Italian All-in-One For Dummies
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The Italian language is adapting to the rhythms of modern life with the introduction of new idioms and the construction of simpler, more concise sentences and paragraphs. The basic rules of the Italian language, however, stay the same. Despite the ongoing transformation of the language, these rules remain the foundation that stabilizes it. Here are a few Italian fundamentals that you don't want to miss if you want to communicate in Italian.

Summing up Italian articles, nouns, and adjectives

In Italian, nouns have gender and number — masculine or feminine, and singular or plural. Articles (a, an, the, and so on), which are associated with nouns, are also masculine, feminine, singular, or plural according to the noun they refer to. So the English definite article the is either masculine singular, masculine plural, feminine singular, or feminine plural in Italian.

The following table shows how you can combine nouns and articles. Pay attention to the beginning letter of masculine nouns because the article changes according to this letter; this is why you see four versions of masculine nouns in the table.

Italian articles take the gender and number of the nouns they refer to, so the first thing you have to do is determine the gender and number of the noun you’re working with. You’ll find some examples in the first column. The second column helps you focus on the beginning letters of nouns, which is essential to find the correct definite and indefinite articles, shown in the third and fourth columns, respectively.

Gender and Number of Nouns Nouns Beginning with … Definite Articles Indefinite Articles
Masculine singular 1. Nouns beginning with a consonant (such as libro, tavolo, and sogno) il (il libro, il tavolo, il sogno) un (un libro, un tavolo, un sogno)
Masculine plural 1. Nouns beginning with a consonant (such as libri, tavoli, and sogni) i (i libri, i tavoli, i sogni) dei (dei libri, dei tavoli, dei sogni)
Masculine singular 2. Nouns beginning with s + a consonant, z, ps, pn, gn, or y (as in specchio, stivale, scienziato, zaino, psicologo, pneumatico, gnomo, and yogurt) lo (lo specchio, lo stivale, lo scienziato, lo zaino, lo psicologo, lo pneumatico [but also il pneumatico], lo gnomo, lo yogurt) uno (uno specchio, uno stivale, uno scienziato, uno zaino, uno psicologo, uno pneumatico, uno gnomo, uno yogurt)
Nouns beginning with a vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) as in aereo, amico, orso, and invito l (laereo, lamico, lorso, linvito) un (un aereo, un amico, un orso, un invito)
Note: Make sure you don’t use an apostrophe with the masculine un.
Masculine plural 2. Nouns beginning with s + a consonant, z, ps, pn, gn, or y (as in specchi, stivali, scienziati, zaini, psicologi, pneumatici, gnomi, and yogurt) gli (gli specchi, gli stivali, gli scienziati, gli zaini, gli psicologi, gli pneumatici [but also i pneumatici], gli gnomi, gli yogurt) degli (degli specchi, degli stivali, degli scienziati, degli zaini, degli psicologi, degli pneumatici [but also dei pneumatici], degli gnomi, degli yogurt
Nouns beginning with a vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) gli (gli aerei, gli amici, gli orsi, gli inviti) degli (degli aerei, degli amici, degli orsi, degli inviti)
Feminine singular Nouns beginning with a consonant (such as banca, casa, and stazione) la (la banca, la casa, la stazione) una (una banca, una casa, una stazione)
Nouns beginning with a vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) as in arte and eredità l (larte, leredità) un (unarte, uneredità)
Feminine plural All nouns (such as banche, case, stazioni, arti, and eredità) le (le banche, le case, le stazioni, le arti, le eredità) delle (delle banche, delle case, delle stazioni, delle arti, delle eredità)

Also note that although definite articles are omitted in English, they’re not omitted in Italian. For example, La gente dice . . . (People say . . .).

Adjectives provide details about the noun(s) they refer to. They take the noun’s gender and number. Most masculine nouns end in -o (singular) or -i (plural), while most feminine nouns end in -a (singular) or -e (plural). Some nouns end in -e in their singular form and in -i in the plural, both for feminine and masculine forms.

Check the following table to see how adjectives and nouns agree in gender and number:

bianco un foglio bianco (a white sheet of paper) fogli bianchi (white sheets of paper)
bianca una pagina bianca (a white page) pagine bianche (white pages)
verde un banco verde (a green desk); una penna verde (a green pen) banchi verdi (green desks); penne verdi (green pens)

Qualifying adjectives usually follow the noun; however, all other modifiers — demonstrative, interrogative, possessive, and indefinite pronouns, as well as number — come before the noun:

Abbiamo letto un libro interessante. (We read an interesting book.)

Vorrei comprare questo libro. (I would like to buy this book.)

tuoi libri sono nello zaino nero. (Your books are in the black book pack.)

Perché hai ordinato pochi libri? (Why did you order so few books?)

Quali libri hai preso in prestito? (Which books did you borrow?)

È il terzo libro che leggo su questo argomento. (This is the third book that I have read on this subject.)

