Italian Lessons


Places to Sit in Italian, Part Two

In a previous lesson we talked about sedie (chairs), panche (benches), and panchine (park benches). But now let’s examine some more comfortable places to sit.


Normally, if there are arms on a chair, as in “armchair,” it’s una poltrona, for Italians, especially if it’s got padding and is comfortable. A smaller armchair, that is, a chair with braccioli (arms or armrests), may be called una poltroncina. It’s not necessarily comfortable. Il bracciolo (arm, armrest) comes from il braccio (the arm).


If we want to seat two people, we can talk about un divanetto. It is usually smaller in size and importance than a proper divano (sofa, couch) where you can usually lie down, put your feet up,  and take up space.

Mi distendo sul divano, guardo un po' di televisione.
I stretch out on the couch, I watch a little TV.
Captions 41-42, Adriano: Giornata


Sometimes people have a divano letto (a sofa bed) for guests, or even for themselves, if they lack space.


What you sit on in a car, train or plane, or other means of transport is un sedile (a seat). They are often called posti a sedere (places to sit).

In prima classe, i sedili sono più comodi.
In first class, the seats are more comfortable.


Babies and young children need special seats in a car.

È passeggino per i bambini molto piccoli, oppure seggiolino auto.
It’s a stroller for very small babies, or else a little car seat.
Caption 42, Anna presenta: Attrezzature per un neonato


Babies eat in special chairs called seggioloni (highchairs).


If you go skiing in Italy, you may want to travel up the slopes on a seggiovia (chairlift).


And if you really want to get comfortable, you can stretch out on un letto matrimoniale (a double or king-size bed) or un lettino (usually a single bed), or if you go to the doctor’s or to see a massage therapist, or even a psychoanalyst, you might also find yourself lying on un lettino.

Si metta sul lettino e mi parli del Suo rapporto con i piedi.
Get on the couch and tell me about your relationship with your feet.
Caption 4, Psicovip: Cappuccetto Rosso - Ep 7


Un lettino may also be seen at the edge of pools or at the beach.

quanto costa affittare un lettino?
And how much does it cost to rent a cot?
Caption 5, Una gita: al lago - Part 2 of 4


Another comfortable seat is uno sdraio (a deck chair, a recliner).


Sdraio comes from the verb sdraiare  (to lay down) or its reflexive version, sdraiarsi (to lie down, to recline). The plural is the same as the singular as we see in the following example.

Vengono messi ombrelloni, sdraio.
Beach umbrellas, beach chairs will be installed.
Caption 5,  Antonio: e il Lido Costa Blu 

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Chi manca (who's missing)?

The verb mancare (to miss, to be missing, to lack) is important to learn, to be able to tell someone you miss him or her, but mancare also has some other contexts, and learning these might help to understand this tricky verb.


In the following example, there's a piece of information we don't have. We're lacking something. It's absent.

Manca un'informazione importante.
An important piece of information is missing.
Caption 33, A scuola di musica: con Alessio - Part 3 of 3 


Here's a typical thing to say at the dinner table:

Manca il sale nella  pasta.
The pasta lacks salt [salt is lacking in the pasta].

Let's transpose this to talking about people. Let's say there's a meeting, but not everyone is there. Someone says: 

Chi manca (who's missing)? Chi non c'è (who's not here)?
Manca Alice (Alice is missing). Non c'è Alice (Alice isn't here).


That has no sentimental value. Alice should be there and she's not. But when we add a personal pronoun, in this case, an indirect object pronoun like mi (to me), ti (to you), gli (to him), le (to her), ci (to us), vi (to you plural), loro (to them), we make it about us, we make it personal. We personally feel the fact of that person's absence. That's how Italians miss someone. 


Marika explains:

Un altro significato è "sentire la mancanza".
Another meaning is "to feel the absence."
Caption 18, Marika spiega: Il verbo mancare

She uses mancare in this context:

Mia sorella è appena partita e già mi manca!
My sister just left, and already miss her!
Caption 19,  Marika spiega: Il verbo mancare 


In the following example, Luca Manara is feeling nostalgic about the past, and feels the absence of certain moments. Using the indirect object pronoun mi makes it about him, about how he feels.

Mi mancano quei momenti in cui non conoscevo la risoluzione dei problemi e tu mi passavi le risposte sotto al banco.
I miss those times when I didn't know the answers to the questions and you passed me the answers under the desk.
Captions: 64, 65 Il Commissario Manara 1: Un delitto perfetto - Ep. 1 - Part 8 of 14 

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Upkeep and Keeping Up with Mantenere

Mantenere (to maintain, to keep)


The primary meaning of mantenere is “to maintain” (a true cognate) or “to keep.”

But it doesn’t mean “keep” as in keeping a lock of someone’s hair. For that, we can use tenere(which is also part of mantenere) or conservare. It’s more about keeping a promise, as in the following example, where the subjunctive of mantenere is used. Affinché (so that, in order for) is the conjunction that requires the subjunctive in this sentence.

Il ranocchio le gridò dietro affinché lei mantenesse la sua promessa.
The frog shouted after her, in order for her to keep her promise.
Caption 32, Ti racconto una fiaba: Il Principe Ranocchio - Part 1 


Mantenere can also imply keeping or maintaining something in a certain condition or position.

Fermo restando che insieme al, alla tintura vengono richiesti spesso, i pigmenti colorati cheservono per mantenere anche il colore,
Taking for granted that together with the dye, often we get a request for color revitalizers that are also used to maintain the color,
Captions 46-47, Happy Hair - Rivenditore per parrucchieri: Prodotti di bellezza - Part 1 


È un ballo molto veloce, ritmato, in quattro quarti, dove la caratteristica è mantenere le ginocchia sempre in movimento e alte.
It's a very fast dance, rhythmic, in four four, whose characteristic is to always keep the knees moving and up high.
Captions 10-11, Adriano: Jive 


We use mantenere to mean “to support,” too. We use the reflexive form, mantenersi,  to refer to making a living, to supporting oneself.

