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Is there any difference in meaning and usage between subject-verb order and verb-subject order in Italian? Examples:

  • "Quarant'anni sono già passati" vs "Sono già passati quarant'anni"
  • "Tre ore sono già passate" vs "Sono già passate tre ore"

It seems to me that both orders mean the same, but the verb-subject order is more usual with the passing of time periods in Italian (unlike English).

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    yes, @alan they have the same meaning, the latter one is the most used in common speach. – Christian L. Oct 1 '20 at 13:48
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    @ChristianL.: Actually, they haven't the same meaning. See my answer. – DaG Oct 1 '20 at 18:15
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TL;DR: The first phrasings are so unidiomatic to be ungrammatical, unless specifically meant for a reason.

More precisely, we have here a construction with a so-called “unaccusative” verb. You can see more about them in the linked article, but the gist is that in Italian there are two classes of intransitive verbs, the “unergative” ones, where the subject is an actual subject (lavorare, camminare, ridere, dormire...) and the “unaccusative” ones, where the grammatical subject is a person or object to which something just happens, so to say (arrivare, cadere, scoppiare, sparire...).

Among the tests to distinguish them, there is the auxiliary verb used: avere for the unergative verbs (Mario ha dormito), essere for unaccusative ones (Mario è arrivato).

This said, one of the properties of unaccusative verbs is that they

hanno il soggetto dopo il verbo in costruzioni non marcate, come si osserva in (5) a.-c. ..., proprietà generalmente non condivisa dal soggetto dei verbi inergativi (5 d.):
(5) a. sono arrivati i libri
b. sono partiti tutti
c. è morto il bisnonno
d. * hanno dormito i bambini

that is, unless we are explicitly, almost emphatically, talking about the books, everybody, or the great-grandfather, the usual construction is the one with the subject after the verb.

So, in our examples, the phrasing “Quarant'anni sono già passati” would be used if quarant'anni were our actual topic. Say, I'm saying that forty years would be a nice interval to wait for something, and you interject: “Quarant'anni sono già passati”. But in almost any other context, by far the most usual phrasing is “Sono già passati quarant'anni”.

  • If I have understood correctly, the meaning is exactly the same, the difference is the focus and usage. Isn't that right? – Alan Evangelista Oct 1 '20 at 18:31
  • @AlanEvangelista: Personally I wouldn't say so, but it all depends on what we mean by “meaning.” Sono passati 40 anni means “Forty years have elapsed,” while 40 anni sono passati means, more or less, “Talking about 40 years, that's what's elapsed.” I'd call those two different meanings. It all has to do with the distinction between tema (topic) and rema (what's being said of the topic) in Italian; see treccani.it/enciclopedia/… – DaG Oct 1 '20 at 19:31
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    @AlanEvangelista: I think this has also to do with what is explained in this answer. – Charo Oct 1 '20 at 21:21
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    In this case, the word order perceived as neutral would be "Sono già passate tre ore". But if you have been talking with someone about "tre ore" so that this piece of information is already known by your interlocutor, let's say, for instance, your interlocutor has said "Abbiamo appena mangiato, quindi dobbiamo aspettare almeno tre ore per poter andare a fare un bagno", and the news you want to transmit is "sono già passate" (e.g., because your interlocutor has been sleeping for hours and didn't realize how time passed), then you could say "Tre ore sono già passate". – Charo Oct 1 '20 at 21:21
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    So, I agree with DaG that there are some different nuances in meaning. – Charo Oct 1 '20 at 21:21

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