Why do Italian road signs use the infinitive tense and not the imperative?

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Why do Italian road signs use the infinitive tense in their warning, while, for example, those in English use the imperative?

Turn off lights

Spegnere le luci (and not "Spegnete le luci" or "Spegni le luci")

Or, maybe, is there a rule that says that the infinitive tense can be work as an imperative? If so, can anyone suggest some cases in which that rule is used in everyday speech?

Kyriakos Kyritsis

Posted 2013-11-10T19:23:31.753

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2On a side note, how do you tell the English infinitive from the English imperative? :-)Mauro Vanetti 2016-04-20T07:13:03.960

Answers

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The infinitive mood is commonly used for expressing rules especially in signs (of any kind, not just road signs).

For instance

Non fumare
Non calpestare il prato
Tenere la destra

The language "trick" behind this use of the infinitive form is the omission of the clause Si prega di or equivalent, so the above sentences are read as

Si prega di non fumare
Si prega di non calpestare il prato
Si prega di tenere la destra

Such form is not used in everyday's spoken language, as it's a convention used for giving orders and stating rules in an impersonal and formal way.


That being said, there's an official use of the infinitive mood as imperative, which is the negative imperative.

In Italian the positive imperative form goes as follows

Tieni la destra!
Parla con lei!

whereas the negative imperative is formed with non + infinitive mood, as in

Non tenere la destra!
Non parlare con lei!


As discussed in the comments, it's also nice to notice the differences and the similarities with other Romance languages, such as Spanish and French.

Apparently French has the same identical construct as Italian for expressing formal impersonal orders, for instance

Ne pas fumer
Non fumare

which is again a shortening for

Merci de ne pas fumer
Grazie di non fumare or more idiomatically Si prega di non fumare

On the other hand Spanish behaves differently and it doesn't have a special construct for impersonal orders, rather just using the formal imperative form, which is formed with the subjunctive

No fume
Non fumare, but also Non fumi

or

Reduzca la velocidad
Ridurre la velocità, but also Riduca la velocità

Gabriele Petronella

Posted 2013-11-10T19:23:31.753

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This is true in French and Spanish, as well. Seems to be a Romance language thing.hairboat 2013-11-11T18:05:58.220

@AbbyT.Miller Can you provide some examples? I don't know French, but the imperative in Spanish does not use the infinitive tense, and as far as I can recall, instructions are given with the imperative rather than with the infinitive. For instance Ridurre la velocità in Spanish is Reduzca la velocidadGabriele Petronella 2013-11-11T18:10:39.617

Ah, maybe I'm wrong about Spanish, but in French you see "ne pas fumer" or (more politely) "merci de ne pas fumer", which are the direct equivalents of the Italian "non fumare" and "si prega di non fumare".hairboat 2013-11-11T18:12:49.203

That's interesting indeed. I just added a note to highlight the similarities and differences between Romance languagesGabriele Petronella 2013-11-11T18:21:44.080

Basically the answer is... Politeness. :-) Writing an order without an explicit or implicit "please" is kind of rude.Andrea Lazzarotto 2016-04-19T08:37:30.053

@GabrielePetronella Please fix your answer in this small detail: the infinitive is not a tense. In Italian it's called a modo, usually translated as mood in English. In Italian the infinitive mood has the present tense (fare) and the past tense (aver fatto).Mauro Vanetti 2016-04-20T07:17:05.887

@MauroVanetti good point, thanksGabriele Petronella 2016-04-20T08:15:37.757

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Another reason is related to the fact that the Italian imperative must be conjugated. For example,

Turn off the lights

might be translated, using the imperative, as:

  • Spegni la luce (informal, 2nd singular person);
  • Spegnete la luce (2nd plural person);
  • Spenga la luce (formal).

Spegni would sound rude, because of the use of the informal 2nd singular person, and it wouldn't be an appropriate way to address someone having a higher status than the author of the command, or even a stranger (regardless of his/her social status).

Spegnete would sound awkward if there were a single person in the room (e.g., in a bathroom).

Spenga might seem appropriate, but it would actually be a somewhat weird way to address, e.g., a child (children are not usually addressed by using the formal third-person singular).

As a result, the most appropriate tense to be used in road signs is the infinitive, which doesn't refer to a particular number or social status of the addressed people. Note that, as far as I know, the use of the infinitive tense to give orders derives from Latin, because the second-person singular of the Latin imperative, in the passive form, is the same as the present infinitive.

A. Darwin

Posted 2013-11-10T19:23:31.753

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1Welcome to Italian.SE!Charo 2016-04-17T08:24:21.687

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As others already said, you could understand the sentence as starting with si prega di, but truly the infinitive is used to express commands in Italian. That is true for sentences like Ritirare lo scontrino alla cassa. or Non ridere. which uses a negative and an implicit tu; while the first is a command for everybody, the last is only for a single person.

Reference

kiamlaluno

Posted 2013-11-10T19:23:31.753

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3True, but watch out for the difference between Ritirare lo scontrino and Non ridere. The former is not a correct sentence by itself and you have to imply Si prega before it, whereas the latter is a perfectly valid sentence, being the negative form of imperative.Gabriele Petronella 2013-11-11T16:22:21.107

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It's probably a shortening of "Si prega di spegnere le luci", which is more polite than the imperative form.

o0'.

Posted 2013-11-10T19:23:31.753

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I think a big reason could be that the infinitive conveys a greater sense of authority. For example a football trainer might urge the players to run by shouting "Correte!" (imperative) or make it sound more of an order by saying "Correre!" (infinitive). It might be the same reason why in the military it's more common to issue orders using the infinitive.

SantiBailors

Posted 2013-11-10T19:23:31.753

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