Si era messo a lavora' da un fornaio per mantenersi, di notte.
He started working at a bakery at night to support himself.
Caption 19, Provaci Ancora Prof Stagione 1 Ep1: fiction - Part 11 of 28 


Un mantenuto is someone who is “kept” or supported by someone else.

Giorgio non ha un lavoro, fa il mantenuto a casa di sua mamma.
Giorgio doesn’t have a job, he is supported by his mother.


Or we could say:

Si fa mantenere dalla sua fidanzata
He gets supported by his girlfriend.


See also these other nouns that come from mantenere:

Mantenimento, which is more about financial support of people or animals.

Manutenzione which is more about maintenance and upkeep.


The following example uses both mantenere and manutenzione in a single sentence.

E fornisce molto lavoro, soprattutto per i ragazzi più giovani che possono lavorare con le barche, possono affittarle, possono mantenerne la manutenzione, possono venderle.
And it provides a lot of work, above all for the younger people who can work with the boats, they can rent them, keep up with their maintenance, they can sell them.
Captions 8-10,  Milena: al porto di Maratea


Just for fun:


Ho mantenuto lo stesso giardiniere per vent’anni, perché era molto bravo nellamanutenzione degli atrezzi da giardino, e nel mantenere pulito e rigoglioso il giardino stesso. Inoltre, doveva mantenere cinque figli. Si manteneva con il giardinaggio.


kept on the same gardener for twenty years because he was very good with the upkeep of the gardening utensils and in keeping the garden itself neat and flourishing. Besides, he had to support five children. He supported himself by doing gardening.

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Locali, Locale, Locals

A note about Adriano and his Dublin videos. You may notice that in a recent installment, he uses the noun locali to mean “the locals.” It’s incorrect.

Questa scuola di cucina serve appunto per far conoscere a locali [sic: persone del posto] e a stranieri le tecniche, i segreti della cucina italiana.
This school serves, in fact, to acquaint locals and foreigners with the techniques, the secrets of Italian cooking.
Caption 22,  Adriano: Pizzeria Pinocchio - Part 1 of 2 

In Italian, un locale is a place. Adriano is using a “false friend” that made its way into his brain without his even realizing it, perhaps. This can happen very easily when we spend time in a foreign country. We make a huge effort to learn the language of the place, we even start thinking in that language, and then all of a sudden we have to speak our native language there in the foreign country. It’s easy to get a little mixed up sometimes. Living in a foreign country encourages us to become somewhat multilingual, using the word that seems the most appropriate at the moment, in whichever language. Since there is no good, single Italian word for “the locals,” Adriano just grabbed the first word that sounded right, treating it as an Italianword, making the plural with an i. If you speak English, you understand it. Just remember: it’s not correct Italian. 

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Legare (to Tie)

Adriano provides us with a useful Italian word: legare (to tie). In talking about his favorite restaurant in Dublin, he uses the verb form, legare (to tie):

Sono molti i fattori che mi legano a questo ristorante.
There are many factors that tie me to this restaurant.
Caption 24,  Adriano: Pizzeria Pinocchio - Part 1 of 2


He’s speaking metaphorically, just as in the following example, where he uses the adjective/past participle legato.

Quando ero piccolo, ero molto legato alla figura di Pinocchio
When I was little, I was very tied to the figure of Pinocchio. 
Caption 24,  Adriano: Pizzeria Pinocchio - Part 1 of 2


In Italian, the verb legare can imply feeling connected to something or someone as in the above examples, or it can be about simply tying or fastening something.

Ora, io non l'ho legato, ma naturalmente va sempre legato.
Now, I haven't fastened him in, but naturally he should always be fastened.
Caption 23, Anna presenta:  Attrezzature per un neonato


We’re talking about a kind of seat belt here.

And in the following example, we’re talking about a leash for a dog and tying an animal to a secure post.

Va be', sì, insomma, l'avevo legato qui fuori a un vaso, ma evidentemente...
OK, yes, in other words, I'd tied him to a flower pot out here, but evidently...
Caption 24, La ladra: Le cose cambiano - Part 11 of 17 


Things can be tied in a non-physical way, by association.

Comunque qualcosa legato all'incendio, no?
In any case, something tied to the fire, right?
Caption 48, Il Commissario Manara 1 - Beato tra le donne Ep. 11 - Part 9 of 12 


There's more to say about legare so stay tuned.

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Stare as Opposed to Essere

A subscriber has asked a good question: why Adriano used stare instead of essere in caption 6 in Adriano: Adriano e Anita.


In fact, knowing when to use stare isn’t always easy because like essere, it mostly translates as “to be.” Sometimes the choice is clear cut, and other times it’s a matter of taste or regional usage.

Sicuramente vi starete chiedendo chi è questa bella ragazza che sta alla mia destra.
Surely you have been asking yourselves, “Who’s the pretty girl who is on my right?”
Caption 5-6, Adriano: Adriano e Anita

Perhaps the best answer, in this case, is that stare has more to do with a position in a place or situation than essere, which is generic “to be,” and so using stare is a bit more specific. Adriano is not going so far as to say she is sitting or standing on his right, but she is there, placed at his right, in a position, so stare works.

Adriano also happens to be from Sicily. In southern Italy, people use the verb stare to replaceessere in many cases.


There can be multiple reasons for using stare instead of essere, and they can be interchangeable in some cases, but there are some situations in which stare works and essere doesn’t.

Come stai (how are you)? We’re talking about a condition here.

"Come stai?" rispondo "sto bene!"
"How are you?" I answer, "I'm fine."
Caption 37, Corso di italiano con Daniela: Chiedere "Come va?" 


On the other hand, in the (unlikely) case where I ask you come sei? (using essere), I am asking how tall, how fat or thin you are, or how good looking you are, but not how you are feeling, or how you are.


