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https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Nitram.

When to use the definite article...

It is an ever-returning question on the Italian forums: when should one use the definite article? It is a legit question, because it's use in Italian often differs from its use in English.

With the help of my PONS grammar book, I'm going to write down the rules of this nasty part of Italian grammar to help those having problems with it.


First of all, you have to understand that you're learning Italian, not German for instance, which means that there are always vague parts that cannot be explained perfectly. Most of these things are based on intuition, on the sense of the speaker, the following rules are just guidelines until you know enough about Italian.

USE THE DEFINITE ARTICLE:

1) before names of materials

  • Ti piacciono le carote? - Do you like carrots?
  • La lana è una materiale importante per l'industria dell'abbigliamento. - Wool is an important material for the clothing industry.

2) before possessive pronouns (except certain family members, of course)

  • Adoro il mio insegnante. - I love my teacher.
  • Questo è il tuo libro. - This is your book.

3) before the days of the week and times of the day IF it is a regular activity

  • Il sabato vado al mercato. - Every Saturday I go to the market.
  • La sera sono stanco. - In the evenings i am [usually/always] tired.

4) before titles IF followed by a name (EXCEPT if it's greeting/addressing)

  • La signora Rossi è arrivata - Madam Rossi has arrived.
  • Ecco il professor Angelini! - This is professor Angelini.

5) before feminine family names, rarely before masculine family names. we don't use it before famous historical Italian people

  • La Loren, (il) Manzoni, BUT: Fellini, Verdi etc.

6) before names of continents, countries, territories and bigger islands (EXCEPT after the preposition "in")

  • Mi affascina l'Africa - Africa charms me.
  • Sono tornato ieri dalla Sicilia - I arrived yesterday from Sicily.

7) before abstract objects / concepts (EXCEPT after the preposition "in" or "di")

  • L'ozio è il padre dei vizi. - Laziness is the father of vices.

8) before objects that people tend to have only one (and here possessive pronoun is often omitted)

  • Hai la macchina? - Do you have a car?
  • Mi fanno male le gambe - My legs hurt.

9) before giving the exact time

  • Sono le nove. - It's nine o'clock.
  • E' l'una. - It's one o'clock.

10) before body parts and other external signs

  • Mia madre ha il naso piccolo. - My mother has a small nose.
  • Porti gli occhiali? - Do you wear glasses?

11) before illnesses

  • L'AIDS mi fa paura - I'm afraid of AIDS.

12) before musical instruments

  • Suono il pianoforte - I play the piano.
  • Chi suona la chitarra? - Who plays the guitar?

13) before colors

  • Il rosso è il simbolo della passione. - Red is the symbol of passion.
  • Il rosso, il bianco e il verde sono i colori della bandiera italiana. - Red, white and green are the colors of the Italian flag.

DON'T USE THE DEFINITE ARTICLE:

1) in structures with adverbs of place using the preposition "in"

  • Vado in bagno - I'm going to the bathroom.
  • Ha mandato suo figlio in collegio - He sent his son to boarding school.

2) before adverbs of place using the preposition "a" + the following nouns: caccia/casa/letto/lezione/messa/scuola/teatro

  • Oggi resto a letto. - Today I remain in bed.
  • Vado a teatro stasera - I go to the theatre this evening.

3) before months and seasons (more info: look at itastudent's post below about seasons/months)

  • In autunno la scuola inizia. - School starts in autumn.

4) before means of transport using the preposition "in"

  • Vado in treno a Roma - I go by train to Rome.

That's all in the book, but Italian of course has more of them than these "rules" can express. Quite a challenge to learn them, isn't it? :) But Duolingo-ers are up to challenge, I suppose.

Anyway(s), I hope I could be of help. In bocca al lupo, amici! :D

October 25, 2013

43 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/itastudent

Really great job! I think it's pretty clear. I am not completely sure only about your third "don't". There are several cases when months and seasons need the article, in particular when you are specifying something more near the name of the season/month, you should specify the article:

  • L'estate prossima vado al mare. Next summer I'm going to the beach.
  • Mi sono sposato nel luglio del 1993. I got married on July, 1993.

