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

Which prepositions for which places and why?

I always wondered why it's "Vado AL ristorante" but then "Vado A teatro". Also "Vado IN chiesa", not "Vado A/ALLA chiesa". I get the thing with the countries and cities ("Vado IN Olanda"/"Vado A Parigi"), but I still don't understand why a church needs a different type of preposition than a restaurant (no offence intended) - after all, both are buildings one has to enter. Do you guys have any tips for this conundrum of mine?...

February 21, 2018

16 Comments


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

To answer why the preposition a is used for some places and in with others, a simplistic reply could be that it is a linguistic convention.
But then one may easily find both vado alla chiesa and vado in chiesa.
So the choice is not only a matter of convention.

The use of a in articulated form, i.e. with an article added (al, allo, alla, etc.), conveys the idea of the destination being already known by the listener (e.g. "the church" clearly refers to a church the listener already knows, and is able to identify).
The same preposition is used also when the place is identified by adding some further element to the noun (e.g. "the church nearby", "the old church", "the church where your friends got married", and the like).

Instead, the use of in conveys the idea of a location which is no longer identified (i.e. one church rather than another), but almost sounds as a generic place:

  • vado alla chiesa = I go / am going to the church (the listener knows which church I am speaking of, otherwise for using alla I should have to add some further identification)

  • vado in chiesa = I go / am going to church (I am telling what kind of place I am going to, but not which one)

It is also possible to use the articulated form of in (nel, nello, nella, etc.), using the verb entrare:

  • entro nella chiesa = I enter / am entering the church (this emphasizes the act of entering the place, which is already known to the listener)

  • entro in chiesa = I enter / am entering [the] church (this emphasizes the act of entering a church, which is not specified)

The context of speech can also affect the meaning. If the last sentence was spoken standing next to a church, entro in chiesa and entro nella chiesa would have the same meaning (a native speaker would prefer the former version).

In Italian, some places are by convention more commonly identified as generic places (e.g. "bank", "office", "factory", "library", "church", "hospital", "gym", several shop names such as "chemist's shop", "greengrocer's shop" "jeweller's shop", "dry cleaner's shop", parts of a house such as "kitchen", "living room", "bedroom", "garage", "garden", the proper names of almost every geographic region, country, or continent).
So:

  • vado in banca = I go / am going to [the] bank (→ inside a bank, likely to perform some banking operations)

  • vado alla banca = I go / am going to the bank (→ a bank the listener can already identify, without inferring any purpose)

  • entro nella banca = I enter / am entering the bank (→ the action of going inside the place is emphasized, without inferring any purpose)

  • entro in banca = I enter / am entering [the] bank (→ the action of going inside the place is emphasized, without specifying which bank).

With parts of a house, though, a is never used (the one exception that can take both in and al is bagno = "toilet" / "restroom").
For a more detailed post about parts of a house, see the list of links below.

Also with proper names of regions, countries, continents, a is not used. Few exceptions exist, concerning either very small countries, which are perceived as large cities, or concerning few island countries, perceived more as physical islands than by their political boundaries:

  • vado in Francia = I go / am going to France (standard preposition)

but

  • vado a Malta = I go / am going to Malta
  • vado a Singapore = I go/ am going to Singapore
  • vado a Cuba = I go/ am going to Cuba
  • vado a Taiwan = I go/ am going to Taiwan

Other place names, instead, are conventionally mentioned as if they were known to the speaker, and therefore take a in articulated form: "bar/café", "market", "supermarket", "post office", "university", "stadium", "cinema", etc.). With these place names, in (simple preposition) is never used, but it is possible to use its articulated forms (nel, nello, nella, etc.) for emphasizing the act of entering the place:

  • vado allo stadio = I go / am going to the stadium

but

  • entro nello stadio = I enter / am entering the stadium

Four common and important exceptions that take a (simple preposition) instead of the articulated forms are: "home", "school", "theatre", "bed":

  • vado a casa = I go / am going home

  • vado a letto = I go / am going to bed

A (in simple form) is also used with proper names of cities (towns, villages) and small islands:

  • vado a Genova = I go / am going to Genoa

  • vado a Formentera = I go / am going to Formentera

Lastly, when moving towards a person, or a place identified with a person's name, the preposition da is used. These names include both common ones, such as "the doctor", "the butcher", "the tailor", "the lawyer", and proper names, such as "Peter" (= Peter's house). The latter require the simple preposition (i.e. without the article).