For more on stare, have a look at the WordReference entry for stare and see this Yabla lesson. In addition, it’s always handy to do a Yabla search of stare or its conjugations and look at the examples to get even more of a sense of when to use it. 

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The Verb Filare and its Meanings

There’s an old but beloved pop song on Yabla this week: Berta filava (Bertha Spun) and its subject merits a bit of attention. The songwriter uses the verb filareThe main translation for this verb is “to spin,” as in a spinning wheel. But just as in English where the verb “to spin” also has to do with spinning around, or spinning a tall tale, in Italian, too, it has different meanings, more or less colloquial.


As we mentioned above, the traditional meaning is “to spin” as in yarn. In fact, filare appears in a fairy tale.

Lì incontrò una vecchia signora che era seduta a un vecchio arcolaio.
There she encountered an old woman who was sitting at an old spinning wheel.
La principessa era curiosa e chiede [sic. chiese] se poteva provarlo.
The princess was curious and asked if she could try it out.
Alla vecchia signora gentile non risultava che fosse vietato filare nel regno,
The kindly old woman was not aware that it was forbidden to spin in the kingdom,
diede il fuso alla principessa.
and gave the spindle over to the princess.
Captions 32 - 35, Ti racconto una fiaba: La Bella Addormentata nel Bosco - Part 1  


In the featured song this week, the lyrics are about a certain Berta (the equivalent of Bertha) and when she used to spin. Quando Berta filava (when Bertha used to spin) has become another way of saying “in the good old days,” because the song is so well known. But each verse of the song uses a slightly different meaning of filare.


Let's look at some of the connotations for filare.

Filare dritto or filare a diritto (to toe the line, to behave oneself properly, to stay on the straight and narrow).


Quella mamma fa filare i figli (that mom makes her children behave).


Filare (to move quickly):


Fila in macchina. Dai... Forza, gambe, braccia.
Scoot into the car. Come on... Go on, legs, arms.
Captions 26-27,  Un medico in famiglia: Casa nuova - Part 2 of 16 


La tartaruga un tempo fu un animale che correva a testa in giù
At one time, the turtle was an animal that ran with her head down
come un siluro filava via.
like a torpedo it would speed away.
Captions 5-7, Giuditta: canta La tartaruga 


Scendi al pratone e lo saprai, concluse Tribo, filando via misterioso.
"Go down to the large meadow and you'll find out," concluded Tribo, taking offmysteriously.
Captions 16 - 17, Dixieland: Festa delle sorpresine 


Which brings us to the other meanings of filare, that have to do with interpersonal relations.

It can be about flirting, going out with someone, or going even further into intimate relations. You just need to check out the context. In Rino Gaetano’s song, he keeps repeating filava,filava, but at any time, it could mean different things to different people. That’s what makes it fun. And this repetition is a sort of spinning all its own. The refrain just keeps spinning and spinning.

Filava dritto
filava di lato
She behaved
And she misbehaved
Captions 18 - 19, Rino Gaetano: Berta filava 

Filare is a verb, but there are nouns and other verbs that “spin” around this verb. We’ll look at them in future lessons.

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Places to Sit in Italian, Part One

It’s always handy to know what you are sitting on, so here are some of the basics.

A seat for a single person may be una sedia (a chair). It has four legs, a seat, and a back.

Per favore, sollevami sulla sedia e fammi sedere accanto a te.
Please, lift me onto the chair and let me sit next to you.
Caption 1, Ti racconto una fiaba: Il Principe Ranocchio - Part 2 of 2 

The noun la sedia comes from the verb sedere (to sit). The following example is from a movie scene that’s a take-off on the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, so the Italian is archaic, and some of the words are truncated or modified. The reflexive form of sedere —  sedersi  the form generally used to mean “to sit,” is omitted here, and the normal verb sedere is used.

Siedi [siediti] piuttosto e non avere fretta.
Sit down instead and don't be in a hurry.
Captions 5 - 6, Totò e Lia Zoppelli: Romeo e Giulietta 

And here we have another seat for one person: lo sgabello (the stool). Lo sgabello can be low or high, made of wood or another material. It can be used to sit on or to stand on, to reach a high cupboard for example.

Ma dove seder degg'io, se qui sgabel [sgabello] non v'è?
But where do I sit down, when there is no stool here?
Caption 6, Totò e Lia Zoppelli - Romeo e Giulietta 


These days, pianists usually use uno sgabello regolabile (a piano stool that can be raised or lowered), but traditionally, and in homes, the piano has una panca per pianoforte (a piano bench) made of wood to match the piano. As opposed to a sgabellouna panca per pianofortecan fit two people nicely.


Whether we know the definition of a word or not, logic would tell us that panchina is a small panca, because there is a diminutive suffix: ino/inaIn this case, however, we can throw logic out the window because size doesn’t play a role. In fact, panca and panchina basically mean the same thing —  a (wooden) seat, often backless, for two or more people — but they’re used in different situations.

In church, we talk about le panche, the pews. Traditionally, these pews would have been backless, but in modern times, church pews usually have backs to them. In some regions, people use the word banco for a church pew.


La panca is usually found indoors, and is generally made of wood. It seats several people around a table. This kind of panca doesn’t usually have a back to it, and is thought of as being rustic.

Una panca can be found in a gym, for doing crunches and weights.

La panca can used to seat people at a performance, usually in a makeshift theater. This may be indoors or outdoors.

Ah, questa parola non l'hai scandita bene, perché l'ultimo spettatore del, dell'ultima panca deve sentire bene quello che dici.
Ah, you didn't articulate this word well, because the last spectator on the, on the last bench has to hear what you're saying clearly.
Captions 49 - 51, Dottor Pitrè: e le sue storie - Part 11 of 15

If we go out of doors, we start talking about la panchina.

A "park bench," whether it has a back to it or not, is una panchina. The diminutive suffix -inahas become part of the word, so as mentioned above, size doesn’t matter.

In sports, an inactive player sitting in the dugout or on the sidelines is in panchina.

