Sunday, 20 February 2011

Is the subjunctive on its way to extinction?

My answer to this question is a resounding no. The subjunctive, the mood of uncertainty and politeness, is still very much in use in the Italian language, particularly in formal and written register, and to some extent it separates out those who have had a good education from those who haven't (but it must be stressed that Italians don't always get it right, and even when they are highly educated, they might intentionally choose to replace it with the indicative (penso che sia becomes penso che è), to sound more natural and less aloof). Leaving aside socio-linguistic considerations, one of the main reasons why the subjective is sometime perceived as awkward is that the first three persons of the singular form are identical, which can lead to ambiguity. For instance:

Vorrei che faccia come dico io

can be translated as I’d like you to do as I say


I’d like he/she to do as I say.

The only way to get round this ambiguity (if the context doesn’t help) is to add the subject pronoun:

Vorrei che tu faccia come dico io
Vorrei che lui/lei faccia come dico io

There are cases in which the subjunctive can’t be avoided, for instance after the word affinchè. But of course it's also quite easy to avoid saying affinchè and therefore avoid the subjunctive altogether. This is typical of spoken Italian where, for convenience of use and speed, the imperfect subjunctive is often replaced by the imperfect of the indicative:

Franco pensava che il treno arrivasse in ritardo (subjunctive - formal/written language)
Franco pensava che il treno arrivava in ritardo (imperfect - informal/spoken language)

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