The Italian Subjunctive Mood: a Guide to the Congiuntivo Imperfetto


Most English speakers who decide to learn Italian shudder at the mere mention of the imperfect subjunctive (congiuntivo imperfetto). It corresponds pretty neatly to the indicative imperfect tense, and some aspects of its use can be tricky to master. Don’t worry, though. With some practice, it will begin to come naturally. 

In this lesson we will be looking in depth at the congiuntivo imperfetto. Ready? Let’s start!

Using the congiuntivo imperfetto

Just like the congiuntivo presente, the Italian congiuntivo imperfetto is to be used whenever talking about hopes, doubts, desires, opinions and fears, but in the past.

The Italian imperfect subjunctive is used to:

  • express personal considerations and feelings about something:
Pensavo che Élodie fosse francese
I thought Élodie was French
Credevo che Amelia fosse più giovaneI thought Amelia was younger
  • say what you would do:
Se fossi in te, non mi fiderei di AriannaIf I were you, I wouldn’t trust Arianna
  • talk about what you wanted someone to do in the past:
Desideravo solo che mi dicessi la veritàI just wanted you to tell me the truth
Elvira voleva che la aiutassimo a tinteggiare le pareti di casaElvira wanted us to help her paint her house walls
Perché sono passati tutti questi giorni senza che nessuno facesse nulla?Why have all these days gone by without anyone doing anything about it?
  • express wishes:
Elisa sperava che tu fossi sincero con leiElisa hoped you were sincere with her
Speravo che non si arrivassea questo puntoI hoped we wouldn’t get to this point
  • express fear:
Temevo che Loredana perdesse l’aereoI was afraid that Loredana missed the plane
  • express doubts and uncertainty:
Avevo i miei dubbi che Angelica fosse onestaI suspected that Angelica was not honest
  • talk about how you wanted things to be in the past:
Volevo solo che mi lasciaste in paceI just wanted you to leave me alone

As you can see above, the Italian imperfect subjunctive is used when the verb in the main clause is in the indicative present perfect tense (passato prossimo), imperfect tense (imperfetto) or remote past tense (passato remoto).

The hypothetical period

The congiuntivo imperfetto is also used to express hypotheses in the hypothetical period (periodo ipotetico). In this case, it is used in a dependent clause introduced by se (if) when we have the condizionale presente in the main clause, to talk about something that might happen.

The hypothetical phrase is made of two clauses. The subordinate clause expresses a supposition, whereas the main clause expresses a consequence. You can use this construction to talk about improbable yet possible situations.

Let’s see some examples:

Se avessi una casa più grande, adotterei altri due caniIf I had a bigger house, I would adopt two more dogs (I am talking about what I would do in an imagined situation)
Cosa faresti se vincessi la lotteria?If you won the lottery, what would you do?
Se quelle malelingue sapessero quello che penso di loro, parlerebbero di me ancora peggioIf all those rumour-mongers knew what I think of them, they’d talk about me even worse

Constructing the congiuntivo imperfetto

The imperfect subjunctive of regular verbs is formed by dropping the infinitive endings and adding the appropriate endings.

To make the congiuntivo imperfetto of regular verbs ending in -are, take off the infinitive ending to find the stem of the verb and add the following endings: 
  • -assi for “I”
  • -assi for “you”
  • -asse for “he”/ “she”/ “it”
  • -assimo for “we”
  • -aste for “y’all”
  • -assero for “they”
Tornare (to return, to go back)

(che) io tornassi

(che) tu tornassi

(che) lui/lei tornasse

(che) noi tornassimo

(che) voi tornaste

(che) loro tornassero

To make the congiuntivo imperfetto of regular verbs ending in -ere, take off the infinitive ending to find the stem of the verb and add the following endings: 

  • -essi for “I”
  • -essi for “you”
  • -esse for “he”/ “she”/ “it”
  • -essimo for “we”
  • -este for “y’all”
  • -essero for “they”
Vendere (to sell)

(che) io vendessi

(che) tu vendessi

(che) lui/lei vendesse

(che) noi vendessimo

(che) voi vendeste

(che) loro vendessero

To make the congiuntivo imperfetto of regular verbs ending in -ire, take off the infinitive ending to find the stem of the verb and add the following endings:

  • -issi for “I”
  • -issi for “you”
  • -isse for “he”/ “she”/ “it”
  • -issimo for “we”
  • -iste for “y’all”
  • -issero for “they”
Fornire (to provide)

(che) io fornissi

(che) tu fornissi

(che) lui/lei fornisse

(che) noi fornissimo

(che) voi forniste

(che) loro fornissero

As you might have noticed, the endings are the same for all conjugations, except for the characteristic vowel that each conjugation maintains. The first and the second persons singular are the same.