Un panchetto or una panchetta, on the other hand, is a low stool, often, more elegant than a sgabello, and usually used to rest one’s feet upon. Using the masculine or feminine form depends on the region.


In Part Two, we’ll talk about more comfortable places to sit.

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Making Mistakes with Gusto and Feeling

A recent segment of Provaci ancora Prof brings up a grammatical mistake many Italians and non-Italians make, often aware they’re making it, but which they make anyway to add color and emphasis.

When we talk about liking something, we use the verb piacere. See this lesson about mi piace (I like it).

When we say mi piacemi is actually short for a me (to me), as Daniela tells us in her lesson.

Mi.... piace. Mi significa "a me", piace è la terza persona singolare del verbo "piacere".
"Mi...piace." "Mi" means "to me." "Piace" is the third person singular of the verb "piacere" (to please).
Caption 2, Corso di italiano con Daniela: Mi piace 

Instead of mi piace we may say a me piace. It means the same thing, and might be used when we want to emphasize that someone else might not like something, but the person speaking does. It puts the accent on the person speaking, not on the fact of liking it, or on what it is that’s being liked.

Almeno, a me piace questa, proprio questa radicalità del territorio.
At least, I like this, precisely this rootedness in the territory.
Caption 15, L'arte della cucina: Terre d'Acqua - Part 12 of 15

However, it is not correct at all to use both figures at the same time. It’s an unacceptable redundancy. A me mi piace is wrong.


In this week's episode of Provaci ancora, Prof, Camilla's young daughter uses another expression incorrectly in the same way:

A me mi [sic] sa che la mamma ha detto una bugia.
To me, I have a feeling that Mom told a lie.
Caption 11, Provaci Ancora Prof Stagione 1 Ep1: fiction - Part 9 of 28 

She should have said:

Mi sa che la mamma ha detto una bugia (I have a feeling that Mom told a lie).

Parents find themselves correcting this very frequent error all the time with their kids.

"A me mi" non si dice.
"To me, I" isn't said.
Caption 12, Provaci Ancora Prof Stagione 1: Ep1 - fiction - Part 9 of 28 

Mi sa (it smells/seems to me) is a very common and useful way to say “I have a feeling” or “I think,” and what’s more, you don’t have to worry, in this particular case, about using the subjunctive after che (that).

See this lesson about mi sa.


Now, let’s take this error one step further.


Romans have the tendency to pronounce indirect pronouns ending in i, with a final e instead. This results in me piace. It has to do with local pronunciation, not (necessarily) ignorance, and is a regional characteristic.

For other aspects of the Roman dialect, or Romanesco, see this article.


One of Italy’s most beloved (Roman) actors, Gigi Proietti, made the aforementioned error famous in a series of TV commercials for Kimbo coffee. You can see one of them here on YouTube. He also makes other errors his travelling companion tries to correct him on.


But what interests us right now is that he says, “A me me piace (to me, I like it).” He uses the incorrect, above-mentioned redundant form, plus which he uses me instead of mi, which many would consider an error. So, it’s totally wrong, but it became extremely popular all overItaly in those years, because he would say it at the end of every commercial, while holding up his little cup of espresso.


Previous to Gigi Proietti’s arrival on the scene, Caffè Kimbo had already produced a series of comical commercials taking place on a cruise ship. The captain was played by Massimo Dapporto, another popular Italian actor. Then a new “season” started up with Gigi Proietti playing a man lost at sea on a little raft. He gets rescued by the cruise ship, but has lost his memory. In the first installment of this new series, there is a wonderful play on the double meaning of sentire (to hear, to smell). View it here.


Gigi Proietti’s character takes great pleasure in making his mistakes, almost as much pleasure as he apparently takes in drinking his Caffè Kimbo. As foreigners trying to speak Italian as well as possible, we should probably stay away from trying to imitate him. People might think we don’t know any better.

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Making Sense of Senso

Il senso (the sense, the way, the feeling) is a very useful noun and has several meanings. Some of the meanings jibe with the English cognate “sense,” but it’s not always a perfect fit. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using the wrong verb with this noun, thus saying something different from what we mean.


One of the most common ways to use senso is when it has to do with “meaning” or “sense.” Note that the verb here is avere (to have) but we translate it into English using the verb “to make.”

Scusa, eh, ma se devi stare così, mi dici che senso ha?
Excuse me, huh, but if you have to feel like this, will you tell me what sense that makes?
Caption 1,  Il Commissario Manara 1: Le verità nascoste - Ep. 12 - Part 9 of 13

The response to the above question could be:

Non ha nessun senso (it doesn’t make sense at all).
Infatti, è senza senso (in fact, it doesn’t make sense, it’s senseless).


Senso also refers to one of the five senses. It also refers to “sense,” meaning “feeling” or “sensation.” The English cognate “sense” fits pretty well here and both Italian and English can use the verb “to give.”

Il secondo motivo, il più importante, è perché amo la moto e mi dà un senso di libertà.
The second reason, the most important one, is because I love my motorcycle and it gives me a sense of freedom.
Captions 28-29, Adriano: Giornata  


In the following example, senso has to do with feelings but is used with the verb fare (to make). It means something entirely different from what we looked at above. It’s about feelings, but specifically negative ones, as you can see from the translation. Something gives you a sense of creepiness, repulsion, or repugnance. So, it’s important not to use the verb fare“to make” with senso unless you really mean it this way.

topi mi fanno un senso.
Mice give me the creeps.
Caption 8, Psicovip: Il topo - Ep 22


Let’s remember that senso also means “way.” And just as “way” has various meanings, so does senso.

One very common question to ask someone is in che senso (in what way)? We ask this question when we need more details. It’s another way of saying, “What do you mean?”

No, per quello ho disposto diversamente. -In che senso?
No, for that I've distributed it differently. -In what way?
Caption 41, Un medico in famiglia - s.1. e.2 - Il mistero di Cetinka - Part 7 of 12


Just as in English, senso means “way” in traffic too.

