A Place for Every Noun: Italian Word Order and How to Master It
The Italian saying “Conosco i miei polli.” (“I know my chickens”) actually has nothing to do with chickens.
What the often-spoken adage means is: “I know what I’m talking about.”
And it can apply to your Italian skills. Even if you have a huge Italian vocabulary, putting that vocabulary into the correct word order is what indicates you really know functional Italian.
So that you really know your chickens, let’s take a look the typical Italian sentence and its various components.
- Components of Italian Sentence Structure
- Your Simple Guide to Mastering Italian Word Order
Components of Italian Sentence Structure
Italian is a Romance Language, which means it has its origins in the Roman Empire’s Latin.
But Italians roots to romance go deeper: it’s also called the language of love. And that, my friends, is a serious distinction! Sure, the French would argue that they’ve got the language of love but hey, we know it’s Italian, don’t we?
Not trying to start a language war here, so let’s move on…
But truthfully, does any language sound even slightly romantic if the words aren’t ordered properly? Of course not!
To make sense, the cast of characters in a sentence (like chickens in the barnyard!) must be placed in their proper spots.
The basic components—subject, verb and object—must all be present.
And there are a couple of other players—adverbs and adjectives—that may show up.
A quick note before we begin:
The sentence structures we cover below are incredibly common but also very basic. There are, of course, other ways to form sentences (think of the simple English sentence, “I am,” which has no object and certainly no adjectives or adverbs).
Our purpose with this post is to introduce you to the basic Italian word order. From there, you can move on to more complex structures. But we all have to start somewhere, and it’s a good idea to begin with the basics!
Chickens assembled? Good! Let’s arrange them in order.
Your Simple Guide to Mastering Italian Word Order
The Basics: Subjects, Verbs and Objects
In Italian, sentence structure generally follows this order: subject (who’s doing the action), verb (the action), object (who the action is being done to)—also known as SVO.
The good news is, English follows the same sentence order! So if you’re an English speaker, then this isn’t anything new to you.
Let’s consider this example:
Io bevo caffè. (I drink coffee.)
Io (I) is the subject, bevo (drink) is the verb and caffè (coffee) is the object.
Not a big deal, is it? Of course not. You learned how to do this when you learned to speak English.
As you can see from the example above, the object and the subject can be either a noun or a pronoun, which brings us to our next point…
A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun (I, you, he, she, it, they, etc.).
Here’s where we depart from the English similarities: You can usually drop the pronoun that’s acting as the subject in a sentence.
Bevo caffè. ([I] drink coffee.)
This isn’t something that you can do in English (“drink coffee” simply becomes a command), but in Italian it’s perfectly normal to omit the subject pronoun from the sentence.
That’s because, since the verb is conjugated, we know who’s drinking the coffee.
Native speakers rarely use pronouns because the verb endings indicate that information. It’s one way to sound “more Italian” when you speak—just leave off the implied pronouns!
Note that we said implied above: If it’s unclear who’s doing the action (it you’re in a group, for example, or you mentioned multiple subjects), don’t omit the pronoun.
Giuliana beve caffè. (Giuliana drinks coffee.)
Beve caffè. (He or she drinks coffee.)
If we’re drinking coffee with Giuliana, Joe and Vincenzo, we need to keep subjects in place for clarification. Just saying “Beve caffè” (“He or she drinks coffee”) doesn’t tell us who’s actually doing the drinking.
In other words, if the pronoun is essential to understanding the sentence, leave it in!
Now that we’re straight on basic sentence formations, let’s move on to adjectives.
Adjectives describe or modify nouns, pronouns or other adjectives.
They add a little something extra to the nouns they describe—a little “oomph” to the spacious, lemon-scented, vibrant chicken coop! (Why is it lemon-scented? Who cares! But it sure gives it character, doesn’t it? That’s the power of adjectives!)
In Italian, there are two things you need to keep in mind:
1. Adjectives follow nouns.
2. Adjectives agree with the word they’re modifying in gender and number.
The second point means that if you’re speaking about multiple chickens, the adjective should reflect this with its ending:
Changing adjectives from singular to plural and determining their gender is easier than mastering the chicken dance if you remember these general rules:
- If an adjective ends in -a, it is feminine and changes to -e in the plural.