The main stress falls on the second syllable from the end except for the “noi” and “loro” forms, which have the stress on the third vowel from the end.

Irregular verbs in the imperfect subjunctive

Some verbs are irregular in the imperfect subjunctive, which means that they do not follow the regular conjugation patterns. 

The verbs essere (to be) forms the congiuntivo imperfetto irregularly.
Essere (to be)

(che) io fossi

(che) tu fossi

(che) lui/lei fosse

(che) noi fossimo

(che) voi foste

(che) loro fossero

These are some more common irregular verbs:

Dare (to give)

(che) io dessi

(che) tu dessi

(che) lui/lei desse

(che) noi dessimo

(che) voi deste

(che) loro dessero

Fare (to do, to make)

(che) io facessi

(che) tu facessi

(che) lui/lei facesse

(che) noi facessimo

(che) voi faceste

(che) loro facessero

Dire (to say)

(che) io dicessi

(che) tu dicessi

(che) lui/lei dicesse

(che) noi dicessimo

(che) voi diceste

(che) loro dicessero

Stare (to stay)

(che) io stessi

(che) tu stessi

(che) lui/lei stesse

(che) noi stessimo

(che) voi steste

(che) loro stessero

Porre (to put, to set)

(che) io ponessi

(che) tu ponessi

(che) lui/lei ponesse

(che) noi ponessimo

(che) voi poneste

(che) loro ponessero

Bere (to drink)

(che) io bevessi

(che) tu bevessi

(che) lui/lei bevesse

(che) noi bevessimo

(che) voi beveste

(che) loro bevessero

Trarre (to pull)

(che) io traessi 

(che) tu traessi

(che) lui/lei traesse

(che) noi traessimo

(che) voi traeste

(che) loro traessero

Tradurre (to translate)

(che) io traducessi

(che) tu traducessi

(che) lui/lei traducesse

(che) noi traducessimo

(che) voi traduceste

(che) loro traducessero

Fortunately, the verb avere (to have) is regular in the congiuntivo imperfetto:

Avere (to have) 

(che) io avessi 

(che) tu avessi

(che) lui/lei avesse

(che) noi avessimo

(che) voi aveste

(che) loro avessero

Which expressions require the congiuntivo imperfetto?

Here is a list of expressions that require the imperfect subjunctive in Italian:

  • Magari – If only
Magari potessi tornare idietroIf only I could turn back time
Magari fosse così sempliceIf only it were so simple
  • Caso mai – In the case that, in case
Caso mai non vi rivedessi: buon pomeriggio, buonasera e buonanotte! (cit. The Truman Show)In case I don’t see you: good afternoon, good evening, and good night!
  • Come se – As if
Fa’ come se fossi a casa tuaMake yourself at home (Literally: do exactly as if you were at your home)
  • Anche se – Even if
I miei cani mi amerebbero anche se fossi povero, brutto e malatoMy dogs would love me even if I was poor, ugly and sick
  • Come se – As if
Mi raccomando, comportati come se non sapessi niente!Behave as if you know nothing, OK?
  • Se – If
Se non potessi avere figli, valuterei senza dubbio l’adozioneIf I couldn’t have children, I would surely consider adoption
  • Affinché – So that
Accompagnammo Andrea in ambulatorio affinché il medico controllasse lo stato della sua gambaWe took Andrea to the clinic to have the doctor check his leg
  • Prima che – Before
Ci sono voluti diciotto lunghi mesi prima che divorziassimoIt took eighteen long months before we divorced
  • Nel caso in cui – In case that
Nel caso in cui riscontrassi delle irregolarità, ti preghiamo di segnalarceloShould you find any problems, please let us know

When you use Italian verbs expressing hope, doubt, expectation and fear, the verb following che (that) should be in the subjunctive.