Questa strada è a senso unico.
This is a one-way street.


In a nutshell:

Fare senso: to give a sense of repulsion, fear, or disgust

 I ragni mi fanno senso.
 Spiders disgust me.

Avere senso: to make sense, to have meaning

 Ha senso arrivare due ore in anticipo?
 Does it make sense to arrive two hours early?

Dare un senso: to give a sense, to give meaning

 Ti dà un senso di sicurezza.
 It gives you a sense of security.
 Aiutare gli altri ti può dare un senso alla vita.
 Helping others can give some meaning to your life.


Senso unico: one way
I cinque sensithe five senses

For even more about senso, see this lesson.

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Extra Reading References

There are times and situations in which reading is the thing to do.


Oppure potete semplicemente sdraiarvi sull'erba, prendere il sole e leggere un buon libro.
Or else you can simply lie on the grass, sunbathe, and read a good book.
Captions  22 - 23, Anna presenta: Villa Borghese - Part 2 of 2


Here are a few ideas to feed your Italian language curiosity.


Una parola al giorno (One word a day)

This is a great website for learning new words in Italian, or for getting explanations about words you have heard or read, and maybe even used, but would like to know more about.

The explanations are in Italian, so it’s mostly for more advanced learners. You can always consult an English language tool as well such as Google, or go straight to WordReference if the Italian is too difficult. By subscribing to Una parola al giorno, you’ll receive a new word every day in your inbox. It may be a word you don’t care about, and you can just send it to the trash, but there will be plenty of useful words, too. It’s free, and you can unsubscribe any time.

Do you like to read? 

Sometimes it’s fun to learn new words and expressions in Italian within the context of a book or story in English set in Italy. Both of the following authors pepper their writings with Italian words and phrases. It’s a great opportunity to discover when, where, and how to use them. It also gives you some inside information about Italian culture.

Tim Parks is a British author who has lived in Verona, Italy for many years. He worked as a translator and taught translating skills at Italian universities, as well as being a successful novelist. His books about Italy provide some well-written and humorous insight into Italy, Italians, and the Italian language.

Below are his non-fiction books about Italy.

Italian Neighbours, 1992. Relates how the author and his wife came to a small town near Verona and how they integrate and become accustomed to the unusual habits of their newfound neighbours. ISBN 0099286955

An Italian Education, 1996. Follow up to Italian Neighbours and recounts the milestones in the life of the author's children as they progress through the Italian school system. ISBN 0099286963

Italian Ways, on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo 2013 This is all about the railway system in Italy, and how the author travelled the length of the “boot” to discover its ins and outs.

Donna Leon has written a long series of mysteries set in Venice. She lived in Venice for many years, so her descriptions are quite true-to-life.

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Come mai?

A subscriber has asked about the common but difficult-to-translate expression come mai.

For starters, let’s take it apart.

Come (how) is easy enough and mai (never, ever) is as well. So we would be inclined to translate come mai as “ how ever.” With a bit of moving the words around, we could come up with:

Come riuscirai mai farlo?
How are you ever going to be able to do that?


But what we're examining in this lesson is the idiomatic expression come mai as a unit, because, yes, it can stand on its own or be inserted as is, into a question or certain kinds of statements. 


It’s most easily translated as “how come?” “How come” is another way to say “why.” “How come” is actually short for “how did it come about that” and dates from the mid-1800s. We can also translate it as “how is it that...” So we could say that come mai is another way of saying perché when perché means “why.” You may ask: When does perché not mean “why?” See this lesson to find out!


Come mai often expresses surprise at things being different from what one expects, so it’s an expressive way of saying “why.” In certain contexts where there is intense surprise at someone’s actions or decisions, it can even be translated as “why on earth?”

Come mai non hai tolto la pentola dal fuoco?
Why on earth didn’t you take the pot off the burner?


But come mai can also be a less aggressive way to say perché in certain situations. After all, with come mai, you are interested in knowing the other person’s reasons for doing something. So it’s not a cold, indifferent question. You may also be giving someone the benefit of the doubt. As an example, let’s say that the other person is usually reliable, but this time they messed up. Come mai? You’re wondering about it.


The question, perché non mi hai chiamato? asked with a certain tone, can be almost accusatory or dry, but come mai non mi hai chiamato implies that I was really expecting you to have called me, and so you must have a good reason for not calling me.


Let’s look at some examples from Yabla videos.

Ma sai che anche io mi sento un po' stanca, chissà come mai.
But you know that I feel a little tired, too, who knows why?
Caption 22, Anna e Marika: Il verbo avere - Part 2 of 4

The speaker could easily have said the following, and meant pretty much the same thing:

Ma sai che anche io mi sento un po' stanca, chissà perché.


But come mai gives us the idea that she is truly wondering why she is tired. She shouldn’t be. She slept fine.


Io so perché si chiama arena. - Ah, è vero! Come mai si chiama arena?
I know why it's called an arena. -Oh, that's right! How come it's called an arena?
Caption 17, Marika e Daniela: Colosseo, interno - Part 1 of 2 

In the above example, the speaker could easily have used perché. But come mai implies some real curiosity. It might indicate the wish to hear the long answer rather than the short one.


Let’s remember that perché can mean both “why” and “because.” Come mai, on the other hand, is mostly used in questions but also in some negative or questioning statements, such as:

Non so come mai arrivo sempre in ritardo.
I don’t know why I always come late.


Come mai never means “because.”


In the following example, Mimì of "La Bohème" is talking about a change in Alfredo’s behavior. Since she was jolted by this change, she uses come mai.

Era diventato geloso. Non capivo come mai.
He had become jealous. I couldn't understand why.
Captions 27-28, Anna presenta: La Bohème di Puccini - Part 1 of 2 


Hopefully, you now know a bit more about using come mai. If you have more questions about this topic, let us know!

