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Consider the following exchange in which si passivante appears:

A scuola, si leggono i libri?

Surely a grammatical answer would be

Sì, si leggono i libri.

If I wanted to not mention "i libri" again, which of the following answers would also be considered grammatical?

  1. Sì, si leggono [subject ommitted] (si passivante)

  2. Sì, li si legge. (si impersonale)

The same problem occurs in the past tense:

Si sono letti i libri?

  1. Sì, si sono letti.

  2. Sì, li si è letti.

Which of these are grammatical?

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    Welcome to Italian.SE! – Charo Jun 24 '18 at 18:01
  • Not sure what your question is. Note that your last sentence “Si, li si è letti” is ungrammatical. – user519 Jun 24 '18 at 18:39
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    Why? Is this not how si impersonale is used? I've used an example from an online textbook which includes, for example, "Non la si è vista mai.","Li si è mangiati.","Le si è viste." Are these grammatical? – JMC Jun 24 '18 at 19:00
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    Gio is wrong. “Sì, li si è letti,” is absolutely correct. – Tom S. Fox Jun 24 '18 at 19:49
  • JMC, it might be a good idea to wait a bit before accepting an answer, in case a better one should emerge, or some criticism to it. – DaG Jun 24 '18 at 21:11
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You have stumbled upon a very subtle point of Italian grammar. In fact the usage of the si constructions is bound by complicated rules. So complicated that someone wrote a research monograph on them:

d'Alessandro, R. (2007). Impersonal" si" constructions: Agreement and Interpretation (Vol. 90). Walter de Gruyter.

Most of what I'm going to write here is based on the above book. Unfortunately I have neither the time nor the skill to do an in depth treatment. I hope what I write will be enough.

And thank you for making me learn this overlooked part of Italian grammar!


Simplifying a lot, sentences with the si passivante are pretty much always ok:

Qui si fabbricano le case ([Someone] builds the houses here)

On the other hand the si impersonale is perceived as correct mainly when expressing habits and general descriptions (precisely, verbs in the Vendler aspectual class of activities). In particular, the direct object in this sentence is almost never allowed to have a definite article.

Qui si fabbrica case (Houses are built here)

while the following sentence is incorrect:

*Qui si fabbrica le case

Moreover, the si impersonale is less used by native speakers in the past tense, and in this case it is sometimes perceived as archaic or incorrect

?Qui si è fabbricato case

It is also worth noting that the grammaticality of sentences with si passivante and si impersonale varies a lot with the idiolect of the speaker. It seems that Florentine speakers perceive pretty much any combination of si + verb + noun as grammatical, while most other Italian speakers have much more stringent criteria.


Let's finally take a look at your sentences.

Sì, si leggono [i libri]

Sì, li si legge

Both of these sentences are grammatical, but only the first one is an answer to the question:

A scuola si leggono i libri? (Do you read the books at school?)

The second one, being a si impersonale, is an answer to

A scuola si leggono libri? (Do you read books at school?)

A similar situation holds for the past tense.

In the case of the si passivante, the subject, as usual, can be omitted if clear from the context.

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  • There was a really big mistake in the previous version of this answer, so whoever voted on it should take a look at to see what changed. Sorry! – Denis Nardin Jun 27 '18 at 17:55
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    As a native Italian speaker, I regret to say that I find your examples completely unnatural. Nobody outside Tuscany would ever say “Qui si fabbrica case”, a construction that Tuscans themselves would likely judge dialectal; “Qui si fabbricano case” (and not “Qui si fabbricano le case”) is the only form that a native speaker, even Tuscan, would ever use in writing. And the form in the past tense sounds so harsh to my ear that, I guess, even my cousins, who were born, grew up and still live in Pistoia, would perceive it as absolutely incorrect… :-) – GuM Jun 27 '18 at 22:13
  • I realized that you are probably a native speaker too! (:-) Well, think of this: do you find the notice “Vendesi appartamenti” correct? I’ve always perceived this form as incorrect, although widely used, the only form appearing correct to me being “Vendonsi appartamenti”. Now, you are suggesting that the former should be considered a correct instance of si impersonale, aren’t you? – GuM Jun 27 '18 at 22:29
  • @GuM: I am sure Denis knows all about “vendesi” and “vendonsi”, but in theory one could say “si vende appartamenti”. Most people would do so out of ignorance, but it is an actual Tuscan or archaic construction, as you and Serianni (see my answer) say. – DaG Jun 27 '18 at 23:15
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This is more an addendum to the great answer by Denis Nardin than an answer in itself, but too long to be contained in a comment. Serianni's Italiano (VII.57), covering the uses of the pronoun si, says:

