Italian is considered by many a fairly easy language to learn. However, there are still some aspects of the language that cause difficulties to many learners. If you study the language carefully and practice regularly you will master Italian grammar without any problems. This article will give you an overview of the key points in Italian grammar to give you an idea of what you should focus.
Nouns in Italian have the category of gender (masculine and feminine) and inflect in number (singular and plural). As in most Romance languages, the neuter gender has been lost in Italian over time. The neuter function has been absorbed into the masculine gender; masculine pronouns and adjectives are used to refer to and describe unspecified neuter things such as facts and ideas.
Nouns have endings that change depending on the gender and number. So, the ending of an Italian noun reveals its gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural).
il piatto bianco – the white plate (masculine)
la pizza calda – hot pizza (feminine)
There are certain words (that were neuter originally in Latin) that are masculine in the singular and feminine or masculine in the plural:
il braccio / le braccia or i bracci – the arm(s)
l’uovo / le uova – the egg(s)
Italian nouns do not have the category of case.
Italian articles vary according to definiteness (definite, indefinite, and partitive), number, gender, and the initial sound of the subsequent word.
Here are the definite and indefinite article forms: un, uno, il, l’, i, gli (masculine); una, un’, la, l’, le (feminine).
Partitive articles compound the preposition “di” with the corresponding definite article, to express uncertain quantity. In the plural, they typically translate into English as “few”; in the singular, typically as “some”.
In Italian, an adjective can be placed before or after the noun.
The unmarked placement for most adjectives (e.g. colors, nationalities) is after the noun, but this is reversed for a few common classes of adjective – those denoting beauty, age, goodness, and size are placed before the noun in the unmarked case, and after the noun for emphasis.
Placing the adjective after the noun can alter its meaning or indicate restrictiveness of reference. If a noun has many adjectives, usually no more than one will be before the noun.
un libro rosso — a red book (the unmarked case)
un rosso libro — a book that is red (the marked case; it is especially important to the intended meaning that the book is red, as opposed to some other color)
Adjectives are inflected for gender and number.
Italian has three degrees of comparison: comparative, relative superlative and absolute superlative.
An adjective can be made into a modal adverb by adding -mente to the ending of the feminine singular form of the adjective.
lenta (slow; feminine) – lentamente (slowly).
These adverbs can also be derived from the absolute superlative form of adjectives.
lentissimamente – very slowly
facilissimamente – very easily
There are also many temporal, local, modal and interrogative adverbs, mostly derived from Latin, e.g. quando (when), dove (where), come (how), perché (why/because), mai (never), sempre (always), etc.
Italian features a sizable set of pronouns, including subject (io, tu), possessive (mio, tuo), and object personal pronouns pronouns (mi, ti), demonstrative pronouns (questo, quello), relative pronouns (che, cui), reflexive pronouns (mi, ti), and interrogative pronouns (dove, quanto).
Personal pronouns are inflected for person, number, case, and, in the third person, gender.
Literary subject pronouns also have a distinction between animate (egli, ella) and inanimate (esso, essa) antecedents. However, this is lost in colloquial usage, where lui, lei and loro are the most used forms for animate subjects, while no specific pronoun is employed for inanimate subjects.
Personal pronouns are normally dropped in the subject, as the conjugation is usually enough to determine the grammatical person.
Italian verbs have a high degree of inflection, the majority of which follows one of three common patterns of conjugation. Italian conjugation is affected by mood, person, tense, number, aspect and occasionally gender.
The three classes of verbs (patterns of conjugation) are distinguished by the endings of the infinitive form of the verb:
- 1st conjugation: -are (amare “to love”, parlare “to talk, to speak”)
- 2nd conjugation: -ere (credere “to believe”, ricevere “to receive”)
- 3rd conjugation: -ire (dormire “to sleep”)
Additionally, Italian has a number of irregular verbs that do not fit into any conjugation class, including essere “to be”, avere “to have”, andare “to go”, stare “to stay, to stand”, dare “to give”, fare “to do, to make”, and many others.
The suffixes that form the infinitive are always stressed, except for -ere, which is stressed in some verbs (e.g. vedere /veˈdeːre/ “to see”) and unstressed in others (e.g. prendere /ˈprɛndere/ “to take”).
Mood and tense
There are four finite moods (modi finiti) in Italian:
- the indicativo or indicative, used to express events in reality
- the congiuntivo or subjunctive, used to express actions or feelings in the realm of dream, possibility, wish, conjecture, probability
- the condizionale, which is used to express what would happen in a hypothetical situation, on the condition that something else happened
- the imperativo, which is used to give commands
There are also three indefinite moods (modi indefiniti) in Italian, so-called because the forms do not implicitly tell who is doing the acting (you, we, they): the infinito (infinitive), the participio (participle), and the gerundio (gerund).
Each mood can have more than one tense. The wishing of the subjunctive, for example, could have happened in the past, or it could take place in relation to something in the future: I wished it had happened; I wish it would happen.
Therefore, tenses and modes cross to create an intricate pattern of possibilities:
In the Indicativo
- Presente: present
- Passato prossimo: present perfect
- Imperfetto: imperfect
- Passato remoto: remote past
- Trapassato prossimo: past perfect
- Trapassato remoto: preterite perfect
- Futuro semplice: simple future
- Futuro anteriore: future perfect
In the Congiuntivo
- Presente: present
- Passato: present perfect
- Imperfetto: imperfect
- Trapassato: past perfect
In the Condizionale
- Presente: present
- Passato: past
The imperativo, used for orders and exhortations, only has a present tense; the infinito, the participio and the gerundio have a present and a past tense.
Italian is an SVO language. Nevertheless, the SVO sequence is sometimes replaced by one of the other arrangements (SOV, VSO, OVS, etc.), especially for reasons of emphasis and, in literature, for reasons of style and meter: Italian has relatively free word order.
The subject is usually omitted when it is a pronoun – distinctive verb conjugations make it redundant. Subject pronouns are considered emphatic when used at all.
Questions are formed by a rising intonation at the end of the sentence (in written form, a question mark). There is usually no other special marker, although wh-movement does usually occur. In general, intonation and context are important to recognize questions from affirmative statements.
Italian has a closed class of basic prepositions, to which a number of adverbs can be added that also double as prepositions, e.g.: sopra il tavolo (“upon the table”), prima di adesso (“before now”).
In modern Italian the prepositions tra and fra are interchangeable, and often chosen on the basis of euphony: tra fratelli (“among brothers”) vs. fra i tralicci (“between the power pylons”).
In modern Italian, all the basic prepositions except tra, fra and per have to be combined with an article placed next to them.
Some of the common Italian prepositions are: di, a, da, in, con, su, per, tra/fra.
This is a very brief overview of Italian grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail, paying special attention to more complex areas. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Italian grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.