Italian Lessons


Come si suol dire (as they say)

A learner has written in about a curious expression, found in the example below, wondering if it was an error.


It wasn't an error, but it certainly bears looking at. Sometimes learning the origins of an expression can help us make connections to other words we might wonder about. In this lesson we'll talk about a case in point.


In the video clip, young Lorenzo is using the verb organizzare in a slightly different sense from the primary one, which is merely "to organize," or if it's reflexive as in our example, "to get organized." He means that he has figured some things out. He has "organized" his thoughts into something logical and is acting on them. He has gotten his act together.

A ma', te volevo informa' [romanesco: ti volevo informare] che mi sono, come si suol dire, organizzato.

Hey Mom, I wanted to inform you that I've, as they say, gotten my act together.

Caption 6, La Ladra EP. 9 L'amico sconosciuto - Part 15

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The expression

If we do a Yabla search, we actually find more examples of come si suol dire. In these examples the expression is clearer than in the one above, because we can see from the context that come si suol dire is being used to introduce a saying or modo di dire (idiomatic expression). 

Io penso che Lei dovrebbe, come si suol dire, prendere il toro per le corna.

I think that you should, as they say, take the bull by the horns.

Captions 47-48, Il Commissario Manara S2EP11 - Uno strano incidente di caccia - Part 10

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Queste galline la mattina, che [sic: quando] vengono messe fuori dal pollaio, vanno a razzolare un po' a destra e a sinistra, quindi una volta che hanno scoperto queste fragoline, eh, faranno, come si suol dire, una vera man bassa.

These chickens in the morning, get put out of the henhouse, they go and scratch about a bit to the right and to the left [here and there]. So once they have discovered these young strawberries, uh, they'll will, as they say, ransack the area.

Captions 25-28, La campagna toscana Il contadino - Part 1

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A volte si chiude una finestra, ma si apre un portone o, come si suol dire, bicicletta nuova, vita nuova. -Questo, però, non l'ho mai sentito, te lo sei inventato.

Sometimes a window closes but a door opens or, as they say, "New bike, new life." -This one, however, I have never heard. You made it up.

Captions 46-48, La Ladra Ep. 4 - Una magica bionda - Part 7

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Tip: You can memorize come si suol dire and use it in the middle of a sentence without worrying about conjugating it. 


What does suol mean?

Let's discover it together.


You can see the Engiish translation in the video clip, but it's hard to make complete sense of it. What is this suol? We might be wondering, "Is it a verb?" "If so, what kind of verb is it and what does it actually mean?" "Is it reflexive?"


We know from the phrasal verb vuol dire (it means) that a verb will often have its final vowel omitted. Vuole dire > vuol dire. And so it's logical to posit that suol dire is actually suole dire. From this ending we can surmise that the verb is an -ere verb. So let's try out solere


Hey! It exists: solere — to be in the habit of, to have the habit of. It's a verb you will rarely hear in any other context but the one we are discussing here.


Solere isn't reflexive, but in the expression si suol dire, the si is an impersonal third person singuar we might translate with an impersonal "they" or "one."


So suol means "is in the habit of."


If we keep in mind that sometimes the combination uo gets transformed into a plain o, we might be reminded of the adjective solito (usual) or the adverbial phrase di solito (usually) and rightly so. Di solito or solito has to do with "being in the habit of." In fact if you go to the WordReference entry on solito, you will find solere towards the bottom of the page.

E di solito, tradizionalmente, il Trullo, è sempre stato utilizzato come ricovero. Ricovero per bestiame, ma anche per attrezzi agricoli,

and usually, traditionally, the trullo has always been used as a shelter: shelter for livestock, but also for agricultural equipment,

Captions 23-24, Alberto Angela - Meraviglie EP. 2 - Part 12

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The verb solere has mostly gone out of fashion except for the expression si suol dire (one is in the habit of saying). But since we are talking about the verb solere, we should mention that some (well-read) people might also say something like:

Solevano rientrare tardi (they used to come home late/they were in the habit of coming home late).

Chiese come in quel paese solevano/solessero fare (He/she asked how they usually did things in that town).


And for those who are interested...

Solere is the kind of verb we might find in Renaissance poetry, where spelling and pronunciation were not yet standardized, and where, in the following cases, it is spelled without the v, becoming solea instead of soleva, just as the verb volere was often written volea instead of voleva in the third person singular imperfetto. 


The first example is from Petrarca, whose poetry was frequently set to music in the form of madrigals.


Mia benigna fortuna e ’l viver lieto,
i chiari giorni et le tranquille notti
e i soavi sospiri e ’l dolce stile
che solea resonare in versi e ’n rime,
vòlti subitamente in doglia e ’n pianto,
odiar vita mi fanno, et bramar morte.

My kindly fortune and my life, so happy,
the clear-lit days and all the tranquil nights,
the gentle-flowing sighs and the sweet style
that would resound in all my verses and rhymes—
all of a sudden turned to grief and tears,
make me hate life and make me yearn for death.


This example is from Claudio Monteverdi's opera Orfeo. The libretto was written by Alessandro Striggio.


Pregoti, per quel foco
Con cui già la grand'alma Amor t'accese,
Fa ch'Euridice torni
A goder di quei giorni
Che trar solea vivend'in feste e in canto,
E del misero Orfeo consola 'I pianto.

I implore you, by that fire
with which Love set your great soul aflame,
Let Eurydice return
to enjoy those days
that she used to spend in festivity and song,
and console the grief of the wretched Orpheus.



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