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Using the definite article Posted by on Feb 28, 2009 in Grammar

In Italian we use l’articolo determinativo (the definite article): il, lo, la, i, gli, le (the) more often than in English …

… in fact even now after many years of speaking and reading English I still tend to use ‘the’ far too often because, I suppose, it just doesn’t sound right without it! The articolo determinativo brings concepts and ideas to life: if I say pane (bread) or vino (wine), they could be just objects in a shopping list, but if I say il pane, il vino they become concepts. What’s more, the definite article allows us to transform adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc. into nouns. For example: there is the old proverb ‘fra il dire e il fare c’e’ di mezzo il mare which literally means: ‘between the saying and the doing there is the sea’, or ‘conoscere il perche’ delle cose’ which means ‘knowing the why of things’. As you can see from these two examples adding il to dire, and fare transforms them from the verbs ‘to say’ and ‘to do’ into nouns: ‘the doing’, and ‘the saying’. Likewise adding il to the adverb perche’ changes it from ‘why’ into ‘the why’. The following is a list of the cases in which the articolo determinativo is used in Italian:


When talking about people we use the articolo determinativo before surnames preceded by titles: Questo e’ il signor Rossi (this is Mr Rossi); e’ arrivata la dottoressa Bianchi (Dr Bianchi has arrived); il professor Verdi e’ al telefono (Prof Verdi is on the phone). However, if we are talking directly to someone, we don’t use the article: Cosa prende da bere, signor Rossi? (What will you have to drink, Mr. Rossi?); Buongiorno, dottoressa Bianchi (Good morning, Dr Bianchi); Come sta, professor Verdi? (How are you, Prof Verdi?). Notice that in front of a name, the male titles signore, dottore, professore, etc. drop the final ‘e’: signor Rossi. We don’t normally use the article before first names (Mario, Giovanna, etc.), but in certain regions, here in Tuscany for example, you will often hear the articolo determinativo used in spoken Italian when talking about women: la Giovanna e’ ammalata (Giovanna is ill).

Geographical places

When talking about geographical places we use the articolo determinativo before:

Continents: L’Europa (Europe), l’Africa (Africa);

Regions: La Toscana (Tuscany), la Normandia (Normandy);

Countries: L’Italia (Italy), la Francia (France);

Large Islands: La Sicilia (Sicily), la Sardegna (Sardinia);

Lakes and rivers: Il lago di Garda (Lake Garda), il Tevere (the Tiber);

Mountains and volcanoes: Le Alpi Apuane (the Apuan Alps), il Vesuvio (the Vesuvius);

We don’t, however, normally use the article in front of names of cities, towns and villages: Roma e’ la capitale dell’Italia (Rome is the capital of Italy), but there are a few exceptions: La Spezia and L’Aquila in Italy, Il Cairo in Egypt, L’Aia in Holland, and La Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

We also use the articolo determinativo in the following cases:

Languages: l’italiano e’ difficile (Italian is difficult); studio il francese (I study French).

Nouns used in a general, collective sense: gli amici sono importanti (friends are important); le lingue sono utili (languages are useful); i gatti sono animali felini (cats are feline animals); il cane e’ il miglior amico dell’uomo (dog is man’s best friend).

Substances and categories: lo zucchero e’ un dolcificante (sugar is a sweetener); il calcio e’ lo sport piu’ popolare in Italia (football is the most popular sport in Italy); l’oro e’ un metallo prezioso (gold is a precious metal).

Abstract nouns, ideas: la musica (music), la poesia (poetry), la guerra (war).

Finally, we always use the articolo determinativo before the possessive adjective, e.g. il mio libro (my book), with the exception of singular members of the family: mia sorella (my sister). For further explanation see my post:

Basta, la mia mente e’ confusa! (Enough, my mind is confused!)

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