Also, consider these examples:

  • La primavera è la stagione che preferisco. Spring is the season I like the most.

but:

  • Aprile è il mese che preferisco. April is the month I like the most.

I think we can maybe write that rule as follow. You should not use the article before months/seasons using the prepositions in/a and if there is no other kind of detail (i.e. an adjective) near the name. Without using the propositions in/a, seasons do need the definite article, but months don't.

It's a little confusing. What do you think about that?


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Nitram.

Yes you're right, but those "don't use" can be basically always ignored when speaking about something specific. Thank you for sharing this valueable information I'll refer to your post in the original post. :)


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/annzabaldo

THANKS! This actually is extremely helpful! At least it organizes all of it in one place. Now all I have to do is learn 17 different exceptions and requirements ... :-)


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/SigurtBladt

Before languages as well.

  • l'inglese
  • l'italiano
  • il francese

I think there are exceptions, but I don't know.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/jordy
  • 1073

I believe there's an exception in that the definite article is /optional/ when preceded by the verbs "study" and "learn". For example, "studiano inglese".


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/jordy
  • 1073

Somebody disliked my comment above, but that somebody also didn't offer any additional clarification. :)

I cite, therefor, this book title as evidence: "Gli errori degli italiani che studiano inglese"

https://www.amazon.com/errori-degli-italiani-studiano-inglese/dp/8848312616


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/LaMilanese

The definite article should not be used before first names, as it is a grammatical error commonly found among speakers from the north of Italy. Just wanted to point this out in case someone stumbles on things like "ieri sono uscito con la Maria".

Great post :)


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Nitram.

Thanks for pointing it out, it is very useful when someone is confused! :)


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ALTUOR

After two years, this continues being a very good explanation. Thank you! But I still have a question (I'm a beginner): are definite articles mandatory before uncountable nouns? For example, "io bevo caffè" vs. "io bevo il caffè". I'm Brazilian, and in Portuguese we can use both, but the first sentence indicates a general/nonspecific idea (similarly to English); the latter indicates something very specific (the coffee in that cup, or from that package). I often come across the idea that both sentences are completely ok in Italian, regardless of its specificity. Is it true?


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Katzenperson

This is an extremely useful set of rules! I have copied them to my little notebook for reference. Mille grazie!

BTW, what is PONS?


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/SMAKCANADA

PONS is an online translating tool that also provides deep grammatical data.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mazzorano

Cheers, love your enthusiasm!


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/itastudent

There's a little thing I am not sure about your example at number 8:

  • "My legs hurt."

I think this should be translated "Mi fanno male le gambe". Your Italian translation sounds a little weird to me, maybe it's something regional; personally, I have never heard the verb "ferire" used that way.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/LaMilanese

Your translation is the correct one.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/SMAKCANADA

This must already have been changed because LaMilanese's example is exactly the same as itatudent's.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Nicole_Di_Kansas

Grazie, grazie, grazie. Mi serve il libro


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/artskinner

Thank you very much!! That helps. By the way anyway doesn't have an "S"


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Nitram.

You're welcome. My English teacher always said there was no real difference between anyway and anyways... Anyway(s) :)


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Konrad127123

"Anyway" is correct and used in British and American English. "Anyways" is American slang and very informal, so I'd generally recommend avoiding it. :)


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/miles_back

Bravo, chapeau, Lingot!!


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/AoifeCunningham

Hi, great post! Very helpful. Could you please answer this question for me? If you're saying they wear swimming costumes and sunglasses would you use the definite article?

-Indossano costumi da bagno e occhiali da sole.

Or........