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A Partially False Friend: Assistere

When we look at the verb assistere, and its noun form, l’assistenza, we naturally think of the English verb, “to assist.” We’re right only part of the time.


But here’s the trick. When assistere is transitive, that is, having a direct object, it means much the same as the English “to assist,” “to help.” But when assistere is intransitive, with no direct object, it means something entirely — or almost entirely —  different. If you’re not privy to this little detail, it can cause confusion.


Normally when assistere is intransitive, we will see a proposition after it, as in the following example.

Stiamo parlando di Federico Fellini che ci ha invitati qui ad assistere alla ripresa de "La dolce vita".
We're talking about Federico Fellini who has invited us here to watch the filming of "La Dolce Vita."
Captions 9-10, Fellini Racconta Un Autoritratto Ritrovato 

When intransitive, assistere is about being present, so someone might say:

Ho assistito ad un incidente grave in autostrada.

Before looking at the translation, let’s look at the sentence in Italian. Let’s look for a direct object to see if it’s transitive, or a preposition to see if it’s intransitive.

Well, there happens to be a nice preposition right after assistito(with a d after it since there’s a vowel after that) so we know right away that the speaker did not necessarily help anyone, but that he or she was indeed present, and saw the accident. Assistere often implies more than just seeing it from afar as you whiz by in the fast lane. It gives the idea of being present, or close by. We might translate it as follows:

witnessed a serious accident on the super highway.

Assistere is often used when talking about shows or events. We could say:

Ho visto uno spettacolo (I saw a show).

But it’s very common to say:

Ho assistito ad uno spettacolo (I attended a performance, I was present at a show).


Assistenza, one of the nouns associated with assistere, is often used in conjunction with health care. Assistenza sanitaria is the national health care system in Italy. There’s also la pubblica assistenza  (the [local] public health station) where you can get first aid or an ambulance. It’s often a structure where people go to see their assigned doctor. Waiting may be long and there are no appointments, but seeing the doctor is free.


Un assistito is the beneficiary of health care, legal aid, or social services: someone who is in care.


Italian also has the noun un assistente, which is much the same as the English “assistant,” but it is also used in job titles, as in the following example.

Ecco, questo è proprio il modo in cui non ti devi esprimere davanti all'assistente sociale, per favore.
There, this is exactly the way you should not express yourself in front of the social worker, if you please.
Caption 61, La Tempesta: film - Part 16  


See this WordReference entry for more jobs using assistente.


And there you have it: assistere.

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School and Workplace Vocabulary Part 1 Compito and Interrogare

We hear about i compiti in videos about school and family.The singular il compito (the assignment, the task) can refer to classwork, or a written test: il compito in classe: I compiti is the plural of il compito and generally refers to homework when in the plural: i compiti a casa(homework, assignments).

Alla scuola di polizia lui non aveva molta voglia di studiare e io facevo i suoi compiti e i miei.
At the police academy, he didn't have much desire to study and I did his homework and mine.
Captions 48 - 49, Il Commissario Manara 1: Un delitto perfetto - Ep. 1 - Part 7 of 14 


Un compito can also refer to an assigned task that has nothing to do with school. Sometimes it’s just a job to do.

Mi crede così ingenuo da affidare a Lei un compito così delicato?
Do you think I'm so naive that I would entrust such a delicate task/job to you?
Caption 47, Il Commissario Manara 1 - Le Lettere Di Leopardi - Ep 4 - Part 3 of 17 


“A job” in English is often translated as un lavoro:

Non aveva un lavoro fisso lui, no.
He didn't have a steady job, no.
Caption 37,  Il Commissario Manara 1: Rapsodia in Blu - Ep 3 - Part 2 of 17


But if you can replace “job” with “task,” then compito can work in Italian.
In the above example, it’s not possible. A job is a job — an occupation. Someone has a job, or does a job, and (hopefully) gets paid for it, or somebody goes to work.


In English we often use “job” to mean “task,” or “responsibility.” So, if I say, “It was my job to look at the proofs.” then I use compito:
Era il mio compito guardare le bozze.


A task is something you do whether you are paid or not, and it can be momentary or recurring. This can either be translated as un compito (a job to do), or un lavoro (a job) that needs doing.


Compito, used as a noun, actually comes from the past participle of the verb compire (to carry out, to finish), so it makes a certain amount of sense. Two other verbs, compiere andcompetere sound similar and are also relevant. We'll look at these in an upcoming lesson.


In Europe, there is a tradition of final exams being oral rather than written, or in addition to written ones, and this carries over into the schoolroom as well. Oral quizzes are the norm, butthey’re not always surprise quizzes, they’re often announced, so that the students can prepare (or plan to be absent). They don’t always know whom the teacher will call on.


The Italian verb for this oral quiz is interrogare, which sounds a bit like a police station or torture room, but is just a normal everyday classroom happening. In the following example, it's a girl student who is asking the question.

Professoressa, potrei essere interrogata domani?
Professor, could I be quizzed tomorrow?
Caption 40, Provaci Ancora Prof Stagione 1 Ep1: fiction - Part 6 of 20 

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Anche se and Persino in Context

A Yabla Italian subscriber has asked about how to use anche se (even if) and perfino se (even if). These word combinations have to do with connecting two ideas in a sentence.


Let’s examine anche se (although, even if). The individual words themselves are easy enough — anche means “also” or “even,” and se means “if” — but let’s see how these words fit into sentences, and more importantly, which contexts translate with which English equivalents.


In the following example, we use se (if) in Italian but it doesn’t make sense to use “if” in English, so we need “although,” or the more emphatic “even though.”

Dopo mezzogiorno, cominciamo a dire "Buonasera", anche se, in realtà, non è proprio sera, è pomeriggio.
After noon, we start saying "good evening," even though, actually, it's not really evening; it's the afternoon.
Captions 17-18, Marika spiega: L'orologio  


In the next example, we use anche se to connect a subjunctive clause with a conditional one. Remember that where we see se (if) there might be a verb in the subjunctive lurking nearby. See this lesson about the subjunctive and conditional.