  • vado dal medico = I go / am going to the doctor

  • vado dal sarto = I go / am going to the tailor (→ the shop or workshop he runs)

  • vado da Roberto = I am going to Robert's house (all the emphasis is on Robert, not on the place where he lives)

Beware that if the second sentence mentioned the tailor's shop, rather than the tailor (i.e. the person), in would have to be used:

  • vado in sartoria = I go / am going to the tailor's shop

The same preposition da is used when a proper name identifies a single shop, or a chain of stores:

  • vado da MacDonald = I go / am going to MacDonald's

although in the colloquial language very popular proper names are often perceived as if they were common ones, so you would also hear (informally):

  • vado al MacDonald = I go / am going to MacDonald's.

Other posts that deal with these prepositions are:

general places:
https://www.duolingo.com/comment/17402953

parts of a house:
https://www.duolingo.com/comment/19870520

open places (e.g. "the seaside", "the mountains", etc.): https://www.duolingo.com/comment/23183835

countries:
https://www.duolingo.com/comment/24040932

February 22, 2018

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

Many thanks @CivisRomanus!! That's what I was really hoping for - as soon as there's logic in those prepositions, it gets easier to use the right one. Also many thanks for the time you have invested in presenting me (and maybe others too) such a thorough and clear explanation, really appreciate it!!

February 23, 2018

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

You are welcome.
Italian grammar rules in most cases do have some logic to them, however whimsical and complicated they may seem, and making sense out of them is indeed helpful in memorizing them.
The reason why some places take the preposition in while others take al/allo/alla is difficult to fathom (provided a reason really exists).
My personal interpretation is that places where the activities performed indoors are semantically more important than the place itself (e.g. shops, office, library, church, gym, etc.) usually take in, whereas places that in the days of old were perceived as city landmarks (e.g. market, university, stadium), or one's own main places of reference (home, school, workplace), take a or al/allo/alla.
This is a very rough classification, though. Memorizing the correct preposition for each place ensures better results than trying to predict it.

February 23, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Muss403695

Wow, brilliant. This shows us all that even “ a simple basic” is not just a matter of words, as the whole meaning of a phrase changes depending on what form of At or In you use. It also demonstrates that the finer points of a language take years to perfect and not just a few months of DL.. Its obviously worth paying much closer attention as you progress through the tree.

February 22, 2018

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

For a non-native speaker, the most difficult part is to memorize which places take in and which places take al/allo/alla. The upside is that the same prepositions are used also for being/staying in some place:

vado in palestra = I am going to [the] gym (inside → likely for training)

sono in palestra = I am at [the] gym (inside → I am likely training)

vado alla palestra = I am going to the gym (either inside or outside, no purpose is clearly inferred)

sono alla palestra = I am at the gym (either inside or outside, no purpose is clearly inferred)

So alla would be used for telling one's position, rather than what one is doing there.

February 23, 2018

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

Thank you and have a lingot!

February 22, 2018

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

I remember learning in Latin 1, 60 years ago, that 'names of cities and towns, small islands, domus, humus and rus do not take prepositions', and thinking that unnecessarily complicated; what a difference 2 millennia make. thanks, and have some lingotti

October 23, 2018

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

Grazie mille @CivisRomanus. This will require a few reads and much thinking - your considered response is valuable

April 26, 2019

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

Wow, thank you CivisRomanus. I have tried to make sense of this many times and keep bothering all my Italian friends to an extent that they end up replying' thats how the are in Italian..just learn it..!!" I will go though your explanation few times and hopefully I will remember the logic. thank you

July 17, 2019

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Muss403695

Only today I was asking myself.... Why am I ON the bus, but IN my car then AT the shop. I dont have an answer other than Its just that way.

February 21, 2018

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

Dear Muss, I hope somebody kind comes to the shop to find you and to take you safely home. Perhaps you have been doing too much Duolingo. Tanti auguri!

February 21, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Linda7Italian

Ciao. I have simply learnt it this way without querying it. Sometimes best to accept that this is how Italians say it, and move on. It will all make sense the more you learn. Don't get too bogged down at this stage with the why's and why nots. Tanti auguri, L

February 21, 2018

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

Just a couple of days ago @jgedrim posted a guide, 2 of them actually. Search for the part 2 for your reference.

Just as Linda said these can never be fully explained. With my humble level 6 infantile knowledge I guess ristorante is a specific place, while teatro is not really the place but an activity we are talking about... This is my wild guess only so wait for the maestri.

February 21, 2018

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

Thanks, will do!

February 22, 2018

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

Hmm.., maybe it could be seen as an expression of the fact that the church is more of an institution, it doesn't matter exactly what church, while a restaurant is a business place competing with others. Some kind of logic, or?

February 21, 2018

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

Mille grazie, ragazzi! I guess you're all right, I'll get the hang of it at some point :)

Una buona giornata a tutti!

February 22, 2018
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