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How to Learn Italian Grammar: 6 Shortcuts and Secrets to Get You Talking Now

Learning Italian grammar isn’t exactly like zipping along a Grand Prix circuit.

Often, it’s much more like being stuck in traffic, hitting inconvenient detours or just spinning your wheels in mud.

For one thing, there’s just so much to remember. Italian grammar relies largely on changing verb endings, and some of them can change a lot.

Grammar books and focused Italian studies can help you learn all the tenses and endings, and while this is necessary for any Italian learner, it isn’t exactly conducive to speaking right away.

Plus, even after it seems that you’ve read the whole dictionary, watched every video and done exercises until your fingers cramped, when an opportunity finally arrives for you to speak, the right words just might not fall into place. There’s nothing more frustrating!

So what can you do to make learning Italian grammar a bit easier?

To answer that question, we’ve consulted some experienced Italian learners living in Italy and asked them about the shortcuts they used to help them speak, learn and adapt to their new language.

These tips should get you around some of the trickier grammar roadblocks and speeding down the path to fluency.

Learn a foreign language with videos

The Best Way to Learn Italian Grammar with Shortcuts

Grammar shortcuts can boost your confidence and get you speaking sooner, but they shouldn’t be used in isolation. While they can help you master the basics of Italian grammar more quickly, they don’t really promote varied language and fluent expression.

These tips are designed to get you communicating more often and with more success, so that you can become comfortable expressing yourself in Italian. This, in turn, will motivate you to keep forging ahead in your Italian learning. They’re not designed to replace focused, thorough Italian studies.

For this reason, it’s best to seek a via di mezzo (middle ground) between studying and shortcuts.

The shortcuts below can be used right away, so start incorporating them into your speech and writing as soon as possible! Meanwhile, keep consistently studying grammar rules, exceptions, tenses and conjugations, and make sure to bring those lessons into your communication as well whenever you can.

Eventually, you’ll know enough that you won’t need to rely on these shortcuts—they’ll be just some of many options you can use when constructing a sentence.

One way to boost your knowledge of Italian grammar is by hearing it used in authentic resources, like the videos on FluentU. This is the natural way to study any new language!

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. That means you can listen to authentic Italian speech and see how grammar is used in real conversations and situations.

FluentU is about so much more than videos: You also get access to interactive flashcards and vocab lists, annotated subtitles and personalized quizzes that evolve as you learn.

Try FluentU right in your browser, or download the app for on-the-go learning.

How to Learn Italian Grammar: 6 Shortcuts and Secrets to Get You Talking Now

1. Cut Down on Conjugations with Modal Verbs

Using modal verbs in Italian can greatly expand your speaking capabilities. They allow for the expression of a lot of different ideas without the necessity of learning a bunch of verb conjugations.

The most common modal verbs in Italian are potere, dovere and volere (can, have to and want). These verbs are usually followed by another verb in the infinitive form. This means that you can use the conjugated form of a modal verb and simply follow it with an infinitive form in a variety of situations.

Here’s an example. Imagine that you want to say these three phrases in Italian:

“I work on Monday.”

“You have Italian lessons on Tuesday.”

“We play tennis on Saturday.”

This requires three different verbs, all of which are conjugated differently:

Lavoro lunedì. (I work on Monday.)

Fate martedì il corso d’italiano. (You have Italian lessons on Tuesday.)

Giochiamo a tennis sabato. (We play tennis on Saturday.)

If instead, we use the modal verb dovere (have to) before the main verb, we only need to conjugate the modal verb and can leave the others in the infinitive:

Devo lavorare lunedì. (I have to work on Monday.)

Dovete fare martedì il corso d’italiano. (You have to go to your Italian lessons on Tuesday.)

Dobbiamo giocare a tennis sabato. (We have to play tennis on Saturday.)

Modals allow for the use of a vast array of verbs without necessarily knowing how to conjugate them.

2. Ask Questions Just by Changing Your Tone of Voice

Italian phrases in the interrogative form don’t change their form or structure. They look exactly like positive or negative phrases.

The way you make a question while speaking Italian is simply by changing the tone of your voice so that it rises at the end of a sentence. Che facile! (How easy!)

