Ask anyone from Italy, and chances are, they'll know the following line of verse: "di, a, da, in, con, su, per, tra, fra."
Indeed, most cultures in the world have their own nursery rhymes and songs. While they might appear to be nothing more than a cute or silly little arrangement of words, there is actually quite a bit going on under the surface. Poetry tends to be set to a certain rhythm (called a meter), and every word is carefully chosen to accentuate this rhythm. These nursery rhymes stick with children while they grow up, helping them to internalize the musicality of their language or even remember some information.
If you don't believe me, have a listen to this song (lyrics). It is the verse we learned up above put to music, and I guarantee that after just a single listen, you'll likely find it impossible to forget a single one of the prepositions.
But before we can talk about Italian prepositions, we need to talk about articles.
The 7 Italian Articles
English has three articles: the, a and an. "The" is the definite article, while "a" and "an" are indefinite articles. Just in case that terminology is new to you:
- Definite articles refer to a specific thing. When a supervillain commands his henchman to press the button, he has a specific button in mind.
- Indefinite articles are used when there isn't a specific right answer and anything will do. As such, magicians ask you to pick a card—any card.
Italian is a bit more complicated than that. The below are all definite articles, meaning that each one of them translates to the in English. Having said that, each one is used in a different situation. Using one when you should have used another will make your sentence difficult to understand.
|Il||Used with masculine singular nouns that begin with a consonant.|
|Lo||Used with masculine singular nouns that begin with S + Consonant, GN, PN, PS, X, Y or Z.|
|I||Used with masculine plural nouns that begin with a consonant.|
|Gli||Used with masculine plural nouns that begin with S + Consonant, GN, PN, PS, X, Y, or Z.|
|La||Used with feminine singular nouns that begin with a consonant.|
|Le||Used with feminine plural nouns that begin with a consonant-vowel pair.|
|L'||Used with singular nouns that begin with a vowel, whether masculine or feminine.|
Now that we are familiar with our articles and are able to recognize them in a sentence, we can move on to prepositions.
What is a preposition?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines preposition as follows:
A preposition is a word—and almost always a very small, very common word—that shows direction (to in "a letter to you"), location (at in "at the door"), or time (by in "by noon"), or that introduces an object (of in "a basket of apples"). Prepositions are typically followed by an object, which can be a noun (noon), a noun phrase (the door), or a pronoun (you).
If it helps, the prefix pre means before. While very flexible and capable of going almost anywhere in a sentence, prepositions typically come before the words they are modifying.
In Italian, we will need to learn about two types of prepositions: Simple prepositions and articulated prepositions.
The simple prepositions, or preposizioni semplici, are named such because they are single-syllable words that stand on their own. As they don't need to be conjugated, they're also quite easy to use.
The only tricky thing is that, due to the flexible nature of prepositions in both English and Italian, they don't have a simple translation. Whereas bambino will always mean boy, you have to look at the context of what is being said to know how to translate a preposition.
When to use di, a, da, in, con, su, per, tra, fra
Below is a list of the simple prepositions and a few example sentences.
Di — of/from/at/about, and can also be used to indicate possession
|Io sono di Verona.||I’m from Verona.|
|Lui parla sempre di ragazze.||He always talks about girls.|
|La casa di Anna è piena di gente.||Anna’s house (the house of Anna) is full of people.|
Da — similar to di, but often used (or even combined) with the preposition a
|Da uno a dieci, questa nuova esperienza è un dieci!||From one to ten, this new experience is definitely a ten!|
|Da Maria ho mangiato il pesce.||I ate fish at Maria’s.|
|Sono a casa.||I’m at home.|
In — used to indicate location, just like the English word in
|Sei in Italia?||Are you in Italy?|
Con — with
|Oggi esco con Sara.||I’m hanging out with Sara today.|
Per — for
|Un regalo per te!||A gift for you!|
Tra / Fra — between / among. They mean the exact same thing, but depending on what is being said, it may be more common to use one over the other. Tra is more common.
|Tra voi due, secondo me lui è più bravo.||Between the two of you, he is better than you.|
|Tra tutte queste persone, lei ha scelto me.||Among all these people, she chose me.|
Su — on/about/over, used to indicate the location of something or someone
|La penna è su quella scrivania.||The pen is on that desk.|
The articulated prepositions, or preposizioni articolate , are prepositions that combine with definite articles to form a single compound word.
The table might look complicated, but once you learn the articles and prepositions, combining them becomes very intuitive.
Note: Tra and fra are not in the table because they cannot be combined with articles. Con and per can be combined with prepositions, but very rarely.
Examples of the most common articulated prepositions
Again, as all of these prepositions are combining with definite articles, the English translations will all be (preposition) + the: to/at/in/around/from/etc the...
Note that, in some of the examples, an article is necessary in Italian but not in English. For example, whereas we say in space in English, Italians say nello spazio – in the space.
Del, dello, dell’, della, dei, degli, delle are formed by taking the i from di, replacing it with an e, then adding an article. This happens because, with few exceptions, one vowel can not directly follow another vowel in Italian.
Additionally, if the article starts with an L, double the L. For example, di and le combine to form delle—the l of le was doubled, the i of di became an e. This L-doubling rule applies to all articulated prepositions.
|Oggi sono andato dal meccanico perché la mia macchina è rotta.||Today I went to the mechanic because my car is broken.|
Al, allo, all’, alla, ai, agli, alle
|O vai al cinema, o vai a ballare!||You either go to the cinema or dancing!|
|Il bar apre all’una e mezza.||The bar opens at half past one.|
Note that the word una begins with a vowel. In cases like this, you should choose the articulated preposition that ends in an apostrophe, which is capable of combining with other words.
Dal, dallo, dall’, dalla, dai, dagli, dalle
|Vado dallo psicologo due volte a settimana.||I go to the psychologist twice a week.|
|Hai sbagliato strada; si va dall’altro lato.||You took the wrong route; it’s on the other side.|
Nel, nello, nell’, nella, nei, negli, nelle are prepositions that follow the double L rule, but also get rid of the preposition's initial vowel. From there, because something like nl or nllo would be awkward to pronounce, an extra e is added.
|Non c’è aria nello spazio.||There is no oxygen in space.|
|Nell’antica Roma, l’olio d’oliva era molto comune.||In Ancient Rome, olive oil was very common.|
Sul, sullo, sull’, sulla, sui, sugli, sulle
|Ho messo i tuoi vestiti sulle scale.||I put your clothes on the stairs.|
|La chiave è sul tavolo.||The key is on the table.|
Note: These final seven articulated prepositions can not be used as adverbs. That basically means that it must be followed by a phrase introducing a location or direction. Here are two English examples demonstrating what I mean:
- On as a preposition: Put the shirt on your back.
- On as an adverb: Put the shirt on.
Wow, that was a lot of rules! But try not to worry about it too much. As you get to know the prepositions and articles better, combining them will come naturally. You'll probably make mistakes at first, but that's okay. Making mistakes when learning a new language is essential.
After all – what better way to learn if not by having that a thought process like “I made this mistake the other day, I was given the solution and now I know what not to do.”