The 4 Italian Indefinite Articles and How to Use Them
If you want to master the Italian language, it’s important to start with the basics.
And it doesn’t get much more basic than indefinite articles!
Indefinite articles are used in almost every sentence in Italian. They are equivalent to the English “a” or “an,” but they are a little more complex due to Italian’s use of gendered nouns and adjectives.
Don’t worry, though. We’ve definitely got you covered with this quick yet thorough guide!
- What Are Italian Indefinite Articles?
- The 4 Italian Indefinite Articles and How to Use Them
- How Adjectives Affect Which Indefinite Article You Use
- When to Use Italian Indefinite Articles (and When Not To)
What Are Italian Indefinite Articles?
Indefinite articles come before a noun and show that it isn’t specific. So, “a book” as opposed to “the book.”
“A book” could be referring to any book, while “the book” is specifically talking about one particular book (“the” would correspond to the Italian definite article, which we won’t go into here).
In Italian, there are four indefinite articles:
They all correspond to the English “a” or “an” and refer to a non-specific, singular item.
In English, you typically use “a” before a word that begins with a consonant and “an” before a word that begins with a vowel. In Italian, it is a bit trickier, because the article you use must agree with the gender of the noun it is referring to.
So, it is still based on the first letter of the word that comes after it, but it often depends on the last letter as well, because that is the best indicator of whether a word is masculine or feminine.
The best way to understand it is to look at some concrete examples.
The 4 Italian Indefinite Articles and How to Use Them
As you now know, there are four Italian indefinite articles to learn. They don’t match up exactly with the English “a” and “an” each time (“un” doesn’t always mean “a” for example), so you have to do a bit of memorizing.
Here is an in-depth look at each of them so you know when and where to use each one:
Un is usually the go-to indefinite article for singular masculine nouns. It is used before words that begin with a vowel and most (but not all) consonants. For example:
un uomo – a man
un gatto – a cat
Uno, on the other hand, is used in more specific (but still non-specific) circumstances. It is used before words that start with s + a consonant or words that start with z, x, y, gn, ps, or pn. For instance:
uno zaino – a backpack
uno strumento – an instrument
With feminine nouns starting with a consonant, you use una.
una mela – an apple
una donna – a woman
If the feminine noun in question starts with a vowel, you use un’ instead. That apostrophe replaces the “a” on the end, almost like when you take out a letter to form a contraction like “don’t” from “do not.”
un’amica – a female friend
un’università – a university
How Adjectives Affect Which Indefinite Article You Use
One big thing to remember when using Italian indefinite articles is that the article you use is always based on the word that comes directly after it.
Usually this is a noun, but sometimes it can be an adjective that describes that noun. In that case, the indefinite article has to agree with the adjective and not the noun itself.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
un albero – a tree
uno spendido albero – a magnificent tree
Since the rules for indefinite articles say that uno must be used before a word that starts with s + a consonant, we had to change the article when this particular adjective was added.
If an adjective like bello (which would become bell’ in this case due to Italian adjective rules) was used instead, the article would stay the same because “b” is a consonant that takes the standard “un” article.
un bell’albero – a beautiful tree
When to Use Italian Indefinite Articles (and When Not To)
See? Indefinite articles are definitely not so tough to master! That being said, there are (as always) some exceptions to the rules I just taught you.
Here is a list of dos and don’ts for using Italian indefinite articles:
- DO use them when you would use “a” or “an” in English
In general, it is appropriate to use an indefinite article in Italian in the same situations you would use it in English: when you want to say “a” or “an.” As you saw earlier, it isn’t always a direct one-to-one translation of “an” to “un,” for example, but the idea is the same. If you are referring to something indefinite, you usually use the indefinite article.
- DON’T use them with some numbers
There are some cases where we might use an indefinite article in English, but not in Italian. With some Italian numbers, for example (but not all of them!), you would leave out the indefinite article and just use the word as-is. This is most commonly done with cento (hundred) and mille (thousand).
cento miglia – a hundred miles
mille volte – a thousand times
- DON’T use them in an expression that starts with che
There are several expressions in Italian that start with the word “che.” These are usually an exclamation of some sort, and they never take the indefinite article, even if it would be present in the English translation. For instance:
Che peccato! – What a shame!
Che idiota! – What an idiot!
- DON’T use them when saying “few” or “a lot”
In English, we don’t think twice about using the phrase “a few” or “a lot.” We always take it for granted that the “a” is in there, but in Italian, that poor “a” goes away:
qualche mela – a few apples
molti libri – a lot of books
Alright, that’s definitely it (and the last time I’ll use that pun, I promise)! Now you can check what you’ve learned with this five-question quiz.
Choose the correct translation for the following phrases:
1. a beautiful house
a. una bella casa
b. un’bella casa
c. uno bella casa
d. un bella casa
2. a female friend
a. uno amica
b. una amica
d. un amica
3. an ugly backpack
a. uno brutto zaino
b. una brutto zaino
c. un brutto zaino
d. un’brutto zaino
4. What a surprise!
a. Che una sorpresa!
b. Che un’ sorpresa!
c. Che uno sorpresa!
d. Che sorpresa!
5. a thousand cats
a. mille gatti
b. un mille gatti
c. una mille gatti
d. un’mille gatti
Answers: 1. a 2. c 3. c 4. d 5. a