We do this in English as well, occasionally, usually to show incredulity or disbelief. For instance, if you caught your vegetarian friend chowing down on some steak, you might say: “You’re eating meat!?”

Here are some examples in Italian (the bold words indicate when your tone should rise):

Posso avere un cappuccino? (Can I have a cappuccino?)

Dobbiamo fare check-out alle 11:00? (Do we have to check out at 11:00?)

È un albergo economico? (Is it a cheap hotel?)

È già partito il treno? (Has the train already left?)

While the grammar is easy, you’ll still need to be careful because your tone can say a lot. Notice that for the last example, if you don’t change your tone, the phrase will mean “The train has already left,” which could cause some confusion!

3. Don’t Worry About Possessive Adjectives for Body Parts

Speaking about your body is one of the first things you need to do effectively in a new language. This can seem a bit tricky in Italian, because mastering possessive adjectives like mio, tuo, suo, nostro… (my, your, his/hers, ours) is a big challenge.

Luckily, we don’t need to go into that, because possessive adjectives aren’t used in Italian when referring to the body.

Here’s what we mean:

In English, you’d say:

“Take my hand.”

While in Italian you only need to say:

Prendi la mano. (Take the hand.)

All you need is the definite article (il, i, la, le, gli, lo [the]) and you’re ready to go.

4. Focus on Verb Endings Rather Than Pronouns

As noted earlier, Italian grammar is based on the changing of verb endings. Because the verb changes for each person (io, tu, lui, lei… [I, you, he, she…]), the subject pronoun becomes redundant and can be dropped.

Let’s take the verb lavorare (to work). The translation of “I work” is io lavoro, and the translation of “you work” is tu lavori.

See how the verb endings change depending on the person? Because the verb ending already indicates the person, you can translate “I work” simply to lavoro and “you work” to lavori

5. Use the Continuous Form for a Simplified Present Tense

The continuous form in Italian is used to say what you’re doing right now. You can also use the present tense for this, but the continuous is easier because it employs an auxiliary verb, cutting down on conjugations like we did in shortcut number one.

The continuous form is made by combining the verb stare (to be/stay) with the gerund form of another verb. For example:

Sto mangiando un panino. (I’m eating a sandwich.)

Essentially, once you know how to conjugate stare, you can communicate with the continuous form using every verb in the language. All you need is to know how to make the gerund, which is formed (for most verbs) by cutting off the last three letters (-are, -ire or -ere) and replacing them with -ando (for verbs ending in -are) or -endo (for verbs ending in -ire or -ere).

Check out how it works:

Mangiare Mangiando (to eat → eating)

Partire Partendo (to leave leaving)

Correre Correndo (to run running)

Using the continuous form can transform the way you talk about what you’re doing and open the doors to a simplified version of conversational Italian.

6. Look for Verbs of Movement in the Past Tense

One of the toughest parts of learning the past tense in Italian is memorizing when to use avere (to have) versus essere (to be) to form your sentence. Here are a couple examples:

Ho fatto festa. (I had a party.) (“Ho is the first person form of avere.)

Sono entrato l’aula. (I entered the classroom.) (“Sono” is the first person form of essere.)

So how do we know which verbs form the past tense with avere and which use essere? Well, one trick is to remember that verbs of movement normally use essere.

If we look at the previous examples, we see that the verb fare (do/make) doesn’t describe movement. Therefore, it’s conjugated with avere. Entrare (enter), by contrast, is a verb that denotes movement, so it’s conjugated with essere.

Some other common verbs that use essere to form the past tense are andare (go), partire (leave) and uscire (go out).

 

Experienced learners have offered their sage advice on how to learn Italian grammar for this list, but they came to these conclusions after a lot of trial and error (emphasis on the “error”). As you keep studying and reach higher levels, you’ll need to be on the constant lookout for new shortcuts to help you overcome the next grammar hurdle.

Don’t be afraid to try new things and make loads of mistakes. You might pick up a few bruises on the way, but unlocking new secrets based on your own personal learning style and enhancing your fluency are well worth it.

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