Here is a list of verbs that require the use of the subjunctive:

Pensare (to think)

Sapere (to know)

Sperare (to hope)

Dubitare (to doubt)

Temere (to fear)

Credere (to believe)

Desiderare (to wish) 

Immaginare (to imagine)

Sospettare (to suspect)

Evincere, dedurre (to deduce)

Supporre (to suppose)

Desumere (to presume)

Let’s see some examples:

La nonna pensava che partissimo oggi per le vacanzeGrandma thought we were leaving today for the holidays
Non sapevo che tu fumassiI didn’t know you smoked
Non immaginavo che tu e Francesco vi conoscesteI didn’t imagine that you and Francesco knew each other

As you might have noticed, the subject of the main verb is different from the one expressed by the congiuntivo imperfetto. When the subject is the same, the infinitive is used instead.

Spero di poter collaborare nuovamente con voiI hope to work again with you
Temo di non essere l’unica in questa situazioneI’m afraid I’m not the only one in this situation

Typical phrases that call for the congiuntivo imperfetto include:

  • Si diceva che – It was said that
Si diceva che gli spiriti maligni infestassero il castelloIt was said that evil spirits haunted the castle
  • Non è detto che - Not necessarily
Non è detto che fosse la soluzione miglioreIt wasn’t necessarily the best solution
  • Bastava che – Just had to, only needed to
Bastava che mi dessi un colpo di telefonoYou only needed to give me a ring
  • Bisognava che – It was necessary that
Bisognava che Leonardo si impegnasse di piùIt was necessary for Leonardo to work harder
  • Era ora che – It was time
Dopo dodici anni di fidanzamento, era ora che vi

After twelve years together, it was time for you to marry!
  • Era meglio che – It was better 
Era meglio che la riunione si
oggi alle 16:00
It was better to have the meeting today at 4pm
  • Non era giusto che – It was unfair
Non era giusto che Giuseppe ti trattasse cosìIt was so unfair for Giuseppe to treat you like that
  • Era un peccato che – It was a pity that
Era un peccato che tu non potessi venireIt was a pity that you weren’t able to come
  • Era opportuno che – It was appropriate
Era opportuno che andassi a trovare Barbara all’ospedaleIt was appropriate for me to go and visit Barbara at the hospital
  • Sembrava che – It seemed like
Alessandra era talmente pallida che sembrava che stesse per svenireAlessandra was so pale that she looked like she was going to faint

The congiuntivo imperfetto is also used in sentences introduced by:

  • indefinite pronouns or adjectives like qualsiasi/qualunque (any), chiunque (whoever) and dovunque/ovunque (anywhere):
Ovunque andasse, l’ex marito la seguivaHer ex-husband followed her wherever she went
  • adjectives or pronouns niente che (nothing that), l’unico/il solo che (the only one that) and nessuno che (nobody that):
L’unico che sapesse tener testa a quell’uomo era RossanoRossano was the only one who could stand up to that man
Niente che non si potesse risolvereNothing that couldn’t be solved

To sum up…

  • The congiuntivo imperfetto of regular -are verbs is formed by replacing the ending of the infinitive with -assi, -assi, -asse, -assimo, -aste and -assero.
  • The congiuntivo imperfetto of regular -ere verbs is formed by replacing the ending of the infinitive with -essi, -essi, -esse, -essimo, -este and -essero.
  • The congiuntivo imperfetto of regular -ire verbs is formed by replacing the ending of the infinitive with -issi, -issi, -isse, -issimo, -iste and -issero.
  • It is to be used when talking about how you wanted things to be and expressing wishes, hopes, opinions and fears in the past.
Speravo che stavolta la cena di Natale si facesse a casa mia I hoped to have the Christmas dinner at my house this time
  • The congiuntivo imperfetto is used to talk about imagined situations and express possible hypothesis in the hypothetical period (periodo ipotetico).
Se guadagnassi di più, assumerei dei collaboratoriIf I earned more, I would hire employees

Hope you learned about the congiuntivo imperfetto with this article. Keep practising!

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