FUTURO NEL PASSATO in Italian: How and when to use it?

In this lesson, we’ll look at a very interesting grammar rule that often causes confusion among students of the Italian language. What are we talking about? The much-feared FUTURE IN THE PAST (futuro nel passato)! You can’t miss this lesson!

Present Conditional or Past Conditional?

Imagine talking using the past tense, about something that happened in the past. Perfect, then if you want to talk about something that happened after what you’re currently talking about (so the future of that past tense), but that however, compared to today when you’re talking about it, it has already taken place and so it’s in the past, that’s when you have to use the FUTURE IN THE PAST.

When can we talk about “future in the past”?

We can talk about the future in the past if these two conditions are met:

  1. The verb of the main clause needs to be in the past tense
  2. The second verb (the verb of the subordinate) needs to express an action or an event that follows the action expressed by the main verb.

How do we use the “FUTURE PAST”?

In Italian, to express this future in the past we use the PAST CONDITIONAL (not the present conditional, as many people wrongly say).

For example:

Quando l’ho invitato, Giorgio ha detto che sarebbe venuto volentieri alla mia festa.
(When I invited him, Giorgio said that he would have gladly come to my party.)

Obviously, compared to the present (the moment when I spoke), these two actions already took place,  they are both in the past. However, compared to the invite, the action of “going to the party” is in the future.

Let’s look at another example:

Non sapevo se avresti fatto in tempo, così avevo già pensato a una soluzione alternativa.
(I didn’t know if you would have made it on time, so I had already thought about an alternative solution)

Also in this case, compared to when we are talking, the actions are in the past, but compared to the “not knowing”, the action of “making it on time” is in the future.

So remember that you have to use the PAST CONDITIONAL.

Is everything clear so far? Good, now let’s look at the …


Let’s start with some examples:

Quando l’ho invitato, Giorgio ha detto che sarebbe potuto venire alla mia festa.
(When I invited him, Giorgio said that he could have come to my party) 

As you may notice, I didn’t just use the Past Conditional, but the past conditional of the verb + a modal verb. As you can see, the first verb is “to be” or “to have” at the present conditional (depending on the main verb you used), then we use the past participle of the modal verb (potuto, dovuto, saputo, voluto) and at the end the main verb, the one that indicates the action, in the infinitive form.

Let’s see another example:

Sapevo che non avresti dovuto parlare!
(I knew you shouldn’t have spoken!)

It’s the same thing!

But that’s not all: look at these two sentences…

  1. Mio fratello mi ha detto che Giorgio sarebbe dovuto andare al bar.
    (My brother told me that Giorgio should have gone to the bar.)
  2. Mio fratello mi ha detto che Giorgio dovrebbe essere andato al bar.
    ( My brother told me that Giorgio should have gone to the bar.)

Do you think that these two sentences have the same meaning in Italian?  NO!!!


In the first sentence, my brother told me that Giorgio intended or needed to go to the bar. So it’s actually the case of our Future in the Past.

In the second sentence, however, what my brother told me is just what he thinks: he’s just assuming that Giorgio went to the bar, but he’s not sure of it. This form expresses a hypothesis of an action that has probably taken place.

We need to point out that this can ONLY happen with the verb “dovere”. Why? Because the verb “dovere” can express a hypothesis if it’s in the present tense or at the conditional tense if it’s followed by an infinitive.

For example:

Paolo ha mal di stomaco. Deve aver mangiato qualcosa di avariato. (Cioè forse ha mangiato qualcosa di avariato)
[Paolo has a stomach ache. He must have eaten some expired food. (That is to say, he might have eaten some expired food)]

Marco conosce Federico da anni. Dovrebbe averlo incontrato all’asilo. (Cioè se non erro si sono incontrati all’asilo)
[Marco has known Federico for years. He should have met him in kindergarten. (That is to say, if I’m not mistaken they met in kindergarten)]

To do so, we use the conditional tense or the present indicative (simple present) of the verb “dovere” (should/must) + “essere” (to be) or “avere” (to have) in the infinitive form (depending on what the main verb requires) + past participle of the main verb. 

Let’s see some sentences:

È andato a letto presto perché avrebbe dovuto svegliarsi alle 6 il giorno dopo.
(He went to bed early because he had to wake up at 6 a.m the day after.)

Paolo non era in casa stamattina. Dovrebbe essersi svegliato presto.
(Paolo wasn’t at home this morning. He must have woken up early.)

This is the last thing I want to tell you. You all know that reflexive verbs require the auxiliary “essere” (to be).  Yet, when we use the future in the past with a modal verb that is used as we saw earlier (with the pronoun attached to the verb), we need to use “avere” (to have). So:

Avrebbe dovuto svegliarsi
(He had to wake up)


If we put the pronoun before the verb, we can use the auxiliary “essere” (to be):

Si sarebbe dovuto svegliare
(He must have woken up)

That’s it, this is really the end. If you have any doubts about the conditional tense, I suggest that you revise how we use and form past and present conditional in Italian!

Let’s see if you’ve mastered the contents of this class. Have a go at completing the exercises!

One thought to “FUTURO NEL PASSATO in Italian: How and when to use it?”

  1. Ma non sarebbe: “When I invited him, Giorgio said that he would gladly come to my party” cioe` senza have dopo il would?

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