Italian Language Blog

Si Impersonale – Part 1 Posted by on Feb 22, 2012 in Grammar

Si dice che al finesettimana avremo temperature primaverili (They say that at the weekend we’ll have spring like temperatures). In Italian we often use the impersonal pronoun ‘si’, known as si impersonale. It is commonly translated in English as ‘one’, but can also mean ‘they’, ‘you’, or ‘it’ in an impersonal sense.

To clarify, let’s first have a look at when we would use it:

1. The si impersonale comes in very handy when we don’t express the subject of the action, i.e. who is carrying out the action, especially in those very generic expressions such as ‘si dice che’ (‘they say that’, or ‘it is said that’), ‘si pensa che’ (‘it is thought that’), ‘si crede che’ (‘it is believed that’), and so on.

2. The si impersonale  is used in sayings and aphorisms such as quando si ama il proprio lavoro, non si sente la fatica (‘when one loves one’s own job, one doesn’t get tired’ or ‘When you love your job, you don’t feel the tiredness’), or non si vive di solo pane (one does not live on bread alone).

3. It is also common to use the si impersonale when giving impersonal instructions such as in leaflets, guides, recipes, or written polite orders:

all’incrocio si gira a destra (at the junction you turn right, or, turn right at the junction);

si deve rispettare la legge (one must respect the law, or, the law must be respected);

si mette l’acqua in una pentola profonda (put the water in a deep saucepan);

si prega di non toccare (please, do not touch).

Now let’s have a look at how to use the si impersonale:

The si impersonale is normally followed by a verb in the third person singular (the ‘lui’ form), e.g. si mette l’acqua…, however when it’s followed by a plural direct object, the verb is in the third person plural, e.g.: si mettono gli spaghetti nell’acqua bollente (put the spaghetti in the boiling water).

Because of its similarity to the reflexive pronoun ‘si’, the passato prossimo (present perfect) is always built with the verb essere, even with transitive verbs that would normally have the verb avere, e.g. dopo che si è messa l’acqua nella pentola (after you’ve put the water in the saucepan).

In the impersonal construction si è + aggettivo (you are + adjective), the adjective is always plural, e.g. è dificile leggere quando si è stanchi (it’s difficult to read when you are tired), or quando c’è il sole si è più allegri (when it’s sunny you feel happier).

I’ll be looking at some other aspects of the si impersonale in Part 2 of the blog. A presto!

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  1. Mulder,Jeannet:

    Grazie Serena


  2. Valentina:

    Molto interessante e chiaro!

  3. andreas:

    Salve Serena!
    Ti ringrazio per il blog del cuore. Aspetto la seconda parte con impazienza.

  4. Giuditta:

    Grazie tante! È molto utile!

  5. Lilly:

    would you be able to say “si sono” for “you are” when you’re not speaking directly to one person?

    • Serena:

      @Lilly Ciao Lilly,

      ‘si sono’ on its own doesn’t mean anything. In context with a reflexive verb it would make sense in a sentence such as ‘si sono incontrate in piazza Italia’ (they met each other in piazza Italia), or ‘si sono svegliati alle sette'(they woke up at seven),
      To say ‘you are’ in an impersonal sense you need to use ‘si è’, e.g. ‘quando si è giovani’ (when you are young), or ‘quando si è affamati’ (when you are hungry).
      I have now updated the final paragraph of my post ‘Si Impersonale – Part 1’ because it seems that lots of people have problems with using ‘one’, which is probably a bit ‘old fashioned’, and feel more at home using ‘you’ (impersonal).
      Thanks for your question, comments like yours help me improve my blogs.

      Saluti da Serena

  6. Bridget:

    Ciao Serena,
    I found your article very helpful but i’m reading an Italian children’s story and am still a bit confused with some constructions.
    The story is about a chick called Pulcino that gets lost.

    Is the sentence ‘è quasi il tramonto ma pulcino non si trova ancora’ using the si impersonal? I think it means literally: It is almost sunset but pulcino, one/you/people cannot find yet.

    This sentence also: Pulcino si è messo a giocare con Fido, il cane di Zio Nino e si è dimenticato di tornare a casa.
    Are the phrases ‘si è messo’ and ‘si è dimenticato’ using the si impersonal? Or is ‘si’ acting in a different manner? Could you tell me their literal translations?

    Grazie Mille,

    • Serena:

      @Bridget Salve Bridget!
      Yes, the ‘si’ in ‘è quasi il tramonto ma pulcino non si trova ancora’ is a ‘si impersonale’ and you can translate it as ‘it’s almost sunset, but one/you cannot find Pulcino yet’, or better: ‘… but Pulcino is nowhere to be found’.

      In the following sentence: ‘Pulcino si è messo a giocare con Fido, il cane di Zio Nino e si è dimenticato di tornare a casa’ both ‘si’ are reflexive pronouns. The verb ‘mettere’ means ‘to put’, but the verb ‘mettersi a’ means ‘to start to’, i.e. ‘Pulcino started to play with Fido’. ‘Dimenticare’ and ‘dimenticarsi’ are interchangeable, i.e. ‘and he forgot to come back home’. You can find out more about reflexive verbs in this old post:
      Spero di essere stata chiara.

      Saluti da Serena

  7. Anthony Wilkinson:


    Grazie! Ho imperato questo in liceo, pero ti faccio una domanda.

    Per esampio

    Si parla l’italiano…

    Possiamo anche dire 《si parlano l’italiano》?



    • Serena:

      @Anthony Wilkinson Salve Anthony!
      Il si impersonale è usato col verbo al singolare se l’azione si riferisce ad una cosa sola. In questo caso “si parla l’italiano” è la forma corretta: “nel Canton Ticino si parla Italiano”. Se l’azione si riferisce a due o più cose si usa il verbo al plurale, per esempio: “in Svizzera si parlano l’italiano, il francese e il tedesco”.
      Altrimenti in questo caso delle lingue possiamo usare il verbo al plurale ma senza il si impersonale, cioè: “nel Canton Ticino parlano l’italiano”, perché significa che “gli abitanti del CT parlano l’italiano”. Va bene?
      Saluti da Serena

  8. Adelaide Piscitelli Ward:

    I enjoy your lessons immensely. Thank you for posting.

  9. Patricia Rubino Sandler:

    Mi e`piaciuto moltissimo. E` un sito molto utile.

  10. ayfer selamoğlu:

    grazie mille…

  11. Angela Steadman:

    Very helpful, a clear explanation which aided my understanding. Thanks,

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