How to conjugate Italian verbs in the present indicative tense

In Italian, the present indicative tense works much like the present tense in English. To conjugate Italian verbs in the present indicative tense, you first need to understand that Italian infinitives (the “to” form, as in to die, to sleep, to dream) end in one of three ways — and that you conjugate the verb based on that ending:

  • Verbs that end in -are

  • Verbs that end in -ere

  • Verbs that end in -ire

The endings of regular verbs don’t change. Master the endings for each mode and tense, and you’re good to go! Keep in mind that verbs agree with subjects and subject pronouns (io, tu, lui/lei/Lei, noi, voi, loro/Loro):

Common Regular Italian Verbs in the Present Indicative Tense
Subject Pronoun Lavorare (to work) Prendere (to take; to order) Partire (to leave) Capire (to understand)
io lavoro prendo parto capisco
tu lavori prendi parti capisci
lui/lei/Lei lavora prende parte capisce
noi lavoriamo prendiamo partiamo capiamo
voi lavorate prendete partite capite
loro/Loro lavorano prendono partono capiscono

Unfortunately, there are also irregular verbs, which you have to memorize. You’ll find that the more you practice them, the easier it is to use them in conversation:

Common Irregular Italian Verbs in the Present Indicative Tense
Subject Pronoun Andare (to go) Bere (to drink) Dare (to give) Fare (to do) Stare (to stay) Venire (to come)
io vado bevo do faccio sto vengo
tu vai bevi dai fai stai vieni
lui/lei/Lei va beve fa sta viene
noi andiamo beviamo diamo facciamo stiamo veniamo
voi andate bevete date fate state venite
loro/Loro vanno bevono danno fanno stanno vengono

Crafting common idiomatic expressions in Italian

Whether you’re learning Mandarin, Farsi, German, or Italian, idioms enrich communication — but can’t be translated literally. In Italian, the most common idioms use the following verbs: fare (to do), avere (to have), essere (to be), and andare (to go).

Idioms using fare (to do)

Here’s a list of the most common idiomatic expressions with fare (to do):

  • fare gli auguri (to give ones wishes)

  • fare il bagno/la doccia (to take a bath/shower)

  • fare bello/brutto/caldo/freddo/fresco (to have good/bad/warm/cold/cool weather)

  • fare il biglietto (to get a ticket)

  • fare buon viaggio (to have a good trip)

  • fare colazione (to have breakfast/lunch)

  • fare i compiti (to do homework)

  • fare una conferenza (to give a lecture)

  • fare la conoscenza di (to meet; to make the acquaintance of)

  • fare il conto (to add up the total)

  • fare due, tre, . . . chilometri (to cover 2, 3, . . . kilometers)

  • fare un favore (to do a favor)

  • fare un giro (to take a tour)

  • fare male (to hurt; to ache)

  • fare una partita di calcio (to play soccer)

  • fare una passeggiata (to take a walk)

  • fare la pasta (to cook pasta)

  • fai pure! (go ahead!)

  • fare un regalo (give a present)

  • fare una sorpresa (to surprise)

  • fare la spesa (to go grocery shopping)

  • fare le spese (to go shopping)

  • fare lo spiritoso (to joke; to clown)

  • fare tardi (to be late)

  • fare una telefonata (to make a call)

  • fare le valige (to pack)

  • fare vedere (to show)

  • fare un viaggio (to take a trip)

  • fare una visita (to pay a visit)

Idioms using avere (to have)

Notice that most of the idiomatic expressions with avere are translated with the verb to be in English.

  • aver caldo (to be warm)

  • avere . . . anni (to be . . . years old)

  • avere la corda al collo (to have no way out)

  • aver fame (to be hungry)

  • avere fegato (to be brave)

  • aver freddo (to be cold)

  • aver fretta (to be in a hurry)

  • avere grilli per la testa (to have fancy and unrealistic ambitions)

  • avere la luna storta (to be in a bad mood)

  • avere una memoria di ferro (to have a good memory)

  • avere molto caldo (to be hot)

  • aver paura (to be afraid of)

  • aver ragione (to be right)

  • aver sete (to be thirsty)

  • aver sonno (to be sleepy)

  • aver torto (to be wrong)

  • aver vergogna (to be ashamed of)

Idioms using essere (to be) and andare (to go)

Here’s a list of the most common idiomatic expressions with essere (to be) and andare (to go).

  • essere a cavallo (to find a good solution to an issue)

  • essere al settimo cielo (to be very happy)

  • essere come il diavolo e l’acqua santa (to be extremely different)

  • essere nelle canne (to be broketo be in difficulty)

  • essere un carciofo (to be credulous/awkward)

  • andare all’aria (to disrupt the plans; to be unsuccessful)

  • andare liscio (to go smoothly)

  • andare via (to leaveto go away)

  • andare a trovare (to pay a visit to someone)

When to capitalize formal titles before names

Fine-tune your command of the Italian language by knowing when to capitalize a person’s title. If you have to write a formal letter or e-mail to VIPs, such as the principal of your child’s school, show that you’re familiar with the rules of Italian “bureaucratic” etiquette.

Names that represent a particular title — by birth, merit, or qualification — should be capitalized. You write:

  • il Presidente (President)

  • l’Onorevole (Honorable)

  • il Rettore (Dean)

  • il Preside (Principal)

  • il Professore (Professor)

However, when these titles are accompanied by a proper name, using lowercase is preferable:

  • il presidente Rossi

  • l’onorevole Verdi

  • il rettore Bianchi

  • il conte Cavour

  • il re Vittorio Emanuele II

In the plural, these titles aren’t capitalized (such as ministers or senators). For example, i senatori hanno approvato una nuova legge sul lavoro (The senators have approved a new labor law).

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