The Impersonal "Si" in Italian

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Giovanni Pisano, "Grammatica" - Perugia, Fontana Maggiore, 1277-78.
"Lady Grammar"

Modern Usage and Syntactic Construction of the
"Impersonal Si" in Italian


[This work was first published in December 1967]*


[492, 1]

I. General Observations

1. Any verb, be it transitive, intransitive or reflexive, may be used impersonally, unless lack of clarity forbids it.

2. The "si" acquires the general meaning of the indefinite pronoun uno and:

α. gives passive meaning to the sentence when used with transitive active verbs: La colazione si serve presto. Queste macchine si vendono a buon prezzo.

β. has the force of an indefinite subject when used with intransitive (or intransitively-used) and reflexive verbs: In Italia si passeggia molto. Se non si lavora non si mangia. Se non ci si addormenta subito si dorme male.

γ. replaces the pronoun "noi"—with transitive, intransitive or reflexive verbs—when the speaker does not want to use the first person plural of the verb1: Si cantò la canzone tutti [492, 2] insieme. Si andò da lui alle otto. Si entrò all'improvviso, non si salutò nessuno, né ci si tolse il cappello.

δ. replaces the word(s) "l'autore" ("gli autori"), or the corresponding subject pronoun(s) "egli" ("loro"), most typically in annotated bibliographies: «Si [l'autore] afferma che nel mondo dantesco si traduce e vivifica come poesia tutto il mondo della cultura medioevale»2. «Si [l'autore] insiste sull'atmosfera d'incubo e di paura [...] che sarebbe propria del canto»3. «Si [l'autore] ribadisce la tesi che la canzone E' m'incresce non sia stata scritta per Beatrice, ma per la donna gentile»4. [493, 1]

3. The verb is either in the third person singular or the third person plural of its "active form" according to whether the subject-object5 is singular (a) or plural (b). When there is no subject-object or when the verb refers to a general idea, the singular is used:

(a) Questa poesia s'impara a memoria facilmente.
(b) Queste poesie s'imparano a memoria facilmente.
(d) Cento anni fa si lavorava meno di oggi.


II. In Compound Tenses

1. All compound tenses of impersonal verbs employ the auxiliary verb essere.

2. Transitive and intransitive verbs which in their normal active form are conjugated with the auxiliary verb avere follow these norms:

• The auxiliary verb essere agrees in number; i. e., it will be either singular (a) (b), or plural (c) (d) according to the subject-object.
• The past participle agrees in number and gender; i. e., it will be singular (a) (b) or plural (c) (d), masculine (a) (c) or feminine (b) (d), again according to the subject-object.
• When there is no subject-object or when the verb refers to a general idea the singular masculine is used (e).

(a) Si è veduto Paolo a teatro.
(b) Si è venduta la casa stamani.
(c) Si sono studiati questi punti molto bene e si è deciso di non accettare la proposta.
(d) Si è stabilito di partire da qui subito perché si sono già dette troppe cose.
(e) Oggi si è camminato molto.

3. Reflexive (a), apparent reflexive (b), reciprocal (c), pronominal (d), and intransitive (e) verbs which in the normal conjugation employ essere as the auxiliary verb, as well as predicate adjectives (f), and predicate nouns (g) follow this norm: The auxiliary verb is always in the third person singular. The past participle, the adjective or the noun are usually6 in the masculine plural.

(a) Una volta che ci si è lavati, si fa colazione.
(b) Quando ci si è tolti le scarpe7, ci si sente meglio. [493, 2]
(c) Quando ci si è scritti per molto tempo, ci si conosce abbastanza bene.
(d) Se non ci si fosse accorti che attraversava la strada, si sarebbe investito in pieno.
(e) Si sarebbe arrivati presto, se il treno non fosse stato in ritardo. [494, 1]
(f) Se non si fosse stanchi, si camminerebbe di più.
(g) Quando si è medici bisogna fare spesso dei sacrifici.


III. Use of the Impersonal with the Passive Voice

1a. A group of verbs which are used in the passive voice and which have copulative power, remain passive in form also when used impersonally. To make these verbs impersonal it is only necessary to add the particle si to the masculine plural form (the feminine plural is used when the sense demands it), and change the auxiliary verb to the third person singular.

