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Grammar Notes Italian

It is often said that, in comparison with English or other languages, Italian (like all Romance languages) has more grammar, and is therefore more difficult to learn. However, there are also quite a few similarities that may help you in the learning process.

While Italian (unlike languages such as German or Russian) has no case endings, it has two genders (masculine and feminine) and two numbers (singular and plural). Articles, both definite and indefinite, are very widely used; verb conjugations can be rather complex, especially irregular forms, which require some memorization. Another difficulty for learners of Italian is the widespread use of the subjunctive mood, which in English is practically non-existent. On the other hand, the basic sentence structure is relatively straightforward, and rather similar to English.

Italian is what is generally called a phonetic language – meaning that you can generally predict the pronunciation of a word by the way it is spelled. Most words end with a vowel, and most of the letters in a word are pronounced, with very few exceptions. Some of the letters of the English alphabet (j, k, w, x, y) are not present in the standard Italian alphabet, though they appear in loan words.

Here are some basic rules about Italian pronunciation:

1. double consonants are always pronounced as two (long), not as one (short)
2. vowels at the end of words are always pronounced: therefore, a word like nave has two syllables
3. the letter h is always silent
4. the letter c is pronounced as in the English word cat when followed by a, o or u; it is pronounced as in chat when followed by e or i
5. the letter g is pronounced as in game when followed by a, o or u; it is pronounced as in joke when followed by e or i
6. ch is always pronounced as in cat
7. gh is always pronounced as in game
8. sch is always pronounced as in skate
9. sc is pronounced as in skate when followed by a, o or u; it is pronounced as in shine when followed by e or i
10. qu is alwas pronounced as in the English words quite and quarter
11. gl and gn are probably among the trickiest sounds for learners of Italian to master. However, if you know some French, Spanish or Portuguese, you will be familiar with these sounds, which are found in words like lluvia and niño

As a general rule, the primary accent (word stress) tends to fall on the second but last syllable of a word; when it falls on the last syllable, it is always marked, as in the following examples:
papa / daddy
più / more

Italian nouns have both gender and number, and both of these aspects are clearly marked in a word's ending. As a general rule, masculine nouns end in (o), feminine ones in (a); however, there are also nouns, both masculine and feminine, ending in –e, such as nave. In such cases, the article will show clearly if the noun is masculine or feminine. Articles are very important in Italian, and are used in most situations. Like English, Italian has both indefinite and definite articles. First we deal with the indefinite article un(o)/una.

un uomo / a man
una donna / a woman
un ragazzo / a boy
una nave / a ship

Since un(o) / una also means 'one', it is only used with singular nouns.

For definite articles we have il/lo (masculine singular) and la (feminine singular), which in English are both translated as 'the'. Lo is used before masculine nouns starting with vowel or certain consonant clusters; when the noun that follows the article begins with a vowel, both lo and la become l'.

l'uomo / the man
l'aereo / the plane
l'isola / the island.

Plural form of Nouns

Generally speaking, masculine nouns in (o) take the ending (i), and feminine nouns in (a) take the ending (e).

uomo [uomini] / man [men]
donaa [donne] / woman [women]

Nouns in -e, such as nave / ship and piede / foot, generally take the ending -i:

navi / ships
piedi / feet

For plural of definite articles, (I) corresponds to (il), and (gli) to (lo), while the plural of (la) is always (le):

il ragazzo / the boy
i ragazzi / the boys
l'uomo / the man
gli uomini / the men
la donna / the woman
le donne / the women

Note that apostrophes are never used with the plural form of definite articles.

Italian verbs can be rather tricky, and require some patience and a good memory. However, there are also some basic rules that will make it easier for you to learn them correctly.

Unlike in English or French, in Italian it is not mandatory to use a personal pronoun before a verb, because the subject can be identified from the verb's ending. There are two main auxiliary verbs, essere / to be and avere / to have.

One category of verb that is commonly used in the Italian language is the Reflexive verb.

Cosa si sta mettendo il ragazzo?
What is the boy putting on?

Il ragazzo si sta mettendo una maglietta
The boy is putting on a T-shirt

Cosa si sta togliendo l'uomo?
What is the man taking off?

L'uomo si sta togliendo una camicia
The man is taking off a shirt.

Verbs such as mettersi / to put on and togliersi / to take off are called reflexive - that is, verbs whose direct object is the same as the subject, and is expressed by a personal pronoun (whose English equivalent would be myself, yourself, etc.).

Verb tenses will be discussed in details in Chapter 6.

Unlike in English and other Germanic languages in Italian, adjectives normally follow the noun they refer to.

una camicia Bianca / a white shirt
una maglietta blu / a blue T-shirt
pantaloni neri / black pants

Adjectives such as those denoting color, size or other similar characteristics can also be placed before the noun for emphasis, though this use is not as common as the one illustrated above. On the other hand, some categories of adjectives - such as numbers are always placed before the noun.