Anche se mi pagasse cento euro, non gli farei quel lavoro.
Even if he paid me a hundred euros, I wouldn’t do the job for him.


In the above example, we could also use the other word our subscriber asked about:  persino se.

Persino se mi pagasse trecento euro...

Persino is stronger, with more extreme limits, than anche se


Let’s look at this adverb persino. The first part is per which means “for” or sometimes “to.”
Sino is another way of saying fino (and in fact perfino also exists). Fino means “until,” among other things. So we can think of perfino as meaning “[up] to the degree.”


The following examples give us an idea of the difference between fino and perfino.

Lavorerò fino a mezzogiorno, poi smetto.
I’ll work until noon, then I’ll quit.

Potrei lavorare persino fino a mezzanotte, ma non finirei mai.
I could even work until midnight, but I would never finish.


Perfino and persino may be used interchangeably to mean “even” or “to the point of.” We choose one over the other for reasons of eufonia (euphony), that is, harmonious sound, in other words, because it sounds better.  When speaking properly, Italians try to avoid cacofonia (cacophony), which is what happens when there are too many instances of one particular consonant all together. A good example is: tra fratelli  (between or among brothers). We don’t say fra fratelli  because to Italian ears, the two F’s sound bad together, even though they both are equally correct in meaning.


The above example, which uses both perfino and fino, sounds much clearer with persino. You might very well be thinking perfino would have worked better than persino in the first example above, since the next word starts with an s. You might be right!

Perfino se mi pagasse trecento euro...
Even if he paid me three hundred euros...


In the following example, persino was used. This is perhaps because fu (was) starts with “F.”

Persino la regina cattiva fu invitata,
Even the wicked queen had been invited,
Caption 46, Ti racconto una fiaba: Biancaneve - Part 2 of 2 


In the following example, Marika could have used anche (also, even) in place of perfino, but perfino gives a better idea of something pushed to its limit.

Cerchi sempre il pelo nell'uovo e sei perfino capace di trovarlo, attenta e scrupolosa come sei.
You always look for the hair in the egg (you split hairs), and you're even capable of finding it, careful and conscientious as you are.
Captions 26-28, Marika spiega: I segni dello Zodiaco - Part 2 of 4 


A common synonym for perfino is addirittura.

Qui accanto a me c'è un albero che ha addirittura quattrocento anni di vita.
Here next to me, there's a tree that is no less than four hundred years old.
Caption 20, Anna presenta: Villa Borghese - Part 1 of 2 

We hope this has helped in understanding anche se and perfino.

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A Word About the Congiuntivo (the Subjunctive)

As Daniela finishes up talking about the conditional, she sneaks in a word in the subjunctive, which she hasn’t covered in her lessons yet.

Io, fossi in te, partirei domani.
If I were you, I would leave tomorrow.
Caption 4,  Corso di italiano con Daniela: Il condizionale - Part 7 of 7 


And in the previous segment of the lessons on the conditional, she also uses it.

Il condizionale in italiano si usa per esprimere la possibilità che possa succedere qualcosa.
The conditional is used in Italian to express the possibility that something can happen.
Caption 21-22,  Corso di italiano con Daniela: Il condizionale - Part 6 of 7


The conditional often goes hand in hand with the subjunctive, so it's not easy to avoid using the subjunctive sometimes.


For those who are curious, there have been some written lessons about the subjunctive, called the congiuntivo in Italian, and we provide some links here so that you can peruse them.  


Hypothesis Versus Reality - the subjunctive and the conditional

Verbs of Uncertainty and the Subjunctive


The subjunctive is necessary in several different kinds of scenarios, and they need to be treated one by one, but in very general terms, most of the time, the subjunctive has to do with uncertainty in some way, and that is why it goes hand in hand with the conditional, since the conditional also deals in uncertainty. Be on the lookout for the conjunction che (that, which) that often necessitates the use of the subjunctive following it. 


Another way the subjunctive is used is in polite commands, such as:

mi scusi  (excuse me)


It also gets used with impersonal verbs:

Bisogna che vada via entro mezzogiorno (it’s necessary for me to leave by noon), and other impersonal constructions such as:

Sarà difficile che tu vada via entro mezzogiorno (it will be unlikely that you leave by noon).


For the most part, the subjunctive has become a rarity in English but we still do use it, especially when we are speaking formally, or just correctly. And we especially find it in proximity to the conditional.

If I were you I would go right now.

It is incorrect to say “if I was you,” even though lots of people do say it.


A good rule of thumb is to learn the subjunctive conjugation for the verbs you will be using often, like essere (to be), avere (to have), and andare (to go) and even more importantly, to learn some frasi fatte (set phrases), like:

Cosa vuoi che faccia (what do you want me to do)?
Cosa vuoi che sia (how serious could it be)?
Dove vuoi che vada (where do you want me to go)?

The verb volere (to want) is used idiomatically here, as a somewhat rhetorical question.


Let's look at some alternative translations of these phrases to get the idea.

Cosa vuoi che faccia (what can I do about it)?
Cosa vuoi che sia (how big a deal could it be)?
Dove vuoi che vada (where could I possibly go? — I'll be right here).


Little by little you'll put all the pieces together and know when to use it and when not to use it.

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Taking Apart a Long Word: Stendibiancheria Part 1

When Marika showed us her balcony, she used a couple of long words that may have seemed a bit daunting. There are certainly plenty of long words in Italian that are just plain difficult, like farmaceutico (pharmaceutical). The meaning is clear, but pronouncing it takes some practice (don’t snub any of the vowels). Other words, though, have common abbreviations that make life easier. And some long words can be broken down into their parts, making them easily comprehensible as well as pronounceable.


One of the words Marika used in her video was stendibiancheria. It’s long but there’s help.


First of all, most people just say lo stendino (the drying rack).