- If an adjective ends in -o, it is masculine and changes to -i in the plural.
- If an adjective ends in -e, it is either feminine or masculine and changes to -i in the plural.
Here are a couple of examples:
un pollo rosso (a red chicken [masculine, singular])
polli rossi (red chickens [masculine, plural])
una mucca bianca (a white cow [feminine, singular])
mucche bianche (white cows [feminine, plural])
un maiale nero (a black pig [masculine, singular])
maiali neri (black pigs [masculine, plural])
Generally, sentences will be constructed using this formula: subject, adjective (describing the subject), verb, object, adjective (describing the object).
Let’s break that down:
Una mucca bianca mangia grano. (A white cow eats grain.)
Una mucca (a cow) is the subject here, while bianca (white) describes it. Mangia (eats) is the verb. Grano (grain) is the object, which is changed by the cow’s appetite!
Flipping Things Around with Noun-adjective Phrases
As we said above, adjectives follow nouns.
But there are exceptions. (Aren’t there always?)
Noun-adjective phrases can be tricky because the placement of an adjective isn’t always the same.
Yes, you heard correctly. Sometimes adjectives can go either before or after a noun.
Don’t worry! It’ll all be clear in a moment.
Let’s introduce a new term: prenominal adjective. This type of adjective comes before the noun and becomes an integral part of its meaning.
Think of it as “the noun that is adjective” (adjective after the noun) versus “the adjective noun” (adjective before the noun)—your “friend who is old” is not the same as your your “old friend.”
Let’s check out an example so you’ll get a clear picture of what goes on when you shift adjectives and nouns:
una macchina grande (a big car)
una grande macchina (an expensive, impressive car)
The first example shows the size of the car. The second gives the impression that the car, whatever its size, is impressive.
Describing the Action with Adverbs
Finally, we’re at the last component of sentence structuring!
I bet you’re relieved!
An adverb’s function is to answer the question, “how?”
More precisely, how does the subject do whatever action the verb indicates?
In English, you can usually spot an adverb by the ending -ly:
quick → quickly
clumsy → clumsily
sweet → sweetly
How to make an Italian adverb, then? It’s just as easy! Just add the suffix -mente to the feminine, singular form of an adjective.
Let’s see how it works:
veloce (quick) → velocemente (quickly)
goffo (clumsy) → goffamente (clumsily)
dolce (sweet) → dolcemente (sweetly)
In a sentence, the adverb is usually placed after the verb it modifies:
Lui corre rapidamente. (He runs fast.)
Or after the verb-object phrase:
Io bevo caffè velocemente. (I drink coffee quickly.)
Putting It All Together
Now that you know how Italian word order works, here’s a sentence that puts together all the elements we talked about in this post:
I polli bianchi vanno felicemente all’aia. (White chickens go happily to the barnyard.)
Let’s break it down:
I polli (chickens) — subject
bianchi (white) — adjective
vanno (go) — verb
felicemente (happily) — adverb
all’aia (to the barnyard) — object
Here’s another sentence that shows a simpler construction:
Le mucche non guidano i trattori. (Cows don’t drive tractors.)
Breaking it down, we get:
Le mucche (cows) — subject
guidano (drive) — verb
i trattori (tractors) — object
Got your chickens in order yet? That was the whole lowdown on the fine art of mastering Italian word order. Molto bene! (Well done!)
When you speak Italian, the best way to avoid sounding like Charlie Chaplin and his funny (but meaningless) song is to get the correct word order down.
So practice often with material that lets you see Italian sentences in action–that is, in real situations and conversations. The ideal and convenient way to go about it is by studying with authentic Italian media, the kind that real native speakers would consume. Seeing Italian word order used in real Italian speech will help you master it better.
You can do this in many ways including reading Italian books or listening to Italian podcasts. You may also watch authentic Italian content through language learning programs such as FluentU. Each of its videos come with interactive subtitles so you can dissect sentences into their individual parts and understand each word in context.
Remember the rules and use them to construct your sentences.
And leave those chickens in the barnyard or on the plate!