Examples of adjectives and their agreement with nouns in plural form:
I pantaloni blu sono vecchi / The blue pants are old.
Le palle rosse sono piccolo / The red balls are small.
Lui sta indossando pantaloni lunghi / He is wearing long pants.

As shown in the first two examples, adjectives that follow the verb essere / to be always agree in gender and number with the subject of the sentence.

Remember that numbers are always placed before nouns:

Lui sta tenendo in mano due palle grandi e una palla piccolo
He is holding two big balls and one small ball.

Adjectives ending in -e, like grande / big or verde / green, have only one singular and one plural form for both masculine and feminine.

L'aereo è grande / The plane is big.
La palla è grande / The ball is big.

Gli aerei sono grandi / The planes are big.
Le palle sono grandi / The balls are big.

Possessive Adjectives

Tu sei mia moglie / You are my wife
Tu sei mio marito / You are my husband.
Lui dà una giacca a sua moglie / He gives his wife a jacket.
Lei dà un telefono cellulare a suo marito / She gives her husband a mobile phone.

Possessive adjectives in Italian (with very few exceptions) are placed before the noun they refer to, as in the previous example. As is the case with all other adjectives, possessives agree with the noun in gender and number. When possessive adjectives are used before a singular noun indicating a family member (padre, madre, figlio, figlia, marito, moglie, etc.) - as in the above examples - no article is used.

How articles are used with possessive adjective:

Il ragazzo sta camminando con il suo amico
The boy is walking with his friend.

Il mio anello è bello
My ring is beautiful.

As the first two examples show, articles are always used before possessive adjectives, unless they refer to singular family-related nouns. However if the family-related noun is followed by an adjective (as shown in the second and fourth examples below), then an article must be used before the possessive adjective.

Questa è mia sorella / This is my sister.
Questa è la mia sorella minore / This is my younger sister.
Questa è mia moglie / This is my wife.
Questa è la mia bella moglie / This is my beautiful wife.

Present Tense

Present tense of essere / to be, together with the personal subject pronouns:

io sono – I am
tu sei – you are (singular)
egli/ella/esso è – he/she/it is
noi siamo – we are
voi siete – you are (plural)
essi/esse sono – they are

Note that in colloquial Italian the third-person pronouns egli, ella and essi/esse are generally replaced with lui, lei and loro. The second-person singular pronoun tu is used as an informal address; while Lei (capitalized) is used as a formal address, like the German Sie or the Spanish Usted.

There are three conjugations in Italian, each identifiable by the ending of the infinitive form: -are (1st), -ere (2nd), -ire (3rd). Here are the infinitive forms of three commonly used verbs:
camminare / to walk
correre / to run
partire / to leave

Present progressive tense

L'uomo sta camminando / The man is walking.
L'uomo sta correndo / The man is running
L'uomo sta dormendo / The man is sleeping.

When you want to refer to an action that is taking place at the moment of speaking and that lasts over a period of time, you can use the present tense of the verb stare + the gerund (-ing form) of the main verb. Literally, the verb stare means to stay, but it is often used as a synonym for 'essere', as in 'stare in piedi' / to stand.

The gerund is formed by adding the ending -ando (1st conjugation)/-endo (2nd/3rd conjugation) to the verb stem:

camminare - camminando
correre - correndo
dormire - dormendo

To form the simple present tense of a verb, you remove the –are/-ere/-ire ending from the infinitive form in order to get the stem, then you add the ending that identifies the person:


Past Tense

The passato prossimo is formed by the present tense of an auxiliary verb followed by the past participle of the main verb. In Italian there are two auxiliary verbs, essere and avere, and both of them are used to form perfect tenses.

L'uomo ha scalato la montagna
The man has climbed the mountain.

Il ragazzo e la ragazza hanno giocato sulla spiaggia
The boy and the girl have played on the beach.

Regular past participles are formed by adding the endings -ato (1st conjugation), -uto (2nd conjugation), -ito (3rd conjugation) to the verb stem.

With the auxiliary verb 'avere', the past participle of the main verb does not agree with the subject in gender and number, and remains in its basic form (ending in -o) throughout the conjugation: scalato, giocato, nuotato, and so on.

Future Tense

Future tense of verbs is generally regular, even in verbs that have other irregular forms, and therefore quite simple to learn. Like the present tense, it is formed by taking the stem of the verb and adding the ending that distinguishes the tense. The Italian future tense (futuro semplice) corresponds to both the 'will' and the 'going to' forms in English.

Il cavallo salterà / The horse is going to jump.
Il gatto berrà / The cat is going to drink.


Prepositions are used to express place:

in / in
a / at
su / on
sotto / under

Prepositions in Italian are used before a noun, generally (but not always) preceded by an article.