[Si viene usato] nei costrutti impersonali: «Come si dice?», «qui si mangia bene». Da notare che, nei tempi composti dei verbi intransitivi o transitivi senza oggetto espresso, il participio passato ha desinenza maschile singolare se il verbo usato personalmente riceve come ausiliare avere («si è parlato troppo», «si è lavorato abbastanza», perché si dice «abbiamo parlato», «abbiamo lavorato»); ha desinenza plurale, maschile o femminile, se l'ausiliare prescritto nella costruzione personale è essere: «da studenti, (noi) s'è andati all'estero», «da studentesse, (noi) s'è andate all'estero» (perché si dice «siamo andati» o «andate»).

L'accordo è al plurale anche quando il predicato nominale è un aggettivo («si è allegri» o «allegre») e con i verbi passivi («si è lodati» o «lodate»). In Lepschy-Lepschy 1981 si fa notare che la desinenza del participio è l'unico tratto che discrimina «si è capiti» ‘noi siamo capiti’ da «si è capito» ‘noi abbiamo capito’.

Se con un verbo intransitivo o transitivo senza oggetto espresso non ci sono dubbi sul carattere impersonale del costrutto («si lavora» = qualcuno lavora, noi lavoriamo, ecc.), con un verbo transitivo ci si può chiedere se ci troviamo di fronte a un si passivante ... Una frase come «alle nove si serve il caffè» può rappresentare sia «alle nove qualcuno serve il caffè», sia «alle nove il caffè viene servito».

Fanno propendere per la seconda interpretazione due fatti: il verbo tende a passare alla 6ª persona in caso di oggetto plurale («si servono le bibite»; ma nell'uso toscano e arcaico anche «si serve le bibite»; cfr. Rohlfs 1966-1969); nei tempi composti il participio ha desinenza femminile («si è servita una bibita»; antico o popolare l'uso senza accordo).

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Yes, that is possible. Case in point:

«Ma si vedono?»

Certo che si vedono …

(archived)

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    Tom, might you be a little less terse? Where does this example come from (apart from anonymised URLs)? Who is the author? Why is it exemplary? And what of the rest of the OP's question? – DaG Jun 24 '18 at 21:09
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    I refer to “tinyurl” and “archive.is”, which are never especially recommended, since they conceal the actual URL. The rest is that the OP asked about at least two pairs of possible sentences, and one would hope in an answer explaining about, as they asked, which of them are grammatical, and why. Moreover, a random snippet from a random book (not even about Italian language) is hardly strong evidence for or against anything. – DaG Jun 24 '18 at 21:33
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    “I clearly linked to Google Books”: the problem with tinyurls is precisely that, until you click them, you don't know where the link goes. Where I come from, at the very least, we mention the books or papers we are quoting from (both to attest their reliability and as a duty towards the author), and don't settle issues on a single, random data point. But I'm glad if you and the OP are glad, and I won't bother you with such unnecessarily complicated stuff anymore. – DaG Jun 24 '18 at 21:49
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    @TomS.Fox: I think your post may be a good answer if you expand it in such a way that you explain the sentences of the question and you mention where your example comes from (author and title of the book). – Charo Jun 25 '18 at 7:36
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    I haven't downvoted it, but this answer is incomplete, because it considers only one of the two example sentences in the OP. In fact the difference between the two is much more subtle than I originally expected – Denis Nardin Jun 27 '18 at 18:47

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