A Complete Round Up of Wild and Unruly Italian Prepositions
Italian prepositions can seem random, wild and unruly.
No matter how carefully you construct your dear Italian sentence, the first thing that a teacher or language exchange partner will likely correct is a change from in to a, or from di to da.
In this post, we’ll try to untangle the mess of Italian prepositions in a way that’ll make them easier to understand. Ready? Let’s round us up some prepositions!
- How to Study Italian Prepositions
- The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition Di
- The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition Da
- The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition A
- The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition In
- How to Choose A vs. In vs. Da When Talking About Locations and Times
- The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition Per
- The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition Con
- The Main Uses of the Italian Prepositions Fra and Tra
- There’s More! Learn Set Phrases with Prepositions
How to Study Italian Prepositions
We use prepositions to indicate relationships, such as at what time something happens, or who owns what. You’ll have them in almost every sentence, even your most basic phrases, and there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence with English prepositions:
All’una faccio la pennichella. — I take my nap at one. (Lit. “At the one, I do the nap.”)
È la fisarmonica di Francesca. — It’s Francesca’s accordion. (Lit. “It’s the accordion of Francesca.”)
We also have to be careful, as sometimes English uses prepositions where Italian doesn’t:
Lui preferisce nuotare. — He prefers to swim.
As notoriously forgiving as Italians can be of foreigners’ errors, using the wrong preposition just sounds incredibly strange to a native speaker, and it’s one of the main things they just might call you out on.
So, prepositions certainly aren’t the most delightful part of the language to study, but getting them right will help your Italian conversations flow better and keep them moving forward.
This post assumes that you already have some familiarity with basic Italian (such as at least the present tense, past tense and some basic vocabulary) and that in particular you understand when to use each of the definite articles (il, lo, la, gli, etc.).
When definite articles are followed by the prepositions a, da, di, in and su, they must be combined (this is optional and uncommon with con). If you don’t have a handle on your Italian definite articles—or even if you do—you may want to go back and review those first as they must be combined with some prepositions, and that fact will be quite important here.
I don’t recommend consuming this article all at once. My heroic FluentU editors asked for an overview of the major prepositions all in one place, but for your sanity’s sake, you’ll probably want to spend a study session (or more) separately practicing the uses under each of the sections in this article.
Think of this as a reference to bookmark and come back to; don’t drive yourself mad trying to tackle everything in one go! There are also a few resource suggestions at the end of the post that can give you additional practice.
Here we’ll take on only the major (and most troubling) prepositions, so for now we won’t have much discussion of lovely little words like fuori (outside) or fino a (until). We’ll also not tackle prepositions that get tacked onto certain verbs (in any case, I recommend learning those prepositions at the same time you learn the verbs in question).
The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition Di
The preposition di can mean “of” or “by,” among other things. It combines with the definite articles as follows:
di + il = del
di + lo = dello
di + l’ = dell’
di + la = della
di + i = dei
di + gli = degli
di + le = delle
Also, if di is directly followed by a vowel, it must become d’:
La borsa d’Agata — Agata’s purse
Here are the major uses of di.
1. Di can be used to show “ownership,” as frequently accomplished by the apostrophe + s in English.
Il nonno di Luigi — Luigi’s grandfather
La batteria del portatile è morta. — The laptop’s battery is dead.
2. Di shows specification, or “of what” something is related.
Il pezzo degli scacchi — The chess piece (Lit. “the piece of chess”; note that chess is grammatically a plural word here)
Il giocatore di calcio — The football player (Lit. “the player of football”)
3. Di explains city origins.
Sono di Napoli. — I am from Naples.
Note that if you’re talking about country origins, it’s more common to use the adjective forms (so you don’t need a preposition):
Sono italiano / americano / inglese. — I’m Italian / American / English.
4. Di sometimes (but rarely, more colloquially) shows origin of movement; da also does this. See more at the first use of da below. Di is often used with casa in particular.
Esco di casa alle 19:00. — I leave home at 7 p.m.
5. Di can explain what something is about.
Parliamo degli affari di cuore. — Let’s talk about affairs of the heart.
Il sito web tratta di tecnologia. — The website is about technology.
6. Di shows authorship of books, songs, plays, movies, etc.
Consiglio “Che cosa vogliono le donne” di Daniel Bergner. — I recommend “What Do Women Want?” by Daniel Bergner.
