Periodo ipotetico – Italian Conditional Sentences

The Italian periodo ipotetico, is used to express a hypothetical situation and its consequences. 

The concept of periodo ipotetico is similar to the English conditional sentences. The main clause, called apodosi, describes the consequences of the possible action pictured in the dependent clause, called protasi. The structure and the grammar involved in the Italian periodo ipotetico is more complex than English. We’ll explain the different types of periodo ipotetico in a simple fashion.

Se piove (protasi), non andiamo in spiaggia (apodosi)

That’s the simplest type of periodo ipotetico. It’s pretty sure that if the weather is bad, we won’t go to the beach. The event is described in the present speaking of the near future using the presente indicativo. The good news is you can forget about apodosi and protasi, unless you really want to show you are a subject-matter expert. The beauty of the Italian conditional sentences is the appropriate and elegant use of moods and tenses according to the degree of possibility of the main clause.

There are three different types of Italian Conditional Sentences:

1 – Realtà:

If the action given the circumstances is  REAL we talk about PERIODO IPOTETICO DELLA REALTÀ

  • Se mangi solo verdura, dimagrisci
  • Se avrai sonno mentre guidi, fermati
  • Se hai bevuto troppo, ti accompagnerò a casa

We can immediately notice that all the sentences begin with Se, (if). However, we can swap main and subordinate clauses and obtain the same result: Fermati se avrai sonno mentre guidi. 

In this first type of conditional sentences, we can use the indicativo mood, presente, passato and futuro, sometimes in combination with the imperativo (2nd example). The action is going to happen for sure or it is extremely possible given the right circumstances.

The “formula” for this first periodo ipotetico is

→ se indicativo (dependent) + indicativo or imperativo (main)

2 – Possibilità

If the action given the circumnstances is POSSIBLE, we talk about PERIODO IPOTETICO DELLA POSSIBILITÀ

  • Se avessi dei soldi, comprerei una bella casa
  • Se vendessi la mia macchina userei l’autobus
  • Se potessi, ti presterei dei soldi

So, right now I don’t have enough money to buy a house, I haven’t sold my car and I can’t lend you money. I don’t exclude though that given the right circumstances, described in the dependent clauses, all this could happen. It is possible.

The “formula” for this second periodo ipotetico is

→ se + congiuntivo imperfetto (dependent) + condizionale presente (main)

Please note that the 2 elements are not interchangeble, i cant’s use the condizionale in the dependent clause or the congiuntivo in the main clause

  • Se potrei ti presterei dei soldi or se potessi ti prestassi dei soldi are both wrong.

3 – Impossibilità (a.k.a. Irrealtà)

If the action given the circumnstances is IMPOSSIBLE or not realistic, we talk about PERIODO IPOTETICO DELLA IMPOSSIBILITÀ

  • Se non avessi mangiato quattro pizze, adesso non avrei il mal di pancia
  • Se fossi andato all’università, adesso forse avrei un bel lavoro
  • Se mi fossi svegliato in tempo, non sarei arrivato in ritardo

All the events causing the condition in the main clause take place in the past, so now we are trying to imagine what could have happened if some actions were different. Being pure speculation, we talk about impossibilità, because we can’t change the past. But what if…

In this case we can have two scenarios.

  • a – The action in the past has consequences on the present. In the first and second examples, I would be in a different condition NOW, if I did (or did not do) something else in the past.

The “formula” for this periodo ipotetico is

→ se + congiuntivo trapassato (dependent)condizionale presente (main)

  • b – The action in the past had consequences on the past. In the third example, I would have been in a different condition THEN if I did (or did not do) something else in the past. I was late because I did not wake up in time, but what if…

The “formula” for this periodo ipotetico is

→ se + congiuntivo trapassato (dependent) + condizionale passato (main):

In spoken Italian, there is the tendency of simplifying the periodo ipotetico della impossibilità using the imperfetto. 

  • Se mi fossi svegliato in tempo, non sarei arrivato in ritardo → se mi svegliavo in tempo non arrivavo in ritardo

This is accepted in informal spoken language but considered a bit lazy and incorrect when you need to speak properly.

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About the author

Riccardo Cristiani

Head Teacher at Dante Learning, I was born in Milan, where I graduated in Italian Language and Literature at the "Università degli Studi". I started to teach Italian online in Japan back in 2003, well before the Skype era. I usually spend my winters in Tokyo and come back to Italy after the cherry blossoms lose their petals.

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