TENSE
PASSIVE
IMPERSONAL
Present Indicative: Siamo8 giudicati competenti. Si è giudicati competenti.
Present Perfect Indicative: Siamo stati eletti deputati. Si è statai eletti deputati.


For didactic purposes we can group these verbs into three categories:

i. Appellative verbs such as 'essere nominato', 'essere soprannominato', 'essere chiamato', etc.: Se si è chiamati codardi ingiustamente, bisogna difendersi.

ii. Elective verbs such as 'essere eletto', 'essere nominato', 'essere proclamato', 'essere scelto', 'essere bocciato', 'essere promosso', etc.: Una volta che si è stati nominati ambasciatori, si devono presentare le credenziali al capo dello stato in cui si è (stati) mandati.

iii. Estimative verbs such as 'essere stimato', 'essere creduto', 'essere ritenuto', 'essere considerato', 'essere giudicato', essere apprezzato', etc.: Se si fosse stati giudicati sciocchi, non si sarebbe stati ritenuti capaci di continuare il lavoro.

1b. When the necessity is felt to express the idea impersonally and at the same time to give to it the meaning of a definite subject, I, you, etc., the passive voice of the verb cannot be used. In those cases we must revert to the general rules and employ them in their active voice. Here the noun or adjective functions as a predicate objective, and not as a predicate nominative or adjective. Hence, the adjective, being here the attribute of the direct object, will agree with it in gender and number; while the [494, 2] apposition (noun) will always agree with it in number and, because of its own identity and autonomy, will agree in gender only when it is possible.

PASSIVE

IMPERSONAL (active form)

sono

 

mi

 

essere nominato:

sei

nominato procuratore

nominare:

ti

si nomina procuratore

è

  lo

 

           

  

 

siamo

ci

essere giudicato:

siete

giudicati colpevoli

giudicare:

vi

si giudica colpevoli

sono

li, le

           
           

sono

mi

sei

eletto senatore / eletta senatrice

ti

si elegge senatore /
senatrice

è

lo, la

essere eletto:

eleggere:

 

siamo

ci

siete

eletti senatori / elette senatrici

vi

si elegge senatori /
senatrici

sono

li, le

From these examples it is clear that in the impersonal the verb remains in the third person singular.

In compound tenses, the auxiliary verb, as in II-3 above, agrees in number and gender with the preceding personal direct object pronoun: Ti si è giudicato (-a) colpevole. Vi si è giudicati (-e) colpevoli.

2a. In the examples listed under III-1a and III-1b, above, it can be observed that both the subject and the understood agent are not [495, 1] things, but animate beings. All transitive active verbs, which permit in the same sentence this animate-being relationship in the form of a direct object, can be used impersonally in their passive voice. A handful of the many verbs which admit such a construction are—in their passive form: 'essere assalito', 'essere difeso', 'essere consolato', 'essere accarezzato', 'essere lodato', 'essere ammirato', 'essere aspettato", etc.

PRESENT INDICATIVE (PASSIVE VOICE)

Anche quando si è lodati si dovrebbe rimanere umili.

   

PRESENT SUBJ. (PASSIVE VOICE)
CONDITIONAL PRESENT (ACTIVE VOICE)

Se non si fosse stati assaliti all'improvviso, si sarebbero
potute difendere bene le mura.

 

PRESENT PERFECT (INTRANSITIVE):
PRESENT INDICATIVE (ACTIVE VOICE):
PRESENT PERFECT (PASSIVE VOICE):

Non importa se si è divenuti (-e) poveri (-e)
perché si sa
che non si è stati (-e) dimenticati (-e).


2b. When one wants to give the meaning of a definite subject and at the same time express the idea impersonally, the passie voice cannot be used. In this case, as in 1b we must revert to the active voice.

PASSIVE VOICE

IMPERSONAL (ACTIVE FORM)

 

Sono lodato (-a)

mi si loda

Sei lodato (-a)

ti si loda

È lodato (-a)

lo (la) si loda

 

Siamo lodati (-e)

(ci si loda)9

Siete lodati (-e)

vi si loda

Sono lodati (-e)

li, le si loda


In compound tenses, again as in 1b above, the auxiliary verb remains in the third person singular, while the past participle agrees in gender and number with its antecedent direct object pronoun. Sarebbe stato meglio se non vi si fosse lodati (-e) troppo. Ti si è dato da mangiare, ti si è alloggiata e ancora non sei contenta.


