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Italian Grammar: Demystifying Italian Nouns

Italian grammar is tough, and one of the first grammar hurdles for the English speaker to overcome when learning Italian is the definite article:  the word “the.” While English has only one form, Italian has eight of them. Why? To get a better understanding of this, we have to look at Italian nouns first.

An Introduction to Italian Nouns

Like French, Spanish, and Portuguese nouns, Italian nouns are either masculine or feminine in gender.  
We can generally determine the gender based upon the noun’s ending. Of course, there are exceptions, but that is not a major concern.  Simply put, if a singular noun ends in “-o,” “-ore,” or “-one,” it is masculine. Most nouns that end in “-ale” are also masculine. Examples:

alibro (book)
professore (male teacher)
pallone (soccer ball)
giornale (newspaper)

If a singular noun ends in “-a,” “-rice,” or “-ione,” it is feminine.  Examples:
mela (apple)
pittrice (female painter),
lezione (lesson)

All nouns that end in “-ista” are masculine or feminine, depending on whom they are referring to; farmacista may be a male or female pharmacist.

To make nouns plural in Italian, we do not add “s” or “es.”  We change the final vowel. The “o” becomes an “i.” The “e” becomes an “i.”  The “a” becomes an “e.” If the vowel has an accent mark, we leave it alone. So, università may be singular or plural.

What does all of this have to do with the word “the”?  

The definite article must be masculine or feminine, singular or plural, so that it agrees with the noun.  To choose correctly, we must look at the front end of the noun as well. Observe the following chart:

Masculine singular Masculine Plural

lo stivale (the boot) gli stivali (the boots)
lo zaino  (the backpack) gli zaini (the backpacks)
l’albero  (the tree) gli alberi (the trees)
il giardino (the yard) i giardini (the yards)

Feminine singular Feminine plural

la scarpa  (the shoe) le scarpe  (the shoes)
l’uscita  (the exit) le uscite  (the exits)

Lo is used before a masculine singular noun that begins with the letter “s” followed by another consonant; this letter combination is called “s-impure.”  Lo is also used before a masculine singular noun that begins with the letter “z.”  

It is also used before the less common initial combinations of “gn” (gnomo),  “pn” (pneumatico), and “ps” (psicologo). When the noun is made plural, the article must be made plural as well, which adds to the beautiful sound of spoken Italian.  Lo then becomes gli (pronounced llyee).

Before a masculine noun which begins with a vowel, the article is l’;  it is simply the elided form of lo.  We dropped the “o” and replaced it with an apostrophe.  Therefore, its plural is also gli.  We generally do not elide in the plural.  You may elide if the noun starts with an “i.”  An example is gl’italiani.  All other masculine singular nouns will have il in front of them, which becomes i in the plural.

Before a feminine singular noun which begins with a consonant –any consonant (s-impure, z, etc. do no apply to the feminine), la used.  The plural is le.  For singular nouns beginning with a vowel, we elide again.  L’ is used, only in the singular.  If the noun begins with an “e,” you may elide if you so desire.  An example is l’entrate.

The article for a noun which ends in “-ista” is determined by the meaning.  For a male pharmacist, we use il farmacista; the plural is i farmacisti.  For a female pharmacist, we use la farmacista and le farmaciste.  It is only in the masculine singular that the ending seems a little off to us.
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Borrowed Nouns

For many years, Italian has been borrowing words from other languages.  With the advent of the internet, new words started to appear with greater frequency, especially terms of a technological nature.  
What do we do with those nouns? We treat a noun from another language as masculine, unless it means a female person. So we use il camion (truck from French), l’album (album from English), lo snob (from English), il wurstel (hot dog from German), il film (movie from English), l’hostess (stewardess from English), il babysitter and la babysitter, and many more!  These words do not end in vowels; what do we do to the ending?  Nothing.
Il camion becomes i camion; lo snob becomes gli snob; l’hostess becomes le hostess.

Now that we have seen the rules, we can apply them to the indefinite article:  a, an, or one. Since there are no plurals, it is much simpler.

Masculine singular

uno  stivale (a boot)
uno  zaino  (a backpack)
un  albero  (a tree)
un  giardino (a yard)

Feminine singular

una scarpa  (a shoe)
un’uscita  (a exit)

There are just two forms for each gender.  Uno is used before a singular masculine noun that begins with s-impure.  Uno is also used before a masculine singular noun that begins with the letter “z” and the other less common initial combinations of “gn”,  “pn”, and “ps”.

Before a singular masculine noun that begins with a vowel, the article is un; there is no apostrophe.  We simply dropped the “o.”   Before all other masculine nouns, it is also un.

Before a  singular feminine noun which begins with a consonant, una used.  For singular nouns beginning with a vowel, we elide again.  Un’ is used, only in the singular.

Of course, these rules apply to our borrowed words as well:  uno slogan, un film, un hotel, etc.  

Like English speakers, Italians like to abbreviate some words.  We say “bike” for bicycle, “photo” for photograph, “fridge” for refrigerator, and so on.  Italians say “bici” for bicicletta, foto” for fotografia, frigo” for frigorifero, “cinema” for cinematografo, radio” for radiofonia.  

Now wait a minute!  Some abbreviations have different endings than the original nouns.  No worries. The gender does not change: la bici, la foto, il frigo, il cinema, la radio.  The article matches the gender of the original noun.  

So, now when you are watching un film or reading il giornale, you won’t wonder why the words for “the” and “a” keep changing, and you can concentrate a little more on building your listening and reading skills.  Buone cose! (Best wishes!)

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Dona Frauenhofer earned a master’s degree in Italian language and literature from Middlebury College after a year of study in Florence, Italy, which included two courses at the University of Florence.  She also studied German for three years at the undergraduate level.


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