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Plurals: what a nightmare! Posted by on Oct 13, 2008 in Grammar

Unlike most Western European languages, the Italian language pluralizes by changing the final vowel. But as we Italians are very creative and chaotic, we are not happy with just a couple of changes. Here I’ll try to make sense of the various possible plural forms which you might encounter whilst studying Italian:

 

  • 1. The most common group of nouns is the one ending in –a in the feminine singular and in –o in the masculine singular. They respectively change to –e and –i. E.g.: la casa/le case; il cappuccino/i cappuccini.
  • 2. Another main group of nouns presents only one ending in the singular (-e) and one in the plural (-i). The difficulty with this group is that it includes both masculine and feminine nouns. E.g.: il padre/i padri; la madre/le madri. As you can see from the examples these nouns look exactly the same but they have their own gender, so articles and adjectives have to agree with the noun gender: il padre buono/i padri buoni; la madre buona/le madri buone.
  • 3. The third group behaves very strangely because it changes gender as it moves from singular to plural. Names of parts of the human body form the bulk of this group. E.g.: il braccio/le braccia; il dito/le dita; l’uovo/le uova.

 

Is this confusing? Well, we haven’t finished yet!

 

  • 4. There is another group of nouns that have their origins in Greek and these are characterized by the ending –ma in the singular, but the gender is masculine. E.g.: il problema/i problemi; il teorema/i teoremi.
  • 5. A similar group to number 4 is composed of nouns ending in –ista and it mainly describes professions. These nouns have the same ending in the singular for both the feminine and the masculine, while in the plural they follow the rule of group 1. E.g.: il dentista/i dentisti; la dentista/ le dentiste.
  • 6. Finally, there are nouns that do not change when they become plural. Within this class of nouns we can distinguish 3 main groups:
  • A. Words ending in –tà. E.g.: la cit/le cit; l’universi/le universi.
  • B. Foreign words. E.g.: il bar/i bar; il computer/i computer.
  • C. Abbreviations of nouns that were originally longer. E.g.: la foto/le foto (from fotografia); il cinema/i cinema (from cinematografo).

 

Oh dear! There are still a few mischievous nouns that do not fit in any of these groups: la mano/le mani; l’orecchio/le orecchie; il poeta/i poeti.

 

I hope I haven’t confused you too much. I certainly need a nice espresso after this!

 

P.S. If you find other Italian nouns that do not fit in this classification system, please let me know.

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Comments:

  1. Maral:

    ciao!
    grazie mille di te.
    i see ur site today. its really useful.thanks alot. be happy.

  2. Chloé:

    Very useful – thanks! I’ve been in Italy for 3 and a half years and noone’s ever been able to tell me why it’s ‘il problema’. The explanation is helpful, but I think it’s going to take me a while before I get them all right!

  3. ROLLANDO:

    Oh brother! LOL! And I have a hard enough time understanding English grammar, let alone Italian. However, I shall not give up!

  4. sophie wood:

    This is really helpful. I am a third year archaeological practice student who is desperate to get practicing and move to Italy! I am trying to learn at the moment…but I’m not very good at languages!

  5. Serena:

    Ciao Sophie!

    I’m glad you found this post helpful. There will be more posts on grammar and also on Italian archaeology, in fac I’m a former archaeologist too. So stay tuned in!

  6. Carol:

    Thank you for the entertaining and informative articles (loved the one on the human torpedo) and the very clearly explained rules for the plurals. It’s great having it all laid out in one place with good examples.

  7. Luis:

    Can you tell us how the Romance languages divided into two camps–the one with pluralization by s, the other with pluralization not by s?

    • serena:

      @Luis Salve Luis!

      I’m not an expert on this subject, and I cannot find any precise information about it. However, a few years ago, whilst teaching Italian in England, one of my students (a former professor of French and Spanish at Nottingham University, and author of several French and Spanish grammar books for Cambridge University Press) made an interesting comment to the effect that “in the plural form, whilst most Romance languages have followed the Latin Accusative (which is used for the direct object and is characterized by the ending in -s), Italian has stuck with the Latin Nominative (which is used for the grammatical subject), e.g. the Latin ‘rosa / rosae’ has become the Italian ‘rosa / rose’ (rose, roses), the Latin ‘lupus / lupi’ has become the Italian ‘lupo / lupi’ (wolf / wolves).

      Saluti da Serena

  8. Roberto:

    Serena,

    Is there a brief bio or an “about” link somewhere that I have missed (about you)?

    Thank you for continuing this blog. Very interesting, very helpful, very fun! I am having fun navigating my way through your archives.

    Roberto

    • serena:

      @Roberto Ciao Roberto, I’m afraid Transparent don’t have bio’s for their bloggers. I sometimes think it would be interesting to have bio’s of my readers!

      Saluti da Serena


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