IV. Use and position of Personal Pronouns

1. The norms which regulate the position of the [495, 2] conjuctive, or atonic, personal pronouns in the sentence apply also to the impersonal si. Si gode molto nel sentirsi lodare.

2. when other pronouns — indirect, direct, or both, in their conjunctive form — or the adverbial particles ci and vi accompany the impersonal si they are placed before it. Non so che cosa gli si dirà. Ti si farà quel favore volentieri. Ve la si pagherà domani. Ci si andrà tutti insieme.

The particle ne — when used pronominally10 — is however placed after the si. Di grammatiche filosofiche se ne scrissero molte. Non se ne parli più.

When mi, ti, ci, vi, gli precede the sequence se ne, they may change to me, te, ce, ve, glie, or remain unchanged as in "the popular Tuscan usage"11. Me se ne pagherenno due. Mi se ne [496, 1] pagheranno due. Te se ne daranno dieci. Ti se ne daranno dieci. Ve se ne manderà uno. Vi se ne manderà uno. Glie se ne sono dette molte. Gli se ne sono dette molte.

3. With pronominal, reciprocal, apparent reciprocal and reflexive verbs only the pronoun of third person (si) is possible12. However, the reflexive pronoun (the first of the si si combination) is changed to ci. Quando ci si alza presto, ci si sente meglio. Se non ci se ne fosse accorti, si sarebbe investito.

4. When an infinitive is dependent upon potere, dovere and volere, the impersonal si always precedes the inflected verb (as in 5 below), and the conjunctive personal pronouns belonging to the infinitive are more commonly placed before the si, but may also be attached to the infinitive; the choice being stylistic. Glielo si sarebbe dovuto dire. Si sarebbe dovuto dirglielo. Non gliela si voleva firmare. Non si voleva firmargliela. [496, 2]

5. When an infinitive is dependent upon such verbs as cercare di, tentare di, finire di, terminare di, tralasciare di, andare a, mandare a, venire a, etc., the object pronoun of the infinitive may either be attached to it or be a part of the inflected verb, as in 4 above. Si è finito di leggerla ora. La si è finita di leggere ora. Si viene a visitarmi spesso. Mi si viene a visitare spesso.

6. With the periphrastic auxiliary essere da, the impersonal si and the personal pronouns, if any, are attached to the dependent infinitive. È da vedersi. Sarebbe da desiderarsi.


N O T E S

* The article is reproduced here as it first appeared, unedited and unmodified. Cf. Gino Casagrande, "Modern Usage and Syntactic Construction of the 'Impersonal SI' in Italian", The Modern Language Journal, Vol. LI, No. 8 (December 1967), pp.492-496.

1 In  Tuscany a hybrid form — a mixture of personal and impersonal construction — is also used; and expressions such as noi si andò, noi si verrà più tardi, etc. are very frequently heard.

2 Enzo Esposito, Gli Studi Danteschi dal 1950 al 1964. Roma, Centro Editoriale Internazionale, 1965, p. 139, No. 56.

3 Ibid., p. 198, No. 394

4 Ibid., p. 418, No. 81.

5 By object I mean direct object. I should like to depart from the simple label subject for an important reason. When we say, 'S'impari a memoria questa poesia', the subject of the sentence is "questa poesia" because it is «that of which we are speaking». Yet it stands also for the direct object because, in a way, it completes the predication of the verb "s'impari". Moreover, since in this type of construction the "subject" comes usually after the predicate (a place which, in an active sentence, rightfully belongs to the direct object), the speaker, through the centuries, has lost sensitiveness to it being the subject and undoubtedly thinks of it as a direct object. It is perhaps for this reason that such sentences as lo si fa (one does it), la si è vista (one has seen her) are heard not only in the cultured spoken language in Italy, but are also seen in the written language and used in grammar books. It may be argued that such forms are correct. In fact in the sentence 'si aspetta Mario' , when 'Mario' is substituted with a disjunctive pronoun we have 'si aspetta lui'; and when we substitute 'lui' with its corresponding conjunctive pronoun we have 'lo si aspetta'. By the same token we say si aspetta me = mi si aspetta; si aspetta te = ti si aspetta. These forms are, undoubtedly, of common domain; and what was considered a "provincialism" still half century ago has come to be accepted by all. (cf. R. Fornaciari, Grammatica italiana, Firenze, Sansoni, 1922, p. 51).

