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A couple of weeks ago I was asked to explain the difference between the words mattina and mattino, which both mean "morning" in English. The two words are often interchangeable, although mattino (masculine singular) is less common than mattina (feminine singular). Here are a few examples in which either word may be used:
era una mattina chiara e luminosa or era un mattino chiaro e luminoso (it was a clear bright morning);
alle dieci della mattina or alle dieci del mattino (at ten o’clock in the morning);
la mattina presto or il mattino presto (early morning).
However, there are some idiomatic expression and proverbs in which one form is used in preference to the other. Let’s have a look at them:
When we are talking about a specific date we use the feminine form, e.g.: ieri mattina (yesterday morning); questa mattina abbreviated to stamattina (this morning); domani mattina abbreviated to domattina (tomorrow morning); giovedì mattina (Thursday morning), etc.
We also prefer the feminine form when talking about a routine, e.g.: tutte le mattine (every morning); in genere la mattina studio (I usually study in the morning); è difficile trovarmi in casa la mattina (I’m not often at home in the morning).
There are also a couple of idiomatic expressions that always use mattina. One is ‘dalla sera alla mattina’ (from the evening to the morning) meaning "fairly rapidly", or "overnight", e.g. Giorgio cambia opinione dalla sera alla mattina (Giorgio changes his mind overnight). The second is ‘da mattina a sera’ (from morning till evening) meaning "all day long" e.g. ha piovuto da mattina a sera senza un attimo d’interruzione (it rained all day long without interruption).
The masculine form, mattino, is used in several idiomatic expressions. Here are some of the most common ones:
sul far del mattino (at daybreak); di buon mattino (early in the morning); le ore del mattino (the morning hours); augurare il buon mattino (to wish a good morning); il giornale del mattino (morning newspaper); Venere è la stella del mattino (Venus is the morning star); durare lo spazio di un mattino (to last the length of a morning), meaning "to last a very short time"; il mattino della vita (the morning of life), signifying la fanciullezza (childhood).
There are also two popular proverbs in which the masculine form is used:
il buon giorno si vede dal mattino (lit. one can see the good day from the morning) meaning that from the early signs one can guess the development of events, either good or bad, e.g. ‘one can imagine from the behavior of a child what kind of adult they will become’. This proverb is often used in the following way "se il buon giorno si vede dal mattino…" to mean "judging by how things are going so far…" So you might use this proverb, for example, if your car breaks down as you are setting off on holiday, then it starts raining, etc. etc. which doesn’t bode well for the rest of your break!
il mattino ha l’oro in bocca (lit. the morning has got gold in its mouth) meaning that the most productive time for studying or working are the morning hours (definitely not true in my case!)
Finally, when recounting an event that happened ‘all’improvviso’ (suddenly) we normally start with: un bel mattino, e.g. erano anni che non vedevo Lucia, ma un bel mattino è squillato il telefono … (I had not seen Lucia for years, but suddenly one morning the phone rang …)
Now, if all of this seems a bit confusing, don’t worry, just stick with mattina and you won’t go wrong!