The Conditional Mood
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of my jovial but erudite posts about the nuances of imparting the English tongue on our Italian friends. This is always a rich topic full of many anecdotes highlighting the cultural as well as linguistic differences. I enjoy the subject, don’t get me wrong—it’s what I do for a living these days. However, lately I’ve been itching to discuss politics, given that Italians will be going to the polls later this month. But in the end, my expertise is in language instruction and not political science. So following the advice of Mr. Twain, I will write about what I know. Therefore, please note that this post will contain absolutely no political commentary and any reference to political figures is purely coincidental.
The big IF
When we begin a discussion of the conditional mood, we often start with an “if.” Seeing this word should immediately alert the reader or listener to an upcoming hypothesis. A disclaimer, IF you will. In other words, we’d like to state that something is true, but first a “condition” must be met. During my TEFL training, I was reminded that there are five types of conditional phrases, although only three are commonly used (therefore, taught).
The simplest of these, appropriately enough, is the so-called “first conditional.” In this form we use the present simple tense to state the condition, and then the future simple tense to relate the consequences. For example: “If Silvio Berlusconi wins the election, many Italians will leave the country immediately.” You’ll notice that this sort of phrase has the tone of a promise; or threat, which is often the case, as it is here. Some further examples: “If Italy allows a mafioso in a business suit to run the country again, then the voters will get exactly what they deserve.” “If Berlusconi undergoes further cosmetic surgery, his face will explode.” Let’s move on… With the second conditional we use the past tense for the condition, and then would + the infinitive to predict a result which is unlikely to come to pass. This then sounds like a desperate hope or an improbable wish. “If Berlusconi mysteriously died in a bizarre tanning incident, all of Europe would be better off.” While irresistible to ponder, this wish seems unlikely to be fulfilled. Therefore it’s referred to as the condition of improbability. There’s just enough room for a smallest sliver of hope, but don’t go spending that property tax refund just yet. The third conditional uses the past perfect tense for the condition, and would + present perfect for the result. This type of statement often feels like regret, given that all the events are in the past, therefore cannot be changed, nor even wished for at this point. In fact, we could call this the condition of impossibility. Hopelessness in the shape of syntax, my friends. Alas. “If the voters had realized their mistake the first time, Italy wouldn’t have suffered nearly 20 years of misery and economic repression under Berlusconi’s self-serving leadership.”
One of the nice things about teaching this grammar point to Italians is that there’s an equivalent tense in their language, so the explanation is fairly easy. Our conditional mood is pretty much the same as their periodo ipotetico, where the congiuntivo and condizionale in their many forms are employed in abundance. For example, “Se Berlusconi non avesse fatto i bunga-bunga, nessuno all’estero lo conoscerebbe.” (If Berlusconi hadn’t done the bunga-bunga parties, nobody outside of Italy would have known of him.) So you see, the translation here is quite straight-forward, unlike many other aspects of our two languages where misunderstandings are common. As a side note, my wife’s sister vacationed in Cuba last year. Upon discovering that she was Italian, the locals spontaneously erupted in a fit of convulsive laughter. “Italia? Berlusconi! Ja, ja, ja, ja! Bunga, bunga!” Mind you, this is Cuba and they have Castro! Imagine their amusement when they happened upon citizens from the only country on the planet whose politics is at once more tragic and more laughable than their own. That was last summer and I’m certain that they’re still having a good chuckle over that one. Nice to know that at least Berlusconi has some entertainment value, if nothing else. Oops, it seems that I’ve wandered off topic a bit. Let’s wrap up our grammar discussion for today…
So again, I hope that you’ve benefited from this brief overview of the conditional mood, whether you’re an English teacher, a student, or just someone interested in languages. Eventually, maybe next week, I will still write a post about the upcoming Italian elections. But this has been a serious linguistic discourse and certainly not the place or time to express my personal political opinions. I wouldn’t want any of my readers to be swayed by my point of view.