Italian Language Blog

Tavolo or Tavola? Posted by on Oct 31, 2009 in Italian Language

Following my article about new trends in Italian kitchens, a reader asked me whether the words tavolo (table) and tavola (table) are interchangeable, and if there is any difference between the two. Well, I’m afraid that this is yet another idiosyncratic use of the Italian language, so let’s see if I can clarify it for you.

Nowadays the masculine word tavolo, which originates from the feminine word “tavola” (Latin “tabula”), is used almost exclusively to describe a piece of furniture, e.g. il tavolo della cucina (the kitchen table), il tavolo da pranzo (the dining table), il tavolo da disegno (the drawing table), il tavolo da stiro (the ironing board), il tavolo da biliardo (the snooker table). We also use the word “tavolo” for a table in a restaurant, so if you want to book a table for four people, you’ll have to say vorrei prenotare un tavolo per quattro per favore (I would like to book a table for four please).

On the other hand, the feminine word tavola, which also means a plank or a board, is used to describe the dining table, not as a piece of furniture, but with reference to the table as a place where meals are eaten. In this case we have a whole series of idiomatic expressions based around the act of eating a meal at the table. These are the most common ones:

apparecchiare la tavola (to lay the table)

sparecchiare la tavola (to clear the table)

portare / servire in tavola (to bring food to the table)

il pranzo / la cena è in tavola (lunch / dinner is on the table)

andare / mettersi / sedersi a tavola (to sit down to eat at the table)

essere / stare a tavola (to be sitting eating at the table)

chiamare a tavola (to call people to the table)

tutti a tavola! or simply a tavola! (everybody to the table! i.e. come and sit down to eat!)

servizio da tavola (dining set, i.e. plates, cutlery, glasses)

biancheria da tavola (table linen)

uva da tavola (eating grapes)

Now please don’t ask me why a table in a restaurant is called un tavolo and not, as you might expect, una tavola, because I haven’t got a clue!

However, don’t forget that leggere il giornale a tavola è maleducato (to read the newspaper while eating is bad manners), but it’s OK leggere il giornale al tavolo (to read the newspaper at the table)! 

To finish with, a funny proverb: chi canta a tavola e fischia a letto, è matto perfetto (whoever sings at the dinner table and whistles in bed, is perfectly crazy)!

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  1. Keith:

    What a great post!

    I was going to write something similar about this for my blog, but now I’ll just point readers to your excellent and well written post!

    I love this blog!

    • Jeanette:

      @Keith Così felice ho trovato la tua pagina! I am taking an online college Italian course and unfortunately, the book which follows the Intutive method of teaching, has so many gaps. Your explanation of when to use “tavolo” and “tavola” was so explained so well. Of course it makes sense that “tavola” refers to not just any table but the dining table. And if you are Italian then you know that the dining table is sacred.
      Grazie mille

  2. andreas:

    Salve, Serena!
    Grazie per il blog. E’ molto utile. Quanto piu’ tanto meglio dei blog simili. Perche’ per noi gli stranieri e’ la cosa piu’ difficile sapere utilizzare le parole corettamente: come si combinano e lo stile dove utilizzarle.

  3. andreas:

    Salve, Serena!
    Sono ancora io, Andreas. Ho un altro caso di dubbio. Stavo facendo gli esercizi del manuale di K.Catherinov. E qui ci sta: Sapevo che Giorgio sta male. E’ possibile dire cosi’? Dove e’ la concordanza dei tempi?

  4. Serena:

    Salve Andreas! Questo quesito non è molto semplice: “sapevo che Giorgio sta male”. Io direi che grammaticalmente non è corretto perché da un tempo passato dovrebbe dipendere un imperfetto per esprimere contemporaneitá, o un trapassato per esprimere anterioritá. Questa frase è secondo me tipica dell’italiano parlato, dove l’uso dell’imperfetto “sapevo” esprime il fatto che sono a conoscenza della situazione già da tempo, e l’uso del presente “sta male” descrive il fatto che Giorgio ancora adesso è ammalato. La frase più corretta è: “sapevo che Giorgio stava male”. Spero di essere stata chiara.

    A presto, Serena

  5. Serena:

    Salve Keith! Thank you for the compliment.

    A presto, Serena

  6. andreas:

    Salve Serena!
    Ti ringrazio della risposta. Sei stata chiarissima. Io pensavo la stessa cosa, ma volevo esserne sicuro. Semplicimente, sono stato stupefatto di vederlo in un manuale.

  7. Melissa:

    Questo chiarificazione e’ perfetto… e utile! Sempre avevo i dubbi di quella parola da usare. Meli

  8. Tan Seow Lim:

    ‘ Tavola Calda ‘ – A warm meal on the table !

  9. Laura:

    Thank you so much for this post! I’ll be referencing this blog more often!


    • serena:

      @Laura Salve Laura, benvenuta al mio blog!


  10. lavorare da casa:

    ottimo post informativo

  11. Joanna:

    I am listenting to tapes to “refresh” my childhood Italian and “un tavolo” was heard. I thought it was wrong since Nonna always said “tutti a tavola.” So, this was just perfect and I will continue reading your blog.
    Thank you, Joanna

  12. Noe Berengena:

    This is the best explanation I have come across. Someone geve me the inside on Tavolo and Tavola a month ago, and I forgot it soon afterward — because it was not very clearly explained.

    But now I have real insight and clarity.


    • Serena:

      @Noe Berengena Salve Noe!
      Sono contenta che il mio articolo ti sia d’aiuto.

      Saluti da Serena

  13. Sue:

    Thank you very much! I’ve never known the difference before..
    Amazing method in explaining.. Great job!! 🙂 Grazie Mille

    • Geoff:

      @Sue non c’è di che! 🙂

      a presto, Geoff

  14. Clare Crowe:

    My belief has always been that a great teacher doesn’t necessarily have to be a “brain”. A great teacher is one who can convey information in a way that can be understood by anyone, even me! So thank you.

  15. Greg Edwards:

    Great ! This was referenced from DuoLingo, from some phrase that included tavola. Great to finally know the difference. Your tutorials are the best.

  16. ciamaque:

    great post

  17. Catherine F Mitchell:

    Io prima di ora sapevo solo la parola tavola. In una grammatica do recente sono stata introdotta alla parola tavila, senza nessuna spiegazione. Adesso capisco. Grazie.

  18. Bruce Plumb:

    Very clear, but I have a question. Your post starts with the word “nowadays”. I have an old “Berlitz Self-Teacher” published 1950 which only uses “la tavola”, so when and why did it change to masculine?

    • Serena:

      @Bruce Plumb Salve Bruce!
      I don’t know when the masculine tavolo became more common than the feminine word. Certainly, it’s not a recent thing since I have known the word tavolo all my life. Scusa!
      Saluti da Serena

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