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Very often, in the process of learning a language it’s the little things that we find the hardest to get to grips with. It doesn’t take long when learning Italian for example to work out that soddisfazione means ‘satisfaction’, eccellente means ‘excellent’, and that riabilitazione means ‘rehabilitation’. But ‘ci’, that little two letter word that seems to pop up everywhere, che cavolo significa? (what on earth does it mean?).
Probably the first usage of ‘ci’ that students of Italian come across is the pronome personale diretto o indiretto (direct or indirect personal pronoun), which in English translates as ‘us’, e.g. Giorgio ci ha invitato a cena (Giorgio has invited us to dinner); ci piace la pizza (we like pizza, literally ‘pizza pleases us’). We also use ci in the pronome riflessivo (reflexive pronoun) to mean ‘ourselves’, e.g. ci stiamo lavando le mani (we are washing our hands, literally ‘we are washing ourselves the hands). The third way in which we use ci as a personal pronoun is in the pronome reciproco (reciprocal pronoun), where it has the meaning of ‘each other’ as in the famous phrase ‘arrivederci’ (lit. until we see each other).
Ci is also commonly used as an avverbio (adverb) with the meaning of ‘here’ or ‘there’, e.g. finalmente ci siamo (here we are at last), conosco bene Lucca perché ci ho abitato (I know Lucca well because I lived there), non c’è molto pane (there isn’t much bread), a Lucca ci sono molte chiese (there are lots of churches in Lucca). However, we often use ci even when it is made redundant by the use of qui (here) or lì (there), in effect creating a repetition, e.g. qui ci sto bene (I like it / feel at home here, or literally: here I like it here), or ci sei a casa questa pomeriggio? (will you be at home this afternoon?, or literally: will you be there at home this afternoon?).
Confused yet? Well I warn you, it’s going to get worse! So take a deep breath and we’ll take a look at the most confusing ci, the one that is incorporated into a verb, thereby changing its meaning. You will often notice this ci in the dictionary stuck onto the end of the infinitive. Here is a list of the most common ones, with examples of their usage:
Volerci = it requires, it needs e.g. per fare un tavolo ci vuole il legno (making a table requires wood, or to make a table you need wood); la pasta è quasi cotta, ci vogliono ancora 2 minuti (the pasta is nearly cooked, it needs another 2 minutes). N.B. the verb volerci agrees with the object that is needed in terms of number, i.e. ci vuole il legno = singular, ci vogliono2 minuti = plural.
Metterci = it takes, e.g. il treno per Milano ci mette due ore (the train to Milano takes two hours) N.B. unlike volerci, metterci changes in the plural to agree with the number of objects or persons that are ‘taking the time’ not the amount of time taken. Hence, il treno per Milano ci mette due ore, but i treni per Firenze ci mettono un’ora (the trains to Florence take two hours).
Starci = to agree, to accept, to join in, e.g. Maria ha detto che se andiamo in pizzeria lei ci sta (Maria said that if we are going to the pizzeria she will join us), Anna: scommettiamo 10 euro? Giovanni: Sì, ci sto! (Anna: Shall we bet 10 Euros? Giovanni: OK, I accept!)
Starci bene = it suits something, it goes well with. We have already seen an example of this redundant ci above in qui ci sto bene (I like it / feel at home here, or literally: here I like it here). Here are some more examples: con la pasta ci sta bene il Parmigiano (Parmigiano cheese goes well with pasta), in Italia ci sto bene (I feel at home / comfortable in Italy, Italy suits me)
In the following expressions, ci has the meaning of ‘about it’, ‘of it’, ‘in it / them’, etc.
Pensarci = to take care of something, e.g. non ti preoccupare, ci penso io! (don’t worry, I’ll take care of it)
Crederci = to believe in something, e.g. Giovanni: ci credi nei fantasmi? Anna: No, non ci credo (Giovanni: do you believe in ghosts? Anna: No, I don’t believe in them). N.B. the ci in the question ‘do you believe in ghosts?’ is redundant because the subject ‘ghosts’ has been stated.
Provarci = to have a go at something, e.g. Giovanni: hai mai sciato? Anna: No, mai. Giovanni: Dai, provaci! (Giovanni: Have you ever skied? Anna: No, never. Giovanni: Come on, have a go at it!)
Capirci = to understand about / of something e.g. non ci capisco nulla (I don’t understand anything about it, or I don’t understand any of it).
Farci = to do something about something, e.g. mi dispiace, ma non ci posso fare nulla (I’m sorry, but I can’t do anything about it)
Starci = to fit in it, e.g. questo parcheggio è un po’ stretto. Pensi che la macchina ci stia? (This parking space is a bit small. Do you think the car would fit in it?), no non ci sta (no it doesn’t fit in it).
Finally, when we use a reflexive verb such as sentirsi or lavarsi in the impersonal form built with the impersonal pronoun si (one / you), we avoid having two sis following each other by changing the first one to ci, e.g. quando ci si sente male (when one feels ill, literally: when one feels oneself ill), prima di andare a letto ci si lava i denti (before going to bed one cleans his/her teeth, literally: before going to bed one cleans his/herself the teeth).
Just to confuse things a little bit more, when ci is followed by the object pronouns lo, la, li, le, (it, them) or ne (lit. of it/them), ‘ci’ changes into ce, e.g. Giovanni: Scusi, c’è un bar qui vicino? Anna: Si’, ce n’è uno all’angolo della piazza (Giovanni: Excuse me, is there a bar near here? Anna: Yes, there is one on the corner of the square, or literally: there is one of them on the corner), questo quadro è molto costoso, non ce lo possiamo permettere (this painting is very expensive, we can’t afford it. Lit. we can’t allow ourselves it).
Now just for a bit of ‘fun’ here are a couple of sentences in which I’ve put as many different cis as possible:
1) ci andiamo domani pomeriggio dopo che ci siamo riposati, così vedremo se l’armadio ci sta. Se no, non so cosa possiamo farci
2) quando l’acqua bolle ci metto gli spaghetti, e poi ci vuole il sale. Gli spaghetti ci mettono 10 minuti a cuocere. Quando sono cotti si condiscono con l’olio e ci si macina un po’ di pepe fresco che ci sta bene.
My challenge for you is to translate the two sentences above, and to work out the correct meaning of each different ci. If you have read and understood this article you will have all the information you need for a correct translation! How many cis can you fit in one sentence?