There is no well-defined concept of right or wrong in a language. Just like a living organism, it keeps evolving and changing. Some structures that are generally accepted nowadays, were not accepted in the past. The more an expression is used, the more likely it will be acknowledged by both common people and scholars. This has always happened, it’s happening now, and it will happen in the future.
The Italian language makes no exception. In the first part of this article, we learned new possibilities concerning word order and sentence structure. In this second part, we will discuss how verb tenses and moods have recently been changing.
In its standard scope, the presente indicativo can express:
- Contemporary actions:
- Luca mangia la pasta.
- Habitual actions:
- Ogni domenica Luca mangia la pasta.
- Atemporal actions:
- Il fumo uccide.
There is also the so-called presente storico (historical present), which is typically used in narrative texts.
- Nel 1945 finisce la Seconda Guerra Mondiale.
In addition, the presente indicative has most recently been used to express future actions:
- Luca domani parte (imminent future).
- Nel 2016 ci sono gli Europei di calcio (future events that will certainly happen).
In these situations, other elements (domani, nel 2016) give the temporal hint instead of the verb. This method of using the present indicative is really common and widely accepted nowadays.
In its standard scope, the imperfetto can express:
- Simultaneity of two actions in the past:
- Ieri, mentre camminavo in centro, ho incontrato Luca.
- Habitual actions in the past:
- Da piccolo Luca andava sempre in vacanza al mare.
- Progressive actions in the past:
- Quando l’ho chiamato, Luca studiava (Quando l’ho chiamato, Luca stava studiando).
- Indeterminate actions in the past without any hint about the beginning, end or duration:
- Mia nonna aveva dei lunghi capelli neri.
In addition, the imperfetto has most recently been used to express:
- Hypothetical periods (third type):
- Se me lo dicevi prima, compravo un altro biglietto (the correct form is Se me lo avessi detto prima, avrei comprato un altro biglietto - congiuntivo trapassato + condizionale passato).
- The future in the past, used in indirect speech:
- Marco ha detto che veniva (the correct form is Marco ha detto che sarebbe venuto - condizionale passato).
- Courteous requests:
- Buongiorno, volevo un caffè.
The first two phenomena are commonly used in spoken language, but still considered wrong. The last one (the imperfetto used for a courteous request) is closer to being accepted.
In its standard scope, passato prossimo can express:
- Actions in the recent past:
- Ieri sono andato al cinema.
- Actions in the past, which still have an effect on the present:
- Due anni fa Luca si è sposato.
Furthermore, usage of the passato prossimo has largely expanded to also include expressing:
- Actions in the distant past:
- Nel 1999 sono andato a Londra.
One consequence of the evolution of the passato prossimo is the disappearance of the passato remoto. This was the verb tense that used to indicate actions that took place in the distant past, but with no effect on the present. The expansion of the passato prossimo is now accepted as standard, and the passato remoto has been relegated to the realm of history textbooks.
In its standard scope, the futuro semplice can express:
- Actions which take place in the future:
- Domani andrò all’università.
We already saw that the presente indicativo is replacing the futuro semplice in both imminent future actions as well as certain future events. In addition, the futuro semplice has recently found other uses:
- Conjectures, guessworks, and inferences regarding the present*:
- Dov’è Marco? Sarà a lavoro.
- Obligations regulated by rules or laws:
- La domanda d’iscrizione andrà inviata entro il 10 gennaio 2016.
These expressions are commonly used and accepted in contemporary Italian.
*The future anteriore is used for conjectures regarding the past: Dov’è andato Marco? Sarà uscito.
The Congiuntivo, also known as the subjunctive mood, is the mood that expresses doubt, uncertainty, and subjectivity. Recently, the indicativo, or the indicative mood, has begun replacing the congiuntivo, especially in spoken language. Although this is a common occurrence, this phenomenon is still considered to be a mistake, as well as an impoverishment of the richness of the language.
- Credo che il congiuntivo sia importante! GIUSTO!
- Credo che il congiuntivo è importante! SBAGLIATO!
This mood, which has two tenses, presente and passato, has been widening its usage in recent years. Originally, its use was to express the consequence of a hypothetical situation.
- Se riuscissi a studiare, uscirei (condizionale presente).
- Se fossi riuscito a studiare, sarei uscito (condizionale passato).
As we already saw, the condizionale passato can be used to express the future in the past in indirect speech (recently this has been mistakenly replaced with the imperfetto).
There are other possibilities offered by this mood, which are widely accepted and considered as standard:
- Expressing desires and wishes:
- Vorrei partire per un lungo viaggio.
- Making courteous requests:
- Buongiorno, vorrei un caffè
- Expressing personal advice:
- Dovresti smettere di fumare.
Finally, this mood is also used to express:
- Quotes that are used to report unverified information, especially in journalism:
- Il ladro sarebbe un uomo italiano di 40 anni.
This form is widely used and accepted.
What have we learned?
- The presente indicativo can also be used to express the imminent future and future events that will definitely take place. These phenomena are very common and widely accepted.
- The imperfetto can be used to express courteous requests, like the condizionale. Moreover, it is used for hypotheticals (third type) and for expressing the future in the past in indirect speech (both are still considered incorrect).
- The usage of the passato prossimo has been widening and it is now replacing the passato remoto.
- The futuro semplice, while often replaced with the presente indicativo, has found new uses such as expressing conjectures, guesswork, or obligations (commonly accepted).
- The congiuntivo is still fighting against the expansion of the indicativo. There is still no argument about this; it’s incorrect.
- The condizionale is commonly used nowadays to express desires, wishes, courteous requests, personal advice, and quotes. All of these phenomena are commonly considered standard.
Being able to speak and understand a language requires much more than knowledge of a set of rules. If you really want to speak like an italiano, you must be ready to open yourself up and embrace the never-ending changes of this language.
Hero Image by Brad Coy (CC BY 2.0)