Italian Lessons


The noun il passo — What does it mean?

Let's look at the common noun il passo. It's used in a variety of ways in Italian. Let's keep in mind, however, that passo is also the first-person singular of the verb passare (to pass). That's not what this lesson is about. 


We usually translate il passo with "the step."


Questo è soltanto il primo passo.

This is just the first step.

Caption 1, Adriano Olivetti - La forza di un sogno Ep.2

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Che vuoi fa' [romanesco: fare]?

What can you do?

Un passo avanti e due indietro come i gamberi, fanno.

One step forward and two backwards, as shrimp do.

Caption 35, Il Commissario Manara - S2EP2 - L'addio di Lara

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Bene. Allora, Anna, io direi che secondo me è il momento giusto

Good. So, Anna, I would say that in my opinion, it's the right moment

per spiegare passo per passo come realizzare questa ricetta.

to explain, step by step how to make this recipe.

Captions 92-93, L'Italia a tavola - Tonnarelli cacio e pepe

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Here's some great advice in just about any situation:


Un passo alla volta...

One step at a time...

Caption 52, La linea verticale - EP1 - Part 4

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Although we can translate "a passage" with un passaggio, we can also use un passo.


La figurazione della fontana

The figures depicted on the fountain

è tratta da un passo della Bibbia.

are taken from a passage from the Bible.

Caption 87, In giro per l'Italia - Roma Piazza Navona

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But that's not the whole story on passo.


Al passo means "at a walk" when we're talking about the gait of a horse or other animal.


...e si fa al passo o al galoppo, il volteggio. -Meraviglioso.

...and vaulting is done at a walk or at a canter. -Marvelous.

Caption 48, Francesca - Cavalli

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Il passo can be "the pace" or "the rate."


E io non so se mi metterò al passo con lei.

I don't know if I will be able to keep up with her [to go at her pace].

Caption 27, Il Commissario Manara - S2EP9 - L'amica ritrovata

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Se continuiamo di questo passo non mi meraviglierei.

If we keep going at this rate, I wouldn't be surprised.

Caption 51, Imma Tataranni Sostituto procuratore - S1EP1 L'estate del dito

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One way to take a walk is "to take two steps." It's a casual way to say it.


Faccio due passi.

I'm going to step out.

Caption 26, I Bastardi di Pizzofalcone - EP1 I Bastardi

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In fact, "2 steps" is also synonymous with "a short distance." So when something is a short distance away, we can say it's a due passi. (literally, "two steps away").


Sta qui a due passi, Luca.

It's right near here, Luca.

Caption 47, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP6 - Reazione a Catena

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Other meanings:

Il passo can also be a pass in the mountains or in a river, just like in English.


When you need to buy some screws (le viti) at a hardware store, the clerk might ask you quale passo or che passo?  He or she is talking about the threading. The word for threading is filettatura, from il filo (the thread) or filare (to thread). 



Svolgere: a useful but mysterious verb

Svolgere is yet another verb starting with S, meaning there is likely a verb without the S, at its roots.


The use of the "prefix" S to give a word the opposite meaning is a common Italian phenomenon. It comes up frequently (see, for example this lesson). There is no fool-proof "rule," but knowing about the S-prefix can often give us a clue about a word. If we try a search of the word without the S, we might gain a deeper understanding of the word. Sometimes the S provides a different slant on a word, and isn't necessarily a negation or an opposite. 



So if we look up volgere, we find that it does exist. We just don't use it very often in everyday conversation. Svolgere, on the other hand, is very common, but it's not easy to guess its meaning. 


Let's take a closer look. 



When the verb is in its non-reflexive form it can be translated as "to carry out," "to conduct," "to do," or "to perform." It's transitive. We use it a lot when the question is, "What does it do?" or "What do you do (as a job)?"

Ha una capacità di memoria elevatissima; può svolgere la stessa funzione di cinquemila calcolatori meccanici messi insieme, ma in un tempo infinitamente più breve.

It has a very high memory capacity; it can perform the same function as five thousand mechanical calculators put together, but in an infinitely shorter time.

