Back To The Future Posted by Geoff on May 20, 2015 in Grammar
Expressing the future in the past is an aspect of Italian grammar that causes perennial consternation amongst students. But what exactly does ‘the future in the past’ mean?
The future in the past (il condizionale passato) is used to express the idea that in the past you thought something would happen in the future.
For example, the phrase “You said you would bring that book today” translates into Italian as “Mi hai detto che oggi avresti portato quel libro”.
In this example we can see that the English present conditional ‘you would bring’ becomes the Italian past conditional ‘avresti portato’ (you would have brought).
Here are a few more examples:
“They said that the restaurant would open at seven thirty” = “Hanno detto che il ristorante avrebbe aperto alle sette e trenta”
“I thought it would be hotter today” = “pensavo che sarebbe stato più caldo oggi”
“Marco told Luca that he’d get there later this evening” = “Marco ha detto a Luca che sarebbe arrivato più tardi stasera”
Now let’s look at a slightly different example:
“I would have told him, but he didn’t give me a chance” = “glielo avrei detto, ma non mi ha dato l’opportunità”.
Here we can see that the translation is more straightforward because it closely follows the original: ‘I would have told him’ = ‘glielo avrei detto’ (literally: ‘to him I would have told it’)
Here are a few more examples that use the same construction:
“We would have gone to La Spezia but it was too late” = “Saremmo andati a La Spezia, ma era troppo tardi”
“I thought you would have finished by now” = “Pensavo che ormai avresti finito”
“The journey would have been quicker but there was a lot of traffic” = “Il viaggio sarebbe stato più veloce ma c’era tanto traffico”
N.B. In colloquial Italian the imperfect tense (l’imperfetto) is often used to express the future in the past, e.g.:
“I knew that you’d come” = “sapevo che venivi” instead of the more grammatically correct “sapevo che saresti venuto/a”
Now it’s your turn. Try filling in the missing words in the Italian translations below.
Maria told me that she would go to Sarzana today
Maria mi ha detto che a Sarzana oggi
I asked Marco when he would come back from Sicily
ho chiesto a Marco quando dalla Sicilia
I thought this cold would only last a few days
pensavo che questo raffreddore solo qualche giorno
Lucia would have eaten more, but didn’t want to appear greedy
Lucia di più, ma non voleva sembrare golosa
Questions, confusion? Please leave a comment.