Ascolta questa canzone di Manuel Donayre! — Listen to this song by Manuel Donayre.
7. Di shows what something is made of.
Vorrei una pergola di legno. — I would like a wooden awning.
8. Di is used to make comparisons.
Sei più bello di lui. — You are more beautiful than him.
9. Di is often needed to explain quantities in Italian where no preposition is necessary in English.
Una pista ciclabile di 10 chilometri — A 10-kilometer bike path
Una riduzione del trenta per cento — A 30% reduction
10. Di can specify the part of the day or the season.
Sono le sei del pomeriggio. — It’s six in the afternoon.
Una romantica notte d’estate — A romantic summer night
The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition Da
Da can be translated as “from” or “by,” among other things. It’s used to show causes and where things are coming from.
Knowing when to use da and when to use di can be difficult for Italian learners. Contrast the uses in this section with the previous section, and as you’re consuming Italian writing and videos, always try to pay attention to which prepositions (and preposition + article combinations) are used when.
Since di is slightly more common, if you have to take a wild guess in a particular situation, you might opt for it. And in the learning process, some find it easier to focus on the uses of da and then use di for the rest. However, the very best bet is to carefully learn and practice all major uses of each.
Note the following combinations with the definite articles and see if you can spot the one difference with the di combinations above.
da + il = dal
da + lo = dallo
da + l’ = dall’
da + la = dalla
da + i = dai
da + gli = dagli
da + le = dalle
Did you spot the difference with di? Da combined with a definite article has an internal a vowel, whereas the di combinations use an internal e.
Here are the major uses of da.
1. Da shows origin of movement in most cases, especially when used with the words lontano (far) and partire (to leave), and with more commanding or emphatic statements than one would see with the preposition di above (use 4).
Esci da qui! — Get out of here!
È davvero lontano da mia casa. — It’s very far from my house.
Parto dal lavoro alle 19:00. — I leave work at 7 p.m.
2. It’s also used to express motion away from, out of or through a location, as well as the distance from a location.
La ladra è entrata dalla finestra. — The (female) thief entered through the window.
Iowa City è a 350 kilometri da Chicago. — Iowa City is 350 kilometers from Chicago.
3. Da shows the cause of things.
Abbiamo pianto dalle risate. — We were crying from laughing.
4. Da followed by an infinitive shows what needs to be done.
Hai ancora molte preposizioni da studiare. — You still have a lot of prepositions to study.
Non c’è niente da fare. — There’s nothing to be done. / It’s hopeless.
5. Da is used to mean a person is doing something “like” or “as” someone/something else.
Mi travesto da uomo. — I’m cross-dressing as a man.
Vivo da solo. — I live alone.
Mi tratta da genio perché padroneggio le preposizioni. — She treats me like a genius because I master my prepositions.
6. Da can be used to show how long something has been going on, since when it has been happening or how things used to be.
Vivo a New York da molti anni. — I’ve lived in New York for many years.
Studio italiano da due anni. — I’ve been studying Italian for two years.
Da giovane ho fatto il giocoliere. — When I was a young person, I juggled.
7. Da is sometimes used to describe the characteristics of somebody or something, or what it is used for.
Il ragazzo dagli occhi intriganti — The guy with the intriguing eyes
Una tazzina da caffè — A coffee cup (a cup that is used for coffee)
Compare that to the same phrase with di:
Una tazzina di caffè — A cup of coffee (a cup filled with coffee)
8. In contrast with use number six of di (showing authorship), da can be used to show the person who caused or did an action. So while we say È un testo teatrale di Dario Fo (It’s a play by Dario Fo), if we want to refer to the action of writing and the person who caused it, we say in the passive voice:
Il testo teatrale è scritto da Dario Fo. — The play is written by Dario Fo.
The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition A
The preposition a is often used like “in,” “to” or “at” in English. It combines with the definite articles in the following ways:
a + il = al
a + lo = allo
a + l’ = all’
a + la = alla
a + i = ai
a + gli = agli
a + le = alle
What follows are the major uses of a, but see also the section after next for contrasts with in and da, particularly for talking about locations.
1. A is often used to say where something is or where it is going to.
Vado a San Paulo. — I’m going to São Paulo.
Mando il cellulare a Francesca. — I’m sending the mobile phone to Francesca.
