I recently received an interesting e.mail from a reader saying that he had never realized that “adverbs can also function as adjectives and nouns” and he asked me to focus in particular on “bene, meglio, male e peggio in comparison with buono, migliore, cattivo e peggiore”. I must admit that I had a few moments of panic when I read this, but after a bit of research I’ve probably got an answer, even if not a complete one, as these particular words are used in many idiomatic expressions. Proviamoci! (Let’s try!)
Aggettivi (adjectives) are words that describe nouns, and add more information about them: e.g. il maglione rosso (the red jumper), la mia penna (my pen), queste scarpe (these shoes). Because adjectives describe nouns, they agree with the noun by changing gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural): e.g. rosso, rossa, rossi, rosse. Of course, there are always exceptions, so some adjective, like viola (purple), don’t change at all.
Avverbi (adverbs) are words that describe verbs: e.g. Marco ascolta attentamente l’insegnante (Marco listens carefully to the teacher), Lucia parla correntemente tre lingue (Lucia speaks three languages fluently). Adverbs can also be used to reinforce an adjective or another adverb: e.g. questo maglione e’ veramente bello (this jumper is really beautiful); Giorgio guida troppo pericolosamente (Giorgio drives too dangerously). Many adverbs are constructed by adding the suffix –mente to the equivalent adjective, like the ending in ‘-ly’ in English: pericolosamente (dangerously), attentamente (carefully). Adverbs do not change, they don’t have gender or number.
So, what are “bene, meglio, male, peggio, buono, migliore, cattivo e peggiore”?
Bene and male are adverbs and they mean ‘well’ and ‘bad/badly’: Lucia suona bene il violino (Lucia plays the violin well); questo lavoro e’ fatto male (this job is badly done). But with the definite articles, i.e. il Bene and il Male, they are nouns and mean “Good” and “Evil”. Similarly, we can use them with the indefinite article, i.e. un bene, un male, meaning “it’s a good thing/a bad thing”: ‘e’ un bene che tu sei arrivato perche’ ho bisogno del tuo aiuto’ (it’s a good thing that you have arrived because I need your help).
Buono and cattivo are adjectives meaning “good” and “bad”: e.g. Mario ha fatto un buon lavoro (Mario did a good job), oggi il tempo e’ cattivo (today the weather is bad). For more detailed explanations of their meaning and uses see my past blogs The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Buono o Bello .
Migliore and peggiore are adjectives, in particular they are the comparative and superlative forms of buono and cattivo: migliore means “better” or “the best”, and peggiore means “worse” or “the worst”. Queste scarpe sono migliori di quelle (these shoes are better than those), questo e’ il libro migliore che abbia mai letto (this is the best book I’ve ever read), questo vino e’ peggiore di quello (this wine is worse than that one), questo e’ il peggiore film che abbia mai visto (this is the worst film I’ve ever seen).
Meglio and peggio are adverbs, in particular they are the comparative forms of bene and male: meglio means “better” and peggio means “worse”. Lucia suona il violino meglio di Laura (Lucia plays the violin better than Laura), Laura suona il violino peggio di Lucia (Laura plays the violin worse than Lucia). Meglio and peggio are commonly used in expressions such as: e’ meglio (it’s better) / e’ peggio (it’s worse): e’ meglio partire domani (it’s better to leave tomorrow), e’ peggio andare in macchina che in autobus (it’s worse going in the car than by bus). In modern Italian you will often hear meglio and peggio used in place of the more grammatically correct migliore and peggiore when they follow the verb e’ e.g. il maglione rosso e’ meglio di quello blu, instead of il maglione rosso e’ migliore di quello blu (the red jumper is better than the blue one), questo vino e’ peggio di quello instead of questo vino e’ peggiore di quello (this wine is worse than that one).
I hope I’ve helped to clarify some points, or have I made them as clear as mud?