6 The basic concept behind an impersonal construction is that the idea expressed by the verb be applicable to everybody in general and to none in particular. That is to say, a true impersonal sentence should embody an all-embracing idea about a certain thing applicable to all and anyone of us at any time. When, for instance, I say 'una volta che si è morti non si vede più la luce', it is clear that the concept expressed by the sentence applies to anyone of us at any time. But if I were to say 'dopo che si è morti si dovranno fare i conti con l'Eterno', it become apparent that the concept expressed by the second part of the sentence is only true and valid for those of us who believe in an afterlife consisting of rewards and punishments. In other words, here the all-embracing idea is limited to a vast and yet particular group of men and women: the believers. In the modern Italian usage of this construction there are no limits to to this "vertical" scaling down process. The group may be very large or very small. As we have seen (I, 2, δ), in annotated bibliographies the "group" is only "one": the author. It is also possible to encounter with an all feminine group. In such a case the past participle must be feminine plural. For example, when the sentence 'noi siamo partite presto' is expressed impersonally, it cannot be any other way but 'si è partite presto', because noi in this case refers to a group made up by two or more women.

7 The past participle of an apparent reflexive verb is free to remain in the masculine plural or to agree in gender and number with the direct object; in this case, 'quando ci si è tolte le scarpe, etc'. When, however, the direct object is replaced by a personal pronoun in its conjunctive form, the past participle must agree with it: quando ce le si è tolte, etc. Perhaps it is timely here to call back to mind a group of verbs which have embodied in them the personal direct object pronoun la and which are used in a figurative sense. These are verbs that make-up such idioms as 'aversela a male' (to takei it amiss), 'battersela' (to run away), 'darsela a gambe' (to take to one's heels), 'dirsela con qualcuno' (to get on with someone), 'godersela' (to have a good time, to enjoy life), 'intendersela con qualcuno' (to get on well together), 'legarsela al dito' (to bear a grudge), 'prendersela' (to take it ill, to worry about), 'svignarsela' (to sneak away, to decamp), etc. The past participle of these verbs is, of course, always in the feminine singular form.

8 "siamo" is used here not in the meaning of a personal "we", but in the meaning of the impersonal "one" and, obliviously, for didactic reasons.

9 Extreme care must be used with the first person plural, as many of these verbs may be also employed in their reflexive form. The sentence in a recent best seller, «Ci si caricava in due landaus chiusi;..» could be misinterpreted as the impersonal active form (with passive meaning, of course) of 'caricare' (i. e. venivamo caricati), whereas it is meant to be the impersonal reflexive form of 'caricarsi' (i. e. ci caricavamo). In the example in question, the meaning is inferred — more than made clear — by the rest of the sentence, «... nel primo mio padre, mia madre, la governante ed io». (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Racconti, Milano, Feltrinelli Editore, 1961, p. 114).

10 In a rather limited number of cases, the particle ne may be used adverbially ("hence", "thence", from here, from there). In such instances it usually precedes the impersonal si: 'Ne si torna ora', 'Ne si viene proprio in questo momento'.

11 Cf. L. Morandi e G. Cappuccini, Grammatica italiana (ediz. ridotta), Vol. I: Morfologia. Torino, G. B. Paravia, 1922, p. 89. Today the unchanged forms are standard for the written language throughout the Country.

REFERENCE TABLE  (POSITION)

 

Adverbs

Personal

Adverbs

Impersonal

Pronominal

 

mi (me)

ci vi

vi

ti (te)

ci

ne ve ce

lo

ne ve ce

la

gli (glie)

le (glie)

si (se)

ne

(vi)

ci (ce)

vi (ve)

ci

ne ve ce

li

ne ve ce

le

vi

si = ci



12 The use of direct and indirect pronouns in connection with these verbs changes, of course, the reflexive form to active form and meaning: 'mi si lava', 'ti si veste', etc. There is no need to mention that this is not possible with pronominal verbs such as 'pentirsi', 'accorgersi', etc. Forms such as 'ci si lava' which could mean 'one washes oneself', 'we are being washed', and 'one washes there', should be avoided unless their meaning results unmistakable from the context. (Cf. note 9).


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