Second of all, if we start breaking down stendibiancheria into manageable parts, the next time it comes up, you’ll know what it means from the inside out, and you will probably be able to pronounce it as well.


We start out with the verb stendere. It’s a very useful verb that means to spread, to lay out, to stretch out, to extend over space. Thinking of  “extend” can help recall this verb.


An interesting extra fact is this:

In the eighteenth century, in Tuscany at least, the (transitive) verb was tendere, that is, to stretch out, to unfold (after washing and wringing out) so that the laundry would dry faster.


As we have learned in a video, and a written lesson, adding an s at the beginning of a word can give it an opposite meaning. So, stendere used to be the opposite of tendere, and meant taking in the now dry laundry, or rather taking it off the clothesline.

Later on, stendere and tendere lost their distinction (dictionaries indicate that in many contexts, stendere and tendere mean the same thing).

Stendere survived as the most common term for hanging up the laundry. Let’s also remember that lacking a clothesline, some people would also have spread their clean laundry on bushes or rocks to catch the sun, so stendere—“spreading it out” makes a certain amount of sense.


Another important context for stendere is cooking.

In the following example, we start out with little balls of pizza dough, but then we spreadthem out to cover a larger area. So when you are following a recipe in Italian for making fresh pasta or pizza, stendere la sfoglia is when you roll out the dough, spread it out by hand, or use a pasta machine to make wide, flat strips.

Queste pallette [palline]  poi vanno fatte lievitare circa due ore e si stende la pizza.
Then these little balls are left to rise about two hours and you roll out the pizza.
Captions 12-13, Anna e Marika: Pizza al taglio romana - Part 2 of 2 


The past participle of stenderesteso, which can also pass for an adjective, is useful for when you are talking about positions in space.

Stavo, mi ricordo, guardando le olimpiadi, stesa sul divano come una balena spiaggiata.
I was, I remember, watching the Olympics, lying on the couch like a beached whale.
Captions 12-13, Anna presenta: Il mio parto 


In the above example, “stretched out” could have worked just as well to translate Anna’s position.


When referring to muscles or just how someone feels, we can use teso (tense), the past participle of tendere, also used as an adjective.

Ha notato qualcosa di strano? Se era teso, preoccupato?
Did you notice anything strange? If he was tense, worried?
Caption 19, Il Commissario Manara 1: Morte in paradiso Ep 9 - Part 3 of 13 


The prefix dis is also used to give a word the opposite meaning. In fact, disteso, the past participle of distendere and adjective, can mean either “relaxed,”  “unwound,” or “out,” as in the following example.

Per dire: "ci sentiamo per telefono", si porta la mano all'altezza dell'orecchio e si simula la cornetta, tenendo pollice e mignolo distesi.
To say, "we'll talk by phone," you bring your hand up to the height of your ear and imitate a receiver, holding your thumb and little finger out.
Captions 9-11, Arianna spiega: I gesti degli Italiani - Part 2 of 2 


Tendere also means “to tend” as in tendenza (tendency). That’s a nice cognate, isn’t it?

Le piante tendono, quando si inselvatichiscono, a fare i frutti molto più piccoli.
Plants tend, when they become wild, to produce much smaller fruit.
Captions 17-18, Gianni si racconta: L'olivo e i rovi 


It’s easy to be confused by all these words that are so close in meaning. Context is key, so just keep watching, listening, and reading, and piano piano ce la farai (little by little you’ll make it), one word at a time!

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It’s almost funny how many times the verb capire (to understand) was used in last week’s episode of Commissario Manara. It’s not really funny because it was about Iolanda Sorge’s tragic murder. But it’s an excellent example of how often capire is used in everyday speech. And since in casual conversation, this past participle can stand alone, it’s very handy and easy to use. It can fill up the time between one phrase and the next. It’s almost as common as “you know” in English.


As mentioned in previous lessonscapire is most often used in the past participle, capito, even when English would call for the present tense, as in the following example.

La gente si fida di me, capito?
People trust me, you understand?
Caption 12, Il Commissario Manara 1: Le verità nascoste - Ep. 12 - Part 7  


In the following example, the speaker is getting more specific (and angrier), and uses the verb with its subject and auxiliary verb.

Te [tu] mi usi per ricattarli, hai capito?
You're using me to blackmail them, do you understand?
Caption 14, Il Commissario Manara 1: Le verità nascoste - Ep. 12 - Part 7  


Later on in the episode, Manara is in a meeting with his chief. Here, they use the present indicative of capire. In this case, we’re talking about understanding something or someone on a deeper level. It’s used transitively, and means something like, “Do you understand where I’m coming from?” or “Do you understand what I’m really trying to tell you?”

Ci sono i segreti di mezzo paese in quelle registrazioni, mi capisce?
There are secrets from half the town in those recordings, do you understand me?
La capisco perfettamente.
I understand you perfectly.
Caption 44-45, Il Commissario Manara 1: Le verità nascoste - Ep. 12 - Part 7  


When arguing with her husband, Iolanda could have used the second person indicative present tense capisci (do you understand), and it would have been correct and maybe equally as effective, but using the past participle of this verb is just how people usually talk.


In the following example, the speaker could have used va bene (all right) or even the loan word “OK” in place of capito.

Ma non ti devi preoccupare, capito?
But you're not to worry, understand?
Caption 38, Il Commissario Manara 1: Un delitto perfetto - Ep. 1 - Part 12 of 14 


But capito is a great and user-friendly alternative.


When listening to someone tell you something, instead of just nodding your head and sayingsì sì (yes, yes), it’s very natural to say ho capito (literally, “I have understood/I understood,” or “I get it”). People will say it to you when you are speaking, even if they don’t quite get what you’re saying. It’s basically another way of saying “I’m listening.”


As you go through your day, try mentally using capire in its past participle to ask the question “do you get it?” (capito?) or to replace “you know?” (capito?), or to say, “I heard you, I’m listening” (ho capito).

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