Updated: Mar 21, 2021
Instructions, commands, orders, or just informal requests? The use of the 'imperativo', in Italian, allows for a wide variety of possibilities but sometimes the difficulties in its application are more related to a cultural aspect rather than a merely linguistic one.
Italians and their temperamental nature! (I'm Italian, I'm allowed to say that) The truth is that we are often misunderstood for idiomatic expressions that have at their bottom the best of the intentions! Let's consider, for instance, a typical scene of 3 friends at the 'bar' (better known in the English speaking world as a 'cafe') ordering 'tre caffè'. To complete this task, we might just express the request by showing 3 fingers and saying : 'prendiamo tre caffè per favore', and if we are in a really good mood we might even add a 'grazie' after that. After almost six years in the UK, I can agree that it may sound a bit rude but with some extra information about the context around this scene it will make more sense to you.
A bit of grammar
Before moving onto an exegetic analysis of the 'coffee scene', let's have a look at the features of the 'imperativo'. The 'imperativo' is considered as a 'modo verbale' and it is expressed only with the present tense / 'imperativo presente'. It is considered a 'defective verb' since it does not have all the 'persone verbali'. In this article I will consider the basic and most common use of this tense. The 'imperativo' is used with the pronouns 'tu', 'noi', 'voi', it is very similar to the 'presente indicativo' and the only noticeable difference concerns the second person of the verbs in -are that ends in 'a'. While the present tense indicativo of the verb 'mangiare' for the second person singular is 'tu mangi', the imperative form is 'mangia!' (a tipycal expression used by an Italian 'nonna'). For the verbs in -ere and -ire it matches the forms of the 'presente indicativo'
e.g. Mangia! - Bevi! - Corri! - Studia! - Canta! - Balla!
Having a coffee in the UK, and probably in the US, have specific finalities: either you want to sit in and read a book or to work in a crowded place filled with pop music; if not you are having your drink in a take away cup. In these cases, the coffee is generally an americano or a latte and its price may vary between £2.40 and £4.50, if you want a specific blend of handpicked coffee with a splash of organic milk obtained by free range cows in a remote region of Taiwan. In Italy the attitude is fairly different: you stop to the 'solito bar' where everyone knows you, and you get a 'caffè', synonym of an 'espresso'. The 'bar'(s) are likely to be crowded and you have to gesticulate and shout to let the barista know you are there. If you are lucky, and the place is empty, you will find a barista in a chatty mood that will drag you to take part in a discussion on geopolitics and will treat you as a friend. Most of the time the coffee price is between €0,60 and €1 and it will take you no more than 1 minute to drink it all, otherwise it will get cold!
You may now think 'cool, but why am I reading this when all I want is to learn about the imperative?'. The key is the context, if you already know how to use the present tense it won't take you long to use the imperative correctly but you will have to learn how to read certain situations. For instance, the ritual of having a coffee is different and, therefore, it will also require a different the type of language. That doesn't mean that you are allowed to get into a bar and shout or give orders, but it will help you to understand why Italians might use the imperative to express a request in that specific situation. That form is frequently softened by the use of 'per favore'. If you are going on a road trip with a friend you might say 'guida tu, per favore', you are using the imperative but you are at the same time asking a friend for a favor. In English you would say 'would you mind driving today?' but maybe your are late and you need to express that concept as quickly as possible,if in that case the imperavie comes out I'm sure your friend will understand!
Using another language regards the ability to convey messages in a specific target language maintaining our own identity. You don't need to use the imperative as an Italian would if that sounds unnatural to you but, at the same time, learning about it will help you to understand how certain expressions are the result of cultural differences and not just a lack of politeness.