Captions 3-5, Adriano Olivetti La forza di un sogno Ep.2 - Part 19

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Ci troviamo nel centro tartarughe WWF di Lampedusa, fa parte del progetto italiano del WWF, che svolge attività di conservazione sulle tartarughe marine,

We are at the WWF center in Lampedusa, it's part of the Italian WWF project, which conducts work on conserving sea turtles

Captions 36-38, WWF Italia Progetto tartarughe - Part 1

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Espressione del lavoro di ricerca che svolgono durante il loro soggiorno romano.

An expression of the research work they carry out during their stay in Rome.

Caption 10, Villa Medici L'arca della bellezza - Part 4

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When we use the reflexive form of the verb, we often translate it as "to take place." We could also say "to unfold" in certain contexts. The reflexive form is intransitive. 

Una parte del film si svolge qua dove sembra veramente che il passato e il futuro siano coesistenti.

One part of the film takes place here where it really seems that the past and the future coexist.

Captions 34-35, Fratelli Taviani La passione e l'utopia - Part 6

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The reflexive form svolgersi, is extremely common, but not all that easy to guess at, since it's not a cognate... or is it?

If we look up the etymology of the verb svolgere, we do find volgere, but another, archaic, version of volgere — volvere, no longer in use, is mentioned as well. And if we try hard, we can see the verb "to evolve" as a sort of cognate. If we think of the verb svolgersi as something like, "to evolve," it might help us remember it.


How does this story evolveCome si svolge questa storia?


One confusing thing

If we look at the conjugation chart of the verb svolgere and we look at the conjugation chart of the verb svoltare (to change directions, to turn) there are some similarities, so this can be a bit confusing.


Another confusing thing

Both the non-reflexive and the reflexive form of the verb svolgere can mean "to unfold." So they intersect in a way. But we should just keep in mind that the non-reflexive form is transitive (it takes a direct object) and the reflexive form is intransitive (you won't find a direct object after it).


If you do a search of svolgere, and svolgersi on the Yabla videos page, you will have an overview of how these verbs are used. If you then go to the transcript for a given video where the word is used and hit command or control F to search the word there, you'll see the larger context, together with the English translation. You will see that the translation isn't consistent. Sometimes it's tricky to find the right word, since there really isn't a good, reliable English cognate. 


Certainly, the two forms of svolgere are great verbs to have in your toolbox. If you pay attention, you will start hearing both of them a great deal. And now you know what they mean!


Unico: What Does It Really Mean?

Now that we have talked about uno, here's another related word that's handy to know. It's a word you can guess one meaning of because it looks similar to an English word you know.


Oggi Matera è un sito unico al mondo...

Today, Matera is a site that's unique in the world...

Caption 46, Meraviglie - EP. 1 - Part 11

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So when you want to say something is unique, now you know how. Don't forget that the adjective unico has to agree with its noun. You have four possible endings to choose from: unico, unica, unici, uniche.


One way Italians like to use unico is to give someone a certain kind of compliment (which can be ironic, too). 


Augusto, sei unico.

Augusto, you're one of a kind.

Caption 34, La Ladra - Ep. 6 - Nero di rabbia

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Again, if you are saying this to a girl or woman, you will want to use unica

Maria, sei unica!

Maria, you're special!



But the main way Italians use the word unico is to mean "only."


È l'unico modo che ho per sdebitarmi.

It's the only way I have to settle my debt.

Caption 25, La Ladra - EP. 8 - Il momento giusto

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Questa scuola è l'unica cosa che ho.

This school is the only thing I have.

Caption 5, Il Commissario Manara - S2EP5 - Mondo sommerso

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E saremo gli unici al mondo ad avere qualcosa di simile.

And we'll be the only ones in the world to have something like this.

Caption 18, Adriano Olivetti - La forza di un sogno Ep.2

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Tutte le volte che veniva a pregare per le uniche persone che amava.

Every time she came to pray for the only people she loved.

Caption 17, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP10 - Un morto di troppo

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If you travel to Italy and go clothes shopping, here's something you will definitely see on the racks or on a label.

taglia unica (one size fits all).

The noun La taglia comes from the verb tagliare (to cut).  


The other very important expression with unico is what you might see while driving your macchina a noleggio (rental car).

una strada a senso unico (a one way street)


People also just call a one way street: 

un senso unico (a one way street)


In these last two examples, we could say that unico stands for "one." The important thing is to understand what it means in the situation. You don't want to drive the wrong way down a road!


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