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
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.
- 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?
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"
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?
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.
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.
-Indossano i costumi da bagno e l'occhiali da sole
Any response from anyone would be extremely helpful and very much appreciated!! Thank you
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!
I found this https://blogs.transparent.com/italian/using-the-definite-article/ regarding the use of the definite article.
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
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?