Ho dolore alla zona lombare. — I have pain in the lumbar region.
La posta è all’angolo, a destra. — The post office is on the corner, on the right.
Sei a metà di questo articolo. — You are at the midpoint in this article.
2. A is used for telling time and saying when things happen, or until when they will happen.
Esco alle 19:00. — I leave at 7 p.m.
A che ora si mangia? — What time does one eat?
Possiamo rimandare la scadenza a lunedì? — Can we delay the deadline until Monday?
3. A is used with certain descriptions to show what something is like or made of. You’ll see this especially with food.
Spaghetti alla bolognese — In English often called “spaghetti bolognese”; spaghetti with ground beef and tomatoes
Spaghetti allo scoglio — Seafood spaghetti, literally “spaghetti of the rocky outcroppings in the sea”
Scaloppine al vino bianco — Escalope (a thin slice of veal) in white wine sauce
Unfortunately, Italian conversations also turn away from food on rare occasions, so you’ll still need a as a descriptor for some very specific phrases such as:
Ho un appartamento a due piani. — I have a duplex (two-level) apartment.
Un sacco a pelo — A sleeping bag (Lit. “fur bag”)
Vado a piedi. — I’m going by foot. (Contrast this with the third use of in in the next section.)
The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition In
The preposition in is used like the “in” in English, but also to talk about where things are at or going. It combines with the definite articles like this:
in + il = nel
in + lo = nello
in + l’ = nell’
in + la = nella
in + i = nei
in + gli = negli
in + le = nelle
What follows are the major uses of in, but see also the next section to unravel when it’s used versus a and da, especially when talking about location.
1. In is used with motion or location in or into a place, vehicle or a country.
Sono nel bar. — I’m in the bar.
Sono saliti in macchina. — They got in the car.
Vado in Italia. — I’m going to Italy.
2. With time, in expresses the amount of time that something takes to be done (note that it is not used to talk about finishing something in the future).
Posso scrivere un articolo in due giorni. — I can write an article in two days.
3. In shows what form of transportation you take.
Andiamo in macchina / in metro / in treno. — We’re going by car / by subway / by train.
But note that you say andiamo a piedi (we’re going by foot).
How to Choose A vs. In vs. Da When Talking About Locations and Times
It can be a bit tricky to keep these three prepositions straight when you’re talking about where or when something is happening. While there are lots of exceptions and variations to these rules, here are the main ideas to keep in mind.
1. Use a for talking about being at or going to specific, pointed locations or times. Such locations include cities, streets, stores that don’t end in –ia, public institutions and home. Times include specific points in time as in the examples under the second use in the a section above.
Siamo a Barcelona. — We’re in Barcelona.
Vado al supermercato. — I’m going to the supermarket.
È all’università. — He’s at the university.
Sono a casa. — I’m at home.
2. Use in for talking about going to or being inside of much larger places like continents, regions and countries, as well as shops ending in -ia and familiar places. With time, it also talks about grander time frames, like months, seasons and years.
Siamo in Catalogna. — We’re in Catalonia.
Vado in farmacia. — I’m going to the pharmacy.
È in ufficio. — He’s at the office.
In ottobre — In October
Nel 1955 — In 1955
3. Da is used for talking about being at or going to someone’s place.
Siamo da Raffaella. — We’re at Raffaella’s.
Vado dal medico. — I’m going to the doctor’s.
In spite of those guidelines, don’t expect these prepositions to neatly fall into some sort of sensible, usable pattern. My suggestion is that any time you learn a new place name, you should memorize it along with a short phrase that uses the preposition and an article if necessary.
So instead of just learning the new words teatro or discoteca, you should learn vado a teatro (I’m going to the theater), and that the phrase vado in discoteca (I’m going to the nightclub) uses a different preposition.
When you learn the phrases, it can help to visualize them in a (cartoonish, I know) way that suggests the correct preposition. So visualize the theater as a point in space; visualize the nightclub as a vast space that you can actually be inside. Silly, outlandish aides like that can be memorable.
The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition Per
The preposition per is similar to “by” or “for.” It does not combine with articles.
1. Per can state purpose or cause.
Ballo soltanto per passione, non per soldi. — I dance only for passion, not for money.
Soffro per te. — I suffer for you.
Lo ha detto per ripicca. — He said it out of spite.
