Italian Language Blog

Talking about the time Posted by on Jun 21, 2009 in Italian Language

Many people say that we Italians have a different concept of time, and that domani (tomorrow) often means mai (never). This may or may not be accurate, but it is certainly true that concepts of time are expressed quite differently in English and Italian. This is one of the many cases in which English uses one word to cover many different situations, whilst in Italian, being the poets that we are, we use several different words depending on the context.


In Italian, tempo means time, it also means weather, the speed of music, and grammatical ‘tense’. We use the word tempo to express time in the following ways: tempo fa = some time ago, or tanto tempo fa = a long time ago, il temporale e’ durato molto tempo = the storm lasted a long time, il primo tempo della partita di calcio = the first half of the football match, tempo di cottura = cooking time, and that all important resource tempo libero = free time, or leisure time. 

However, and this is where it gets confusing, in many of the common everyday constructions involving time we don’t use the word tempo at all. So what do we use instead?


When talking about the time as measured by the clock we use the word ora, e.g. che ore sono, or che ora e’ =what time is it?, a che ora arriva l’autobus per Siena? = what time does the bus for Siena arrive?

We also use ora when it is time to do something or for something to happen e.g. e’ ora di partire = it’s time to go, or credo che sia ora di tagliarmi i cappelli = I think it’s time I got my hair cut.


Volta on the other hand is roughly equivalent to the English word ‘occasion’ e.g. questa volta ci vado in treno = this time I’m going there by train, or ci sono gia’ stata tre volte = I’ve already been there three times. If you want to say ‘from time to time’, ‘every once in a while’ or ‘occasionally’ you can use the expression una volta ogni tanto, and to say ‘two at a time’ (or any other number) you can say due alla volta, cinque alla volta, etc.

There are various other situations in which you can use the word ‘time’ in English that require you to use words other that volta, ora, or tempo in Italian. For example, where in English you might say ‘to have a nice time’, in Italian we would use the verb divertirsi e.g. ti sei divertito/a? = did you have a nice time? and instead of saying ‘by the time’ you should use quando e.g. ‘by the time we arrive it will be dark’ would be quando arriviamo sara’ buio. To say ‘on time’ we use in orario e.g. il treno e’ in orario? = is the train on time?, ‘behind time’ is in ritardo, and ‘ahead of time’ in anticipo, so in the unlikely event that your train is 10 minutes ahead of time you would say caspita! il treno e’ dieci minuti in anticipo (caspita = wow!). Yet another word, fra, is used to express the idea of ‘in X amount of time’ e.g. la macchina sara’ pronta fra due giorni = the car will be ready in two days time.


Time vocabulary

Infine (finally), here is a useful list of time vocabulary:

quando = when

adesso = now

subito = at once/straight away

gia’ = already

dopo = afterwards

poi = then

presto = early

tardi = late

il secondo = the second

il minuto = the minute

l’ora = the hour, time

l’orologio = the clock, watch

la sveglia = the alarm clock

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  1. Laurentiius:

    Growing-up with an Italian mother. She used the word, “subito,” a lot; and I assumed it meant, “soon.” Because, she would say it so often when my dad would say: “Are you ready yet, lets go!” Mom would say, “si’ subito,” and continue with what she was doing.

    On visits to Italy, I used it too, thinking all the while it meant, “soon!” One day, finally, my cousin frustrated asked me: “Why do you say, your coming “subito,” and then don’t come? That was the day I learnt the true meaning of the word, “subito.”

    But, I must confess, if you say, “subito,” everyone stops nagging you ( for a little while). lol 😉

  2. cinzia:

    I have a question for you Serena! Do any Italians you know say “ogni altro giorno”? Mi hanno insegnato che e’ sbagliato dirlo cosi’ che si deve dire “un giorno si’, un giorno no”. Ho appena fatto un Google search e’ ho trovato 16,400 risultati per “ogni altro giorno”. Si puo’ dire? Mi incuriosce sapere il tuo parere. Cinzia 🙂

  3. Bill Rohwer:

    Ottimo e molto utile. Grazie.

    Per favore chiarifica i contesti in cui si usa ‘presto’ invece ‘in anticipo’ e anche i contesti in cui si usa ‘tardi’ e ‘in ritardo.”

    Ad esempio, “Mi scusi, sono arrivato [presto] oppure [in anticipo].” Un altro: “Mi dispiace che sia [molto tardi] o [molto in ritardo].”

    Grazie in anticipo,

    Bill Rohwer

  4. Serena:

    Salve Cinzia, Just out of interest I did a search for “ogni altro giorno” on Google Italiano, and it gives 10,600 results. Here is a typical sentence from one of those results: “Oggi a Trieste, come ogni altro giorno, alle 2 di mattina non c’e gia’ piu’ niente da fare…tutti i bar sono chiusi …..etc” which translates as “Today in Trieste, like any other day, at 2 in the morning there is nothing left to do…all the bars are closed ….” I quote this simply to illustrate that “ogni altro giorno” means “any other day”, not “alternate days” which would be “un giorno si’ un giorno no” or “a giorni alterni”. The moral of the story is a. always do an Italian search with an Italian search engine such as Google Italiano, and b. don’t rely on the internet as a dictionary based on the number of results it gives!

  5. cinzia:

    Ciao Serena! Grazie per la bella risposta. Non avevo idea che “ogni altro giorno” si usa per dire “any other day”. Allora possiamo aggiungere questa “espressione” alla lista degli amici falsi! 🙂

  6. Serena:

    I’m not sure about the ‘lista degli falsi amici’ but ‘ogni’ is a bit tricky in certain situations because it can mean both ‘any’ and ‘every’, so I’m going to do a blog about it as it might help other readers. Stay tuned!

    A presto, Serena

  7. Serena:

    Salve Bill, scusa per il ritardo – sorry for the delay, but I had to look up the answers to your question, and I’m still confused. I can say that generally “presto/in anticipo” (early), and “tardi/in ritardo” (late) are synonyms, but there are a few rules that we can follow: a) with the verb “essere” (to be) we always use “in anticipo/in ritardo”: “sono in ritardo per l’appuntamento” (I’m late for the appointment); b) “presto” and “tardi” are more vague, so they are used in expressions such as “Ieri sera sono andata a dormire presto perche’ ero stanchissima” (last night I went to sleep early because I was very tired); c) “In anticipo/in ritardo” are more precise so they are used when expressing the amount of time: “il treno e’ arrivato 10 minuti in ritardo” (the train arrived 10 minutes late). Finally, “in anticipo” also translates “in advance”, so it’s used in expressions such as “le consumazioni al bar si pagano in anticipo” (drinks at the bar are paid in advance”.

    A presto.

  8. Bill Rohwer:

    Gentile Serena,

    Your response is utilissima! Ti ringrazio moltissimo. I especially appreciate the decisiveness of the rule about usage with ‘essere.’ One of the difficulties for us stranieri in Italia is the subtlety of the differences between what we’ve learned in our grammar courses, on the one hand, and the common usages by Italians, on another hand, and the approved usages by very-educated Italians on still another hand (?).

    Communque, grazie mille ancora,


  9. Anna:

    Thank you for this super clear explanation of this super confusing concept of time! It’s “about time” this was cleared up for me…now how would you translate that? 😉

    • Geoff:

      @Anna Salve Anna, in Italian the expression ‘it’s about time’ is ‘è ora’, and in the past tense ‘it was about time’ would be ‘era ora’.

      Saluti da Geoff

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