you need to know it and use it if you wish to speak proper Italian. I tussled mightily with the popular Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini last year when he (gasp!) failed to use a subjunctive after using the verb pensare. So that it is far from extinct or irrelevant. More on the subjunctive later.