Sono divertimenti per un altro giorno. — Those are diversions for another day.
2. Per can indicate the destination or where a transport option is passing through.
È un volo per la Russia. — It’s a flight via Russia.
Passa per l’Islanda. — It passes through Iceland.
3. Per can be used to make expressions of duration.
Ho provato la nuova canzone per due ore. — I practiced the new song for two hours.
The Main Uses of the Italian Preposition Con
Con is relatively straightforward compared to the other prepositions; it frequently translates to “with.” It does not generally combine with articles, though some speakers may use:
con + il = col
con + i = coi
1. Con is used like the English “with” to show who or what is accompanying somebody or something.
Ballo la pizzica con Micol. — I’m dancing pizzica with Micol.
Mischia le cozze con gli spaghetti. — Mix the mussels with the spaghetti.
2. Similar to use 3 of in, you can use con to talk about what transportation you are taking.
Andiamo con le biciclette. — We’re going by bicycle.
Andiamo con la macchina. — We’re going by car.
The Main Uses of the Italian Prepositions Fra and Tra
Fra and tra are completely interchangeable prepositions that mean “between” or “among” (that is, it doesn’t matter if there are two or many things). They do not combine with definite articles.
L’arancia è fra la mela e l’ananas. — The orange is between the apple and the pineapple.
È tra i siti web più popolari d’Italia. — It’s among the most popular websites in Italy.
È straziante stare fra questi nemici. — It’s devastating to be among these enemies.
There’s More! Learn Set Phrases with Prepositions
In addition to the major uses of the key prepositions that we’ve seen above, you’ll encounter all kinds of other ways that these and other Italian prepositions can be used to impart meaning. The best way to learn other uses is to memorize the prepositions as part of set phrases, and not worry about the small words by themselves.
Here are just a few examples of other Italian prepositions, so that you can start to be more aware of them when you come across other ones:
a sinistra di / a destra di — to the left of / to the right of
Il coriandolo è a sinistra della menta. — The coriander is to the left of the mint.
fino a — until
Non saró disponibile fino a domani. — I will not be available until tomorrow.
a causa di — because of
La forchetta è sporca a causa di Romeo. — The fork is dirty because of Romeo.
Certain adjectives take certain prepositions; likewise, it’s best to just learn a new adjective along with its preposition when you first encounter the adjective. Here’s a smattering of examples:
nocivo a — harmful to
La Coca-Cola è nociva alla mente. — Coca-Cola is harmful to the mind.
uguale a — equal to
Il nuovo salario è uguale al vecchio. — The new salary is equal to the old one.
lieto di — happy to
Sono lieto di conoscerla. — I am delighted to meet you. (Formal)
innamorato di — in love with
Lei è innamorata dell’amore. — She is in love with love.
soddisfatto di — satisfied with
Sono soddisfatto dei tuoi progressi. — I’m satisfied with your progress.
macchiato di — stained with
Il pavimento è tutto macchiato di vernice bianca. — The floor has white paint stains.
Prepositions are a challenge (well, let’s be honest, a bit of a horror) that you will get to come back to again and again as you learn Italian. The good news is that eventually the correct preposition will just start to “sound right” as you get used to hearing it and using it.
If all this starts to get you down, you can take a look at just how difficult it is to learn in the reverse direction. Italians have their own horrors in learning English prepositions. The chart on that page can be a fun way to look at the work you’ve just done from the reverse angle, and even give you some good usage clues.
For a wonderful book-length treatment of Italian prepositions with lots of practice, grab a copy of “Le preposizione italiane” by Alessandro De Giuli. It’s written in Italian only but intended for foreigners and easy enough to follow; more importantly, it has lots of clear practice exercises with prepositions.
You can also practice these prepositions by watching them used in action with Italian videos on the FluentU program. After each video, you can review these prepositions and other words you’ve learned through personalized quizzes.
The explanations in English in Denise de Rome’s “Soluzioni: A Practical Grammar of Contemporary Italian” are also clear and useful.
It’s absolutely worth closely studying your prepositions from time to time, but then you’ll need to ease up and do fun things with Italian (FluentU videos, anyone?) so that you can hear the prepositions in other contexts, learn more vocabulary and enjoy yourself. As you do so, the prepositions will seep in.
Mose Hayward is the author of a minimalist’s guide to the best travel stuff for Europe.