Italian Language Blog

Piacere Posted by on Apr 27, 2012 in Grammar

Chatting with an English couple the other day about the strange convolutions of the Italian language, the conversation moved onto the famous topic of piacere (to please). As a visitor to Italia you can be sure that you will be asked frequently ‘ti piace questo, ti piace quello?’ (do you like this, do you like that?) and so on. So, be prepared!

The problem, of course, is conceptual. In English the idea of ‘I like’ is so ingrained that it’s difficult to turn things around and get used to the idea the it’s not me that does the liking, but the object, or idea that pleases me … che mi piace.

And even when we’ve got the hang of basic phrases such as mi piace l’Italia (Italy pleases me – I like Italy) there are all those other inconvenient complications: plurals, conditionals, present perfects … mamma mia, aiuto! How on earth does one say, for example “I would have liked to have bought those shoes, but they were a bit too tight”? Read on, and all will be revealed …

Let’s begin with the plural. Remember: it’s not you that does the liking, it’s the thing that pleases you, therefore if there is more than one thing that pleases you it becomes ‘they please me’ = mi piacciono. For example: mi piacciono i gatti (cats please me – I like cats), ma non mi piacciono i cani (but dogs don’t please me – but I don’t like dogs). Embrace the concept of ‘mi piace’ = it pleases me, and try to bypass the mental translation process, i.e. let go of the concept of ‘I like’. This is a very important stage in beginning to think in a second language.

Now let’s try the conditional: Remember, it’s the thing that pleases you, therefore when we use the conditional form we need to apply it to the thing, such as ‘a cup of coffee’ for example: Mi piacerebbe un buon caffè = a good cup of coffee would please me. And in the plural mi piacerebbero delle scarpe nuove = some new shoes would please me. N.B. I’m deliberately not translating these phrases as ‘I like’, let’s try and leave it out, it just gets in the way.

Now let’s talk about things that pleased us using the present perfect: ti è piaciuto il gelato? = did the ice cream please you? Plural: ti sono piaciute le lasagne? = did the lasagne please you?

If we want to talk about what would have pleased us we use the past conditional: mi sarebbe piaciuto andare a Piacenza = going to Piacenza would have pleased me, mi sarebbe piaciuto comprare quelle scarpe ma erano un po’ troppo strette – it would have pleased me to buy those shoes but they were a bit too tight. Plural: mi sarebbero piaciute quelle scarpe ma erano troppo strette = those shoes would have pleased me but they were too tight.

If you have any questions leave a comment below.

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  1. Bill Rohwer:

    Che meraviglioso che il sistema di email sta funzionando ancora!

    Piacere: Your comment, “The problem, of course, is conceptual.” was very pleasing to me, and very clear.

    Taking a further step, I’ve wondered whether, to Italians, this way of conceiving of the relationship between the “pleased” and the “pleasing” is more objective than the relationship between the “liker” and the “liked?” I’ve also wondered whether the same applies in the case of mancare where the question would be: which is more important, the absence of the absent person “you are missing to me) or the effect of that absence on the speaker (e.g. I miss you)?

    Bill Rohwer

    • Geoff:

      @Bill Rohwer Great comment Bill, I completely agree that these linguistic differences also highlight important cultural differences in perspective. After all, we define ourselves with language, vero?

      Culture is so much more than the food we eat, or the monuments we build. Those are relatively superficial manifestations of who we are.

      Saluti da Geoff

  2. Terry ellison:

    Thank for the posting. I am in the process of learning Italian. I do have one question as to why the lasagne was plural in your example. Just curious?

    • Geoff:

      @Terry ellison Salve Terry, Lasagne, like most pasta is usually described in the plural. La Lasagna would be one single piece of Lasagna, which wouldn’t be much of a meal!
      The same applies for gli spaghetti (literally the spaghettis), i tortellini (literally the tortellinis) and so on.
      Therefore when we talk about la pasta we say ‘mi piacciono gli spaghetti al pesto’, ‘mi piacciono i tortelli ai funghi’ etc.

      A presto, Geoff

  3. andreas:

    Questo verbo si comporta giusto come il suo equivalente nella mia lingua, il russo, anche la quale ci si considera difficile.
    Saluti da Andreas

  4. cathy:

    Grazie per aver spiegato bene.

  5. Mike:

    Grazie per i vostri post che mi piacciono molto. Al momento sto leggendo tutti quelli post che non riuscivo a leggere da un mese!

    Volevo chiedervi se fosse possibile, e magari sarebbe un po’ piu giusto (?), tradurre la frase
    “I would have liked to have bought those shoes, but they were a bit too tight”
    come segue:
    mi sarebbe piaciuto AVER COMPRATO quelle scarpe ma erano un po’ troppo strette.

    saluti da Mike

    • Geoff:

      @Mike Salve Mike, ‘mi sarebbe piaciuto AVER COMPRATO quelle scarpe’ è una traduzione letterale della frase inglese ‘I would have liked to have bought those shoes’. Ma non funziona in italiano.
      Infatti, la frase ‘mi sarebbe piaciuto comprare quelle scarpe’ l’ho tradotta ‘it would have pleased me to buy those shoes’ di proposito perché volevo dimostrare il problema che incontrano le persone la cui lingua madre è l’inglese. Cioè, l’abitudine di pensare così: ‘I like’ invece di ‘it pleases me’ … che piace a me.
      Allora, se traduciamo la tua frase ‘mi sarebbe piaciuto AVER COMPRATO quelle scarpe’ in inglese abbiamo: ‘it would have pleased me if I had bought those shoes’.
      La consecutio temporum (cioé la sequenza dei tempi in una frase) non sempre corrisponde in italiano ed in inglese, per cui non si può sempre tradurre alla lettera.
      Questo sarà il tema di un mio prossimo blog.

      Saluti da Geoff e Serena

  6. Suzi:

    Salve Serena e Geoff! I have been re-reading your blogs on piacere as I’m confused about using infinitives. If I like doing 2 things (verbs), should I use mi piace or mi piacciono? Mi piace cucinare e pulire o mi piacciono cucinare e pulire. (ps I don’t really like to clean!) Grazie. Suzi

    • Serena:

      @Suzi Salve Suzi! With the infinitives we always use the verb piacere in the singular form, piace. E.g. mi piace camminare, and mi piace camminare, andare in bicicletta e nuotare. Va bene?
      Saluti da Serena

      • Suzi:

        @Serena Oh eccellente, adesso capisco! Molte grazie Serena.

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