-Indossano i costumi da bagno e l'occhiali da sole

Any response from anyone would be extremely helpful and very much appreciated!! Thank you


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/CiaranFole1

Yes! Always use the article except in the specific cases where it should not be used. I have posted what I hope is a useful list of those below.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Rae.F
  • 2115

It might take the indefinite article.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/CiaranFole1

Very helpful post Nitram!

I had made up a table of Dos and Don't for where to use or not use the definite article. It soon became clear that the 'Do' list is much longer than the Don't list. And the choice is binary, so I work on the basis that the article is used by default, except in specific cases. These are relatively few.

(Note of course that articulated prepositions are uses of the article)

When should we not use the definite article?

towns, cities, small islands.

Proper nouns after 'da' (da Vincenzo)

common nouns after 'in' (in treno)

Names of countries after 'in' (viaggiare in Irlanda)

caccia/casa/letto/lezione/messa/scuola/teatro (Nitram's list)

famous Italian names

With possessive adjectives for singular family members having no adj.

any other additions for my 'Don't' list? grazie!


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/jordy
  • 1073

I believe there are other exceptions to #7. For example, in one exercise in the "Italian for English Speakers" course, we see the following:

"Non è amore, ma non è nemmeno amicizia."

Here the definite articles aren't used, even though "love" and "friendship" are both abstract nouns. I'm not certain whether the definitive articles are merely /optional/ (vs. prohibited) in that sentence, but I think the reason they weren't required has to do with the abstract nouns being on the predicate ends of a statement of equivalence (using "is" and "isn't").

Further examples:"L'amore è cieco" ("Love is blind") vs. "Dio é amore" ("God is love").

(Can anyone shed some light on the /optionality/ bit? I suspect it may be the case that definite articles should /never/ be used in this case, but I'm not sure.)

Here's the comment thread in question: https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/3430545/It-is-not-love-but-it-isn-t-friendship-either


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/jordy
  • 1073

Feel free to update the post if we can figure out the rule. :)


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/roemer

Thank you so much. A question. You say don’t use the definite article after di with abstract nouns, and as an example you provide: “L'ozio è il padre dei vizi”. Is “dei” not di + i here, is it the indefinite article?


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Rae.F
  • 2115

"dei" is indeed "di + i" and "i" is in fact one of the definite articles. It looks like you spotted a nice typo they made.


https://i.imgur.com/JLPBGcp.jpg


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ajpthree

thanks for this chart - do you know why "con" is in parentheses?


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Rae.F
  • 2115

I think because contractions with "con" are not universally mandatory the way the other contractions are.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/dave-ashby

Excellent posts - thank you! But none of these rules cover why the article can (should?) be omitted in e.g. "costruisco case" (I build houses), "mangio carote" (I eat carrots), scrivo nomi" (I write names), etc. Can anybody explain this?


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/paulmacd

I am double posting this question from another thread in the hope that someone can answer it: I had "Cucino sia carne sia verdura." disallowed, with DL saying that it should have been "Cucino sia la carne sia la vedura.", which fits with Nitram's comment above (i.e."la carne" and "la verdura" are "materials".). However now DL tells me that "He eats neither chicken nor fish." should be translated as "Lui non mangia né pollo né pesce", and that "Lui non mangia né il pollo né il pesce." is incorrect. I am confused: why are "la carne" and "la verdura" "materials", while "il pollo" and "il pesce" are not?


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/JillMarie7

I don't know the answer in any certainty, but I've found that usually after eating or drinking something, the article is not used. At least here on Duolingo. In past exercises it was not included after mangiare or bere. But I don't know exactly why.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/mariamerca508568

what about "bevo caffe dopo cena," but "leggo il giornale durante la cena."


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/MrsMixMusic

Thank you so much for this, seems some people skate around this issue, without really giving a good explanation, or, it's been answered already. Unfortunately for me, I'll never remember all of this.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/MrsMixMusic

I think it might be easier, not correct, if I use the definite article on just about everything. If I'm wrong, hopefully they will correct me. Live and learn kind of thing.

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