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Clitics - an attempt of a short summary

1) A clitic is a word that depends phonologically on another word or phrase. They are pronounced together so that it seems to be a single word. (The English ‘s is a clitic ) As also Wikipedia writes, a clitic can be every kind of word (pronouns, determiners, prepositions) So in Italian ”strapieno” and also the indefinite article (un amico) are clitics, in the same way as ”parlarmi” is a clitic and ”parlare a me” is NOT. So - in my opinion - it’s much easier to use the specific grammar expressions than the word clitic. I prefer to speak about indirect object pronouns, direct object pronouns, pronominal particles, reflexive pronouns and reciprocal pronouns.

2) Definition

a) direct/indirect object pronouns:

  • a direct object pronoun is a pronoun that replaces a part of a previous sentence in the function as a direct object. (e.g. Carl is nice. I want to know him)

  • indirect object pronoun is a pronoun that replaces a part of a previous sentence in the function as an indirect object (e.g. There is Carl. I want to go to him)

The difference of direct and indirect objects is very difficult for English speaking people. If a pronoun is a direct or indirect one depends only on the grammatical case which has to be used (accusative or dative).

  • In Italian direct objects stand directly after the verb (dire qualcosa, fare qualcosa). In English you ask for them with: what? or whom? and the answer is him, her, it

  • In Italian indirect objects stand only indirectly after the verb, that means that there is a preposition between the verb and the object (dire a qualcuno, parlare a qualcuno). In English you ask for them with to whom, to what, for whom, for what? and the answer is to him, to her, for him… etc.)

One of the problems is that not always Italian and English verbs ask for the same type of objects. For example:

  • to phone someone (whom do you phone?) = direct object

  • telefonare a qualcuno (preposition between verb and object) = indirect object.

Another problem is that you have often verbs that can take a direct object pronoun together with an indirect one. (mandare qualcosa a qualcuno, fare qualcosa a qualcuno, dire qualcosa a qualcuno etc.).

Unfortunately the best way is to learn verbs directly with the corresponding objects.

The direct and indirect object pronouns themselves can be divided in “tonic” (stressed) and “atonic” (unstressed) ones.

The object pronouns are:

I) stressed (tonic) direct object pronouns:

  • me, te, lui/ lei/ Lei, noi, voi/ Voi, loro

II) unstressed (atonic) direct object pronouns:

  • mi, ti, lo/ la/ La, ci, vi/ Vi, li/ le

III) stressed (tonic) indirect object pronouns:

  • a me, a te, a lui/ a lei/ a Lei, a noi, a voi/ a Voi, a loro

IV) unstressed (atonic) indirect object pronouns:

  • mi, ti, gli/ le/ Le, ci, vi/ Vi, loro (gli) (in the spoken language gli is used also for the plural, for female and male)


The stressed (tonic) ones are used:

  • with prepositions (vado al cinema con te. Secondo te allora viene? Parla solo di te)

  • in sentences without a verb (Chi ama? te?; Chi vuole chiamare? te?

  • in case of comparison (Ama lui e non te!; A me scrive, ma non a te)

  • to emphasize the object (chiama te. (non me); Lei ama te!; A te porta i fiori)

  • after come and quanto (sono bravo come te; ho studiato quanto te)

  • followed by stesso (Devi rimanere sempre te stesso)

me, te, ce, ve (instead of mi, ti, ci, vi..) are also used in combination with other object pronouns. i.e. If you replace in the same sentence a direct and an indirect object. (Te lo detto, ve l’ho mandato)

If gli is followed by a direct object pronoun (la, lo, le, li) the two have to fuse (glielo, gliela, gliele, glieli). The others (me, te, ce, ve…) are only fused if attached to an infinitive, imperative, gerund (mandarmelo, mandamelo!, mandandomelo)

loro has to be placed behind the verb: Amo loro.

b) the pronominal particles ne and ci:

Also NE and CI replace complements from previous sentences.

Ci (The problem of ci is that it has a lot of meanings/uses (indirect pronoun, direct particle etc):

ci can replace locations preceded by the prepositions a, in, su

  • Vorrei andare in Italia. Ci vado domani (replaces in Italia)

  • Sei stato alla spiaggia? Sì, ci sono stato (replaces alla spiaggia)

  • Sei mai salita su una montagna? Non, non ci sono mai salita. (replaces su una montagna)

ci with the meaning of at it/ on it/ with it replaces additions with a/ su

  • Pensi alle nostre vacanze? Sì, ci penso sempre. (replaces alle nostre vacanze)

  • Possiamo contare sul tuo aiuto? Sì ci potete contare or: Sì, potete contarci (replaces sul tuo aituo)

  • Pensi alla politica? Non, non ci penso. (replaces alla politica)

(BUT !!attention!!: with people you have to use the indirect object pronoun: Pensi a me? Sì, ti penso (replace a te)

ci is used in a lot of idiomatic expressions

  • c’è/ ci sono (there is/ there are): C’era una volta (once upon a time there was… (the tipical beginning of every fairy-tale)

  • ci vuole / ci vogliono (it is required, necessary; often used in recipes)

  • as "ci attualizzante" (I don't know the English word) it's used in the informal/colloquial language to emphasize the verb "avere" (ce l’hai un ragazzo?)

  • pensarci, crederci (Ci credo = I believe it). It can replace a whole sentence: Potresti chiudere la finestra? Sì, ci penso io. (ci = a chiudere la finestra)

With ci the Italian language uses a lot of so-called “pronominal verbs” (verbs with two pronominal particles, as avercela, farcela)


ne refers in most cases to a part of a quantity, it replaces expressions with the partitive article (di + definite article); like (“parts thereof” or “of them”). It’s used if the quantity is specified by number, by adverbs/ word of quantity (troppo, poco, abbastanza, nulla...etc.)

