Say hello to the tense in an Italian that will make you stop + think about how to say it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
For example, “I WOULD HAVE TOLD Marco why I didn’t go to the party, but I couldn’t figure out how to say it in Italian. The past conditional tense is too challenging.”
OR, “I WOULD HAVE LIKED to tell her my stories from my trip to Rome, but I WOULD HAVE HAD TO STOP for thirty seconds to think between each sentence because of the conditional past tense.”
Oooookay, I’ll admit that I’m being a little dramatic.
The past conditional tense is not that challenging, but it does, just like all the other tenses, take some practice to get used to.
It just requires a few more moving parts that you have to encourage your brain to accommodate.
Before I walk you through how to use the past conditional tense in Italian, let’s first chat about when you need to use it because it can differ slightly from English.
When to Use the Past Conditional:
— Advice/Opinion: You SHOULD HAVE STUDIED Italian every day. – AVRESTI DOVUTO STUDIARE l’italiano ogni giorno.
— Doubt: I didn’t know if he WOULD HAVE WANTED TO LEARN Italian. – Non sapevo se lui AVREBBE VOLUTO IMPARARE l’italiano.
— Guess/Assumption (typically something that hasn’t been confirmed yet): Secondo le notizie, quattro dei modelli di Gucci sarebbero stati rapiti proprio dalla passerrella! Chi AVREBBE POTUTO RAPIRLE?! – According to the news, four of the Gucci models HAVE BEEN KIDNAPPED right from the runway! Who COULD HAVE KIDNAPPED THEM?
— A regret: I SHOULD NOT HAVE COME. – Non SAREI DOVUTO VENIRE.
— Desire: I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO VISIT Orvieto, but there was a train strike. – AVREI VOLUTO VISITARE Orvieto, però c’era uno sciopero dei treni.
— A past action that couldn’t be completed: Ti AVREI CHIAMATO, ma non avevo il tuo numero di telefono. – I WOULD HAVE called you, but I didn’t have your telephone number.
But wait, there’s one more super special one.
You can also use the conditional perfect to talk about a future action that was talked about in the past.
I know, sounds weird.
Stay with me here.
— A future action…in the past: Hannah told me that she WOULD study with me tomorrow. – Hannah mi ha detto che domani AVREBBE STUDIATO con me.
The past action is that Hannah TOLD me something.
The future action is that the studying.
Now that you know when to use it, how the heck do you put it together?
Let’s imagine that you want to say this sentence, “I would have gone to Germany, but I like Italy more.”
Step 1. The main verb you’re using is “to go” from “gone”.
Now that you know your main verb, you have to decide whether to use “essere – to be” or “avere – to have” as your helper verb. This is similar to when you form the past tense using “essere” and “avere.” In this case, you use “essere” with “andare”.
Step 2. Conjugate your helper verb, essere, in the conditional tense depending on who is doing the action (e.g. Avresti – YOU would have). Since you’re doing the action, here’s what your sentence looks like so far:
Sarei – I would
Saresti – You would
Sarebbe – He/she/it would
Saremmo – We would
Sareste – You (all) would
Sarebbero – They would
Sarei _________ in Germania, ma mi piace l’Italia di più.
Step 3. Change the main verb you wanted to use into its past form. Since you’re using the verb “essere” as your helper verb, your main verb has to match whoever the subject is in number and gender. In this case, the past form of “andare” is “andato”.
If you were one girl, it would be “andata”.
Now your sentence is:
Sarei andata in Germania, ma mi piace l’Italia di più.
Step 4. Give yourself a pat on the back for all of the mental gymnastics you just went through.
Let’s take it one notch up.
Let’s imagine that you want to say, “You shouldn’t have eaten that cannoli.” (Although, let’s be real, what sane person says this?)
Step 1. What’s the main verb?
Here it’s “to eat”, which is “mangiare”.
Step 2. What helper verb should you use?
Since the main verb is “mangiare”, you use the helper verb “avere”.
Step 3. Who’s the subject of the sentence, and how do you conjugate the helper verb in the conditional tense to reflect that?
The subject is “you” and the conjugation would be “avresti.”
Avrei – I would have
Avresti – You would have
Avrebbe – He/she/it would have
Avremmo – We would have
Avreste – You (all) would have
Avrebbero – They would have
But wait, unexpected turn in the road. What do you do with the word “should”?
Step 4. Now you have to conjugate “should”, which is “dovere” in Italian into its past form, which is “dovuto”.
Step 5. Then you just leave the main verb “mangiare” in its full form, or the infinitive, as you might know it.
Step 6. Do a happy dance for having put together such a complicated sentence.
So your final sentence is…
Non avresti dovuto mangiare quel cannolo. – You should not have eaten that cannoli.
“But wait,” you might be thinking, “Why isn’t ‘mangiare’ in the past form?”
Good question, you observant student, you.
This is one of the most moments where Italian and English don’t match when it comes to sentence structure.
I am sorry to tell you that this structure is something you’re going to have to get used to, and typically you get used to it in the moments where you have to think very hard about to put these types of sentences together.
To help you get a better idea of what these sentences look like and how they’re formed, here are a mountain of examples.
— I shouldn’t have asked you….(something). – Non avrei dovuto chiederti……(qualcosa).
— We didn’t know where the meeting would be. – Non sapevamo dove sarebbe stata la riunione.
— I wanted to tell you the truth, but I was scared. – Avrei voluto dirti la verità, però avevo paura.
— If I had called you, would have you come to the party? – Se ti avessi chiamato, saresti venuta alla festa?
— I would have liked to visit Naples. – Mi sarebbe piaciuto visitare Napoli.
— I shouldn’t have taken your advice. – Non avrei dovuto seguire i tuoi consigli.
— If I hadn’t studied Italian every day, I wouldn’t be able to have a long conversation. – Se non avessi studiato l’italiano ogni giorno, non avrei potuto avere una conversazione a lungo.
And now some examples for using the conditional to express the future in the past.
— Before arriving at the airport, I didn’t know that the plane for Rome would be leaving with a two-hour delay. – Prima di arrivare all’aeroporto non sapevo che l’aereo per Roma sarebbe partito con due ore di ritardo.
–Rachel told me that she would give birth in May. – Rachele mi ha detto che avrebbe partorito a maggio.
— I told you that I would arrive at 10 instead of 9. You don’t remember? – Ti ho detto che sarei arrivata alle 10 invece delle 9. Non ti ricordi?
— He wrote that he would arrive at 11. – Ha scritto che sarebbe arrivato alle 11.
— Remember that when you were a kid, you wanted to live in the countryside, out of the city, in a place where your kids could have played outside. – Ricordati che da bambina volevi vivere in campagna, fuori città, in un posto dove i tuoi figli avrebbero potuto giocare all’aria aperta.
— They said that they would catch up with us later at the club. – Hanno detto che ci avrebbero raggiunto più tardi in discoteca.
Confused or need more clarification? Leave a comment below!