Italian Language Blog

Thank you! Please check your inbox for your confirmation email.
You must click the link in the email to verify your request.

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:

People

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: https://blogs.transparent.com/italian/mamma-mia/

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

Tags:
Share this:
Pin it

Comments:

  1. Bill Vanore:

    “RICCIO”

    1) Curl (curlique or frizz)
    2) Hedge Hog
    3) Bur
    4) Urchin

  2. Samantha:

    Excellent explanation, thank you very much.

  3. elena:

    thanks a lot, very useful

  4. Juliette Dresser:

    Why do you say “lascio le valige in albergo” instead of “lascio le valige nel albergo” ?

  5. Andrew Fryer:

    Juliette, we can ask the same of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library – in Italian, the title is “C’é un cadavere in biblioteca”. These words are used by the maid and by the mistress of the house, so they don’t imply ownership or formality (unless it’s the formality of surprise). My guess is that “in” is used of a temporary and/or unexpected situation, whereas, “nel/nella” is used of a permanent/customary situation.

    • Serena:

      @Andrew Fryer Salve Andrew, di solito usiamo la preposizione articolata quando il nome è seguito da un complemento di specificazione, per esempio posso dire “sono in studio” se è il mio studio, ma dirò “sono nello studio del dentista” in questo caso uso NEL perchè ho specificato “del dentista”; comunque questa regola non viene sempre rispettata, infatti si dice “nell’ingresso” e non “in ingresso”

      We usually use the preposition combined with the definite article when the noun is followed by a complemento di specificazione (which specifies ownership), for example I can say “sono IN studio” if I’m talking about my studio, which I don’t need to specify, but I say “sono NELLO studio del dentista”, in which case I use NEL because I’ve specified “del dentista”. However, this rule is not always respected, and in fact we say “nell’ingresso” (in the entrance hall), and not “in ingresso”.

      Saluti da Serena

  6. Jess:

    Ciao! I was just wondering, when you’re listing things in Italian, do you need to use the articles?

    Like, if you’re saying, “Computers, mobile phones, iPods, televisions, the Internet and countless forms of social media…” do you need to use the articles in Italian?

    Grazie!

    • Serena:

      @Jess Salve Jess, it’s difficult to answer your question without a specific context. The important thing to remember is to be consistent, so if you use the article for the first item, you need to use it for every other item in the list: ‘i computer, i cellulari, gli iPod, le televioni, l’internet e le altre innumerevoli forme di social media’ oppure ‘computer, cellulari, iPod, televisioni, internet e innumerevoli altre forme di social media’
      Saluti da Serena

  7. dan:

    can you explain what is the difference between “io bevo acqua” and “io bevo l’acqua”?

    thank you

    • Geoff:

      @dan Salve Dan, I tried to come up with an answer about the difference between “io bevo acqua” and “io bevo l’acqua”, but at the end I had to give up. There’s no real difference between the two, they are interchangeable. I can only suggest that the first sentence is more generic, e.g. “io di solito bevo acqua, non vino”, the second one is more precise, e.g. “cosa vuoi da bere? Ti posso offrire il vino oppure l’acqua” “io bevo l’acqua”. But in both the example you could swap the two sentences around without problems.

      Saluti da Serena

  8. David:

    Thank you for breaking the definitive article in this way 🙂 my English head finds it difficult to remember where to place them but this he helps 🙂

    • Serena:

      @David Salve David e benvenuto. Sono contenta che il nostro blog ti sia utile. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions.
      Saluti da Serena

  9. David:

    Thank you for posting this, very helpfull 🙂

  10. Kat:

    Ciao! Why is the article not used when describing where I live as in “vivo in periferia” or when I work as in “lavoro in mattina”? I tend to want to add an article in front of EVERY noun, s I was surprised to learn that the article is not needed in those cases. Are there any other cases in which the article is not used? Grazie mille!

    • Serena:

      @Kat Salve Kat!
      Per quanto riguarda “vivo in periferia”, non usiamo l’articolo determinativo perché è una definizione generica, come “vivo in città, vivo in campagna”, ecc. Ma se specifichiamo meglio, allora usiamo l’articolo: “vivo nella periferia di Milano, vivo nella campagna senese”, ecc. N.B. nella = in + la.
      Domanda 2: si può dire “lavoro la mattina” oppure “lavoro di mattina”, ma non “lavoro in mattina”-
      Saluti da Serena

  11. Kat:

    Correction: why is “in” not used when saying “lavoro la mattina”?

  12. Catherine:

    I have a grammar that uses “Lei parla inglese?” in one chapter and then “Lei capisce l’italiano?” in the next. I was under the impression that the article was always used with languages. By the way, I was surprised to see you write “Francese” with a capital letter. I hope this was just an oversight.

    • Serena:

      @Catherine Salve Catherine!
      Con le lingue si usa sempre l’articolo: conosco l’inglese, capisce l’italiano?, ecc. Tuttavia con il verbo parlare è comune anche l’uso avverbiale senza l’articolo: “parla il francese?” oppure “parla francese?” sono tutti e due corretti.
      Per quanto riguarda la lettera maiuscola, Francese, è stata una mia svista influenzata dall’inglese.
      Saluti da Serena

  13. Connie:

    Thanks for the semantic note at the beginning of the article (“il vino becomes a concept.”) Not being a native speaker it’s hard for me to know if this referral to the essence of things operates in Italian minds as they use the article, but I suspect it may be a linguistic key to the culture (which is why I love to study languages.) 🤔

    • Geoff:

      @Connie Ciao Connie, it’s nice to know that people are still reading articles that we wrote 10 years ago!
      We’re glad that you found it useful, and yes, you’re right, language is the key to understanding the culture, which is one of the reasons why we too love studying languages!

      Have you seen this article that I published last year? https://blogs.transparent.com/italian/how-to-use-the-italian-definite-article/

      A presto, Geoff 🙂


Leave a comment to Connie