  • Avevo 20 mele. Ne ho mangiato 19. Ne ho mangiato troppe. Non ne ho mangiato nessuna. (MA: Avevo 20 mele. Le ho comprate ieri = whole quantity = direct object pronoun)

ne replaces expressions with “di” + persone/ luoghi/ things)

  • Sento la nostalgia degli amici. Ne sento la nostalgia (ne = degli amici)

  • Vorrei parlare di Palermo. Ne vorrei parlare. (ne = di Palermo)

  • Parliamo molto di religione. Ne parliamo tanto (ne = di religione)

  • Hai voglia di vedere il nuovo film con me? Sì, ne ho voglia (ne = di vedere il nuovo film con me)

ne replaces expressions with “da” + luoghi/ persone/ situations/ conditions

  • Vengo ora da Roma. Ne vengo ora. (ne = da Roma)

  • Sono uscita dal dentista. Ne sono uscita (ne = dal dentista)

  • Finalmente sono uscita dalla depressione. Ne sono uscita (ne = dalla depressione)

  • Sono uscita dal casino. Ne sono uscita (ne = dal casino (casino = chaos also figurative)

Also with ne the Italian language uses a lot of so-called “pronominal verbs” (verbs with two pronominal particles, as andarsene, fregarsene, approfittarsene)

c) reflexive pronouns:

In this case the subject is not only doing the action but the action refers also to the subject.

-mi lavo = I wash myself

d) reciprocal pronouns:

In English the construction “each other” is used. In Italian, instead, reciprocal actions are expressed using a plural reflexive pronoun (ci, vi, si) and the corresponding verb form in the plural (noi, voi, loro + conjugated verb)

  • ci baciamo, ci abbracciamo, ci amiamo (this construction is really simple, everything you can do with “each other” you can express in the same way in Italian).

I know that there is much more to tell about clitics ;o), about their combinations etc. but this can be demonstrated/shown in a much better way using tables and DL doesn't allow to use them and you find them very easily in the web.

This was only an attempt to explain one of the most difficult chapters of the Italian language, but I hope it helps.

September 7, 2014



Yes, all very useful; but hardly a short summary! :D

The main problem with Clitics is that when you use the word "Clitics" and indeed any of, as you said, "specific grammar expressions...(such as)... accusative, dative, indirect object pronouns, direct object pronouns, pronominal particles, reflexive pronouns and reciprocal pronouns" a normal English person's eyes will roll back into their head and they will fall asleep, or they will give up and try something less difficult.

We (English speakers) HATE grammar and grammatical terms. We are lazy, lazy people!

Remember; we are the group of humans who decided to use U instead of typing "all of those letters" needed to spell you. (Not that I, personally, do that or approve of it, but still...)

Lazy, I tell you!

When people read your short summary and then learn that there is "much more to tell about Clitics", there is a audible groan and the sound of people who are not truly dedicated to learning the language clicking onto another website.


I can relate to everything you've said. I've been having trouble with clitics for quite some time now, it still hasn't "clicked" in my brain, I guess. After coming across this post, I was pretty excited as I thought to myself" huh, perhaps THIS will finally help me understand, once and for all, that godforsaken grammatical demon.

I mean, I've tackled all the cases in the German course and I found them to be much, much less confusing than Clitics. Maybe it's just the unfamiliar words (stressed tonic?).

I'm sure that eventually, I'll read this again and that some day, it will click. For now however, it just looks too intimidating and off-putting, to be honest. I'll give it a rest for a while. Perhaps come back to it when I'm more comfortable with Italian, and maybe, just maybe, I'll manage to somehow get the hang of it through practice alone.

Anyhow, it was really reassuring reading your comment and seeing that I'm not the only one who was completely flabbergasted when first encountering Clitics.


Please know, Sandra, that I very much appreciate your efforts, in your main article, to help people. It is all superb information there. But then I have got "Clitics" figured out, for the most part, after almost two dedicated years of practice. That fact alone will depress some people, and cause others to despair even further.

Keep at it everyone! Read Sandra's post, line by line, and force yourself to try to understand it! Practice, practice, practice!!!

I suggest that you should begin every session of Duolingo by "reviewing/ practicing" the Clitics unit.

It is not going away, later on. It is very likely the most important single unit on Duolingo Italian!


How I wish you had made this post when I first started learning clitics! You are always very helpful, your knowledge of grammar is simply awesome and I appreciate all the comments you make. Thank you for them all.


Very useful! grazie!


Really great academic job! If you would wake up in a classroom with a bunch of 14year olds, how would you prefer to teach clitics to them? Grazie


Thanks for the great reference!

I'm confused by the first couple of sentences. [Edit: not anymore :) ]

Also, out of curiosity, is the Italian tree structured with the "clitics" lesson simply because the way Duolingo is set up, you have to do things like learn all the meanings of ci at the same time?


In my opinion is one of the problems that in this course (by the users, because DL doesn't teach grammar) the word clitic is used for object pronouns and all the little words /particles without a further distinction.

A clitic is a word that cannot exist separately without another word it's based on.. (so it depends on this word and normally the two words are pronounced as if they are one word. e.g."andarsene"... the word clitic derives form the Greek word "to lean on/against something".


I hate the clitic lesson, because without teaching grammar first it's only a guessing game. In the Italian to German tree I hope we can change this, but unfortunately it seems to be impossible because we can't yet implement completely new lessons. I personally would divide into "direct object and direct object pronouns", "reflexive verbs, reciprocal verbs etc." , "indirect object and indirect object pronouns" and "pronominal verbs" "ci and ne" ... but we will see how the Incubator will evolve...

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