What the…? 8 Italian Definite Articles to Warm Up Your Language Skills
La, la, la, la, la!
Il, la, le, lo, l’, i, gli!
No, we’re not warming up our throats so we can break into a hearty song.
We’re just getting ready to learn all about how to say “the” in Italian.
The word “the” is called a definite article and it’s one of a kind in English. In Italian, there are eight ways to say “the”!
But don’t moonwalk your way to the exit just yet: They’re actually very easy to grasp and you can learn them in no time.
If you’ve ever stared blankly at an Italian paragraph and wondered what all those little words meant, this post will clear things up for you. Let’s get down to some grammar!
How to Know Which Italian Definite Article to Use
If this were a post about English definite articles, then we’d be ending the post right about… now.
There’s only one definite article in English and it’s the word “the.” End of story.
Not surprisingly, it’s also the most common word in the English language. According to Dictionary.com, Google Books data shows that five out of every 100 printed words are the definite article “the.”
It’s a bit more complicated in Italian.
What is a definite article, anyway?
A definite article is a determiner used to refer to a specific noun or nouns.
If you hear an announcer say: “Introducing, the Undertaker!” you know exactly who that refers to (especially if you’re a wrestling fan).
If that same announcer introduced “an undertaker” instead, he’d be using an indefinite article. Indefinite articles (“a” and “an” in English) are used to refer to nonspecific nouns. “An undertaker” no longer refers to a specific undertaker, and could mean anybody working the graveyard shift.
When you say “I want the puppy,” you’re referring to something very specific, and any other dog just wouldn’t make the cut. But when you say “I want a puppy,” you’re not specifying which one you’d like. The first statement has a definite article, while the second one has an indefinite article.
So, as we said, English has just one definite article.
Italian, depending on how you count, has as many as eight.
How do you know which one to use?
I thought you’d never ask!
The form you use will depend on the answer to three crucial questions.
1. Is the noun masculine or feminine?
Italian grammar, like Spanish, German, Russian and others has gendered nouns. This means every noun, even inanimate objects, can either be masculine or feminine.
We use different articles based on the noun’s gender.
2. Is the noun singular or plural?
The form you use must match in number with your noun. Singular nouns are paired with singular definite articles and plural nouns, with plural articles.
3. What letter/s does the noun start with?
Even the first letter of a noun affects the article you pair it with!
Later in this post, you’ll discover that nouns that begin with vowels use one article, while nouns that begin with consonants use another.
We’ll also look into nouns that start with the letters s (followed by a consonant), z, y, ps, pn and gn. These are a class of their own and follow a different rule.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of things!
8 Italian Definite Articles to Warm Up Your Language Skills
As you already know, articles are crucial to speaking correctly in Italian (and, really, any language!). To really understand how to use these small but important words, nothing beats hearing them spoken by actual native Italian speakers.
We’ve organized the articles below by gender. Let’s uncover the secrets of the Italian “the”!
The Masculine “The”
Most Italian nouns end with vowels. (Those that don’t usually have a foreign origin—like “film” or “sport.”)
So how do you know if a noun is masculine? The basic rule to remember is that words that end in -o are masculine.
There are exceptions, of course, but this rule generally holds. So words like topo (mouse), tavolo (table) and sasso (stone) are all masculine. But foto is feminine because it doesn’t really end with -o. The full word is actually fotografia and Italian yields to the original word.
Words that end with –ore like colore (color) and autore (author) are almost always masculine as well. Need a review of noun gender? Cyber Italian has a more in-depth look at the topic.
You use il for masculine and singular nouns.
Benito Mussolini, during his time, was called Il Duce (The Leader), referring to his position in government. The Cathedral in Florence is called Il Duomo (The House).
Il is the go-to article for those regular masculine and singular nouns. Think of buff, single guys.
il centro — the center
il mare — the sea
il ristorante — the restaurant
il dottore — the doctor
il professore — the professor
il libro — the book
il terrazzo — the terrace
The definite article l’ is used when a vowel is involved. When your masculine, singular word starts with a vowel, you pair it with l’.
Native speakers of any language try to find ways to make their interactions smoother and help words naturally roll off the tongue. An opportunity arises when a noun starts with a vowel. Italians simply save energy and skip a few movements of the tongue: Instead of using the article il for these words, they just use l’ and simply slide into the noun.
l’ulivo — the olive tree
l’oro — the gold
l’argento — the silver
l’angelo — the angel
l’occhio — the eye
l’albero — the tree
l’arancio — the orange tree
For masculine, singular nouns that start with the following letters, we use the article lo: s (followed by a consonant), z, y, sp, pn and gn.