Un bambino in una macchina / A baby in a car.
Un uomo a una fermata d'autobus / A man at a bus stop.
Una bicicletta su una macchina / A bike on a car.
Un ragazzo sotto un aereo / A boy under a plane.

Prepositions joined with definite articles (preposizioni articolate):

In Italian there are eight true prepositions: di, a, da, in, con, su, per, tra/fra. Out of these, only 'per' and 'tra/fra' cannot be joined to a definite article, and are always used separately; while con + definite article is used only in limited cases.

L'uomo sta salendo sull'aereo / The man in getting on the plane.
La donna sta uscendo dalla macchina / The woman is getting out of the car.
Il bagaglio è di fronte alla casa / The luggage is in front of the house.
Il passaporto è nella macchina / The passport is in the car.

In most cases, joining a preposition to an article is a relatively straightforward process that involves minimal changes. The only exception is the preposition (in), which changes to (ne) when joined to a definite article.

To give a sentence a negative meaning, the word non / not is used before the verb.

Il telefono non è rosso, è nero
The telephone is not red, it is black.

Il computer non è blu, è bianco
The computer is not blue, it is white.

L'uomo non è seduto, è in piedi
The man is not sitting, he is standing.

La donna non è in piedi, è seduta in ufficio
The woman is not standing, she is sitting in the office.

Generally speaking, there are not too many differences between English and Italian with regards to formulating questions. As in English, questions can be introduced by words such as cosa? / what? or come? / how?.


The question word cosa?/ what

Cosa sta facendo la donna? / What is the woman doing?
La donna sta mangiando / The woman is eating.

Cosa sta facendo l'uomo? / What is the man doing?
L'uomo sta bevendo / The man is drinking.

Note that cosa? can also be expressed as che cosa? (the complete form) or che?:
Che cosa sta facendo la ragazza?
Che sta facendo la ragazza?


The question word dove? / where?

Dove è l'uomo? / Where is the man?
L'uomo e' in casa / The man is in the house.

Dove sono il ragazzo e la ragazza? / Where are the boy and the girl?
Il ragazzo e la ragazza sono in camera da letto / The boy and the girl are in the bedroom.


The question word chi? / who?

Chi è l'insegnante? / Who is the teacher?
Chi è il dottore? / Who is the doctor?

Take note that the structure of the question is the same as in English, with the subject following the verb.

Unlike in English, higher-degree comparison in Italian are formed by putting the adverb più / more before an adjective, which is then followed by the preposition di / of, with or without an article.

L'uomo è più grasso della donna
The man is fatter than the woman.

La donna è più bella dell'uomo
The woman is more beautiful than the man.

Same-degree comparison in Italian is expressed by using the adverbs come or quanto / as to join the two terms of the comparison. Unlike the English structure '', the use of a second adverb immediately before the adjective is rare.

La macchina rossa è veloce come la macchina nera
The red car is as fast as the black car.

L'uomo con la barba è alto quanto l'uomo con il cappello
The man with the beard is as tall as the man with the hat.

Superlative Comparison in Italian

Take note of the following examples first:

L'elefante è l'animale più grande nella foto
The elephant is the biggest animal in the photo.

Il pollo è l'animale più piccolo nella foto
The chicken is the smallest animal in the photo.

Like higher-degree comparisons, Italian superlatives do not require the use of special endings, but are formed with the definite article + the adverb più placed before an adjective or a noun.

Please note that the word order in Italian is different than in English, where the superlative form of the adjective is always placed before a noun. In Italian, on the other hand, adjectives generally follow the noun. The definite article will obviously change according to the gender and number of the noun:

l'animale più grande / the biggest animal
gli animali più grandi / the biggest animals

la donna più bella / the most beautiful woman
le donne più belle / the most beautiful women.

Numbers from 0 to 10 in the Italian language are quite similar to their English counterparts.

Here they are:
0 – zero
1 – uno
2 – due
3 – tre
4 – Quattro
5 - cinque
6 – sei
7 –sette
8 – otto
9 – nove
10 – dieci

Just like in English, Italian numbers are always placed before the noun they refer to. Uno always agrees with the gender of the noun it precedes, as shown in the following examples:

un uomo / one man
una donna / one woman

The numbers from 2 upwards always stay the same, regardless of gender:

due bambini / two babies
due palle / two balls
tre ragazzi / three boys

Numbers 11-20 can be a bit trickier:

11 – undici
12 – dodici
13 – tredici
14 – quattordici
15 – quindici
16 – sedici
17 – diciassette
18 – diciotto
19 – diciannove
20 – venti

On the other hand, numbers 21-29 are very straightforward. The good news is that the same pattern is used for all the numbers up to 99:

21 – ventuno
22 – ventidue
23 – ventitrè
24 – ventiquattro
25 – venticinque
26 – ventisei
27 – ventisette
28 – ventotto
29 – ventinove
30 – trenta
31 – trentuno
40 - quaranta