You’ll notice that this group is a special case. Any other word that begins with a consonant uses il, but these six require a lo.
lo studio — the office
lo zio — the uncle
lo sci — the ski
lo sport — the sport
lo zucchero — the sugar
lo yen — the yen
lo psicologo — the psychologist
lo gnocco — the dumpling
lo pneumatico — the tire
The article i is the general identifier for masculine, plural nouns.
Turning things plural in Italian is a pretty straightforward affair. You change the ending of the noun and tag it with the proper definite article.
To form a masculine plural noun, two things need to happen. First, drop the l in il so it becomes the definite article i. Then convert the –o found at the ends of masculine nouns (libro, tavolo, terrazzo) into an -i.
So you now have two i’s, one as the definite article, and the other one at the end of the noun. In other words, for plural forms of masculine nouns, you’re making it rain i’s.
i libri — the books (from il libro — the book)
i ragazzi — the boys (from il ragazzo — the boy)
i vini — the wines (from il vino — the wine)
i cavalli — the horses (from il cavallo — the horse)
i negozi — the shops (from il negozio — the shop)
i gatti — the cats (from il gatto — the cat)
i cani — the dogs (from il cane — the dog)
The article gli is used as the plural form of the lo. That means you use it before the plural versions of words that begin with s (followed by a consonant), z, y, sp, pn and gn. You also use gli before nouns that begin with vowels.
Just like the previous category, in order to make the nouns plural, you change the ending from -o to -i.
gli studenti — the students (from lo studente — the student)
gli gnomi — the gnomes (from lo gnomo — the gnome)
gli psicologi — the psychologists (from lo psicologo — the psychologist)
gli pneumatici — the tires (from lo pneumatico — the tire)
gli zaini — the backpacks (from lo zaino — the backpack)
gli angeli — the angels (from l’angelo — the angel)
gli alberi — the trees (from l’albero — the tree)
The Feminine “The”
The general rule this time is that words that end in -a are feminine. For example: rosa (rose), città (town) and biologia (biology) are all feminine nouns.
Again, there are exceptions, but the rule is true in many instances.
Words that end in –ione like televisione (television) are also almost always feminine.
If you still need more help, Arnix has a resource to help you brush up on your Italian noun genders.
Now, let’s get to “la la land”! La is used for singular words that begin with a consonant.
It’s actually the go-to identifier for anything grammatically feminine and single (like a potential girlfriend). For example, when you want to say “the good life,” you say la dolce vita.
la strada — the street
la testa — the head
la guardia — the guard
la pera — the pear
la terra — the earth
la madre — the mother
la finestra — the window
For any feminine, singular word that starts with a vowel, you use l’.
This, again, is an example of how native speakers game the language and make it easier on themselves. When a feminine noun begins with a vowel, instead of using la, just drop the -a and use l’.
So, instead of saying la acqua, which sounds a bit redundant and takes a bit longer, you simply say l’acqua and go on with your busy day.
We’ve talked about using l’ earlier using masculine nouns. Here, let’s see examples for feminine nouns.
l’ora — the hour
l’auto — the car
l’ananas — the pineapple
l’oasi — the oasis
l’austerità — the austerity
l’idea — the idea
l’eco — the echo
Le is the article for feminine, plural nouns. It replaces the la or l’ of the singular noun.
Can you guess what happens to the -a at the end of the singular noun (maestra, mesa, finestra)? You turn it into an -e. So this time, you’re making it rain e’s!
le sorelle — the sisters (from la sorella — the sister)
le amiche — the friends (from l’amica — the friend)
le farmacie — the pharmacies (from la farmacia — the pharmacy)
le ragazze — the girls (from la ragazza — the girl)
le foto — the photos (from la foto — the photo; remember that this word is a special case!)
le case — the houses (from la casa — the house)
le ore — the hours (from l’ora — the hour)
So how about that. You now know when to use:
- il, l’, lo (masculine, singular)
- i, gli (masculine, plural)
- la, l’ (feminine, singular)
- le (femine, plural)
They might look daunting today, but with continued exposure to the language, you’ll be applying them like a native speaker in no time!