Italian Lessons


Niente (nothing, no, not): How to use it

Niente is an indispensable word to have in your basic Italian vocabulary. It's a noun, it's a pronoun, it's an adjective, it's an adverb, and it can even be a simple filler word that doesn't mean anything in particular. This highly useful word can mean various things, but they all have some connection with "no," "nothing," or "not."



Double negative

Let's remember that in Italian, the double negative is totally acceptable. It gets the meaning across! So, as opposed to English, we will often see non and niente in the same sentence expressing something negative. For example:

Pronto? Non sento niente.

Hello? I can't hear anything.

Caption 11, Adriano Olivetti La forza di un sogno Ep.2 - Part 20

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Of course, when we translate, we try to use correct English, so with the presence of non, we avoid a double negative and transform "nothing" into "anything."


Niente before a noun to mean "no" or "not any"

We use niente to mean "no" or "not any" before a noun (or verb in the infinitive that is functioning as a noun).


Buoni! -E sì, invece di prendertela col buio, accendi la luce, sennò niente biscotti!

Good! -Oh yes, instead of getting upset with the darkness, turn on the light. Otherwise, no cookies!

Captions 61-62, Dixiland Buio mangiabiscotti

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If we see the little preposition di (of) before the word male (bad), then we're saying "nothing wrong," "not anything bad," 

Allora, insomma, erano un po' preoccupati, ma in realtà non ho fatto niente di male.

So, basically, they were a bit worried, but I didn't actually do anything wrong.

Captions 91-92, Che tempo che fa Raffaella Carrà - Part 3

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But when we have niente followed by male (with no preposition), then it means "not bad."  This is an important distinction. Niente male is a wonderful alternative to "great!" We say something similar in English, too. 

Anche a me sono successe un paio di disavventure niente male!

I also had a couple of things happen to me that weren't bad at all [pretty incredible]!

Caption 56, Francesca e Marika Gestualità

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In Italian, we can either say non male (not bad) or niente male (not bad at all), which is a bit stronger towards the positive end of the spectrum.


Nothing at all

One way to say, "nothing at all," is niente di niente.

No, no, io non ho sentito niente, niente di niente.

No, no, I didn't hear anything — nothing at all.

Caption 18, La Ladra EP. 6 - Nero di rabbia - Part 8

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Another way to say "nothing at all" is un bel niente.

No, abbiamo un caso di suicidio e stiamo ce'... -Abbiamo, abbiamo. Lei non ha un bel niente, Manara, finché non l'autorizzo io, ha capito?

No, we have a case of suicide and we're lo'... -We have, we have. You have a big nothing Manara, until I authorize it, understand?

Captions 24-25, Il Commissario Manara S1EP1 - Un delitto perfetto - Part 3

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But to say, "not at all," it's per niente.

E a me non piacciono per niente.

And I don't like them at all.

Caption 43, Volare - La grande storia di Domenico Modugno Ep. 1 - Part 15

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Niente as filler 

OK, e niente, avevo portato qualcosa da mangiare,

OK, and nothing more. I had brought something to eat,

Caption 7, Il Commissario Manara S2EP1 - Matrimonio con delitto - Part 4

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We translated niente here as "nothing more," but actually, it could mean something like "that's all." 


There are undoubtedly other ways to use niente, such as: 

Fa niente (it doesn't matter).

Di niente (you're welcome, don't mention it).

Non ho capito niente (I didn't understand anything).


Keep your eyes and ears open for the word niente as you watch Yabla videos, or any other videos. It's really all over the place!


Ascoltare vs sentire

Just as we have two separate words in English for when we use our ears — "to listen" and "to hear" — we have them in Italian, too. There are a few things to know about the two verbs we use: ascoltare and sentire.  On a very basic level, ascoltare (to listen) is more active than sentire (to hear).

E Lei non si è messa dietro la porta ad ascoltare?

And you didn't get behind the door to listen in?

Caption 39, Il Commissario Manara S2EP6 - Sotto tiro - Part 5

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Ama sentire il rumore dei suoi passi nei corridoi semideserti,

He loves to hear the noise of his steps in the semi-deserted corridors,

Caption 59, Fulvio Benelli Crimine Infinito, romanzo - Part 3

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Ascoltare is a transitive verb, unlike "to listen," which usually needs the preposition "to."

Signore e signori, è con grande piacere che ascoltiamo la prossima canzone.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that we will listen to  the next song.

Caption 1, Volare - La grande storia di Domenico Modugno Ep. 2 - Part 23

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We can just say ascolta (listen)! or ascoltate (listen [pl])! But we often use an object pronoun, too, as in the following example. Note that we sometimes attach the object pronoun and end up with one word. This can happen with the informal version of the imperative. As you will see, the polite form is different.

Allora, ascoltami bene. Tu non c'hai la mamma, stai qua a fare la cameriera a tutti, qualcuno te le dà pure...

Then, listen to me carefully. You don't have a mother, you're here being a maid to everyone, someone even beats you up...

Captions 5-7, Imma Tataranni Sostituto procuratore S1 EP2 Come piante fra sassi - Part 4

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If I answer that command, to say, for example, "I am listening to you," then I put the object pronoun first, and it's separate.

Ti ascolto.

I'm listening [to you].

Caption 31, Il Commissario Manara S1EP3 - Rapsodia in Blu - Part 9

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When we use the polite form of address, we can't attach the personal pronoun to the verb.

Manara, mi ascolti bene.

Manara, listen to me carefully.

Caption 23, Il Commissario Manara S1EP1 - Un delitto perfetto - Part 8

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We can listen to a person, but we can also listen to sounds, to music, to the radio.

Era mattina presto e ascoltavo la radio.

It was early morning, and I was listening to the radio.

Caption 3, Volare - La grande storia di Domenico Modugno Ep. 2 - Part 4

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We also have the noun form, l'ascolto. We use it with verbs such as dare (to give) or prestare (to lend).


Mamma non mi vuole mandare al concerto. -Non se lo merita. Papà, non le dare ascolto.

Mom doesn't want to let me go to the concert. -She doesn't deserve it. Daddy, don't listen to her.

Captions 3-4, Imma Tataranni Sostituto procuratore S1 EP2 Come piante fra sassi - Part 5

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Colleghi e cittadini... -Attenzione, attenzione, prestatemi ascolto.

Colleagues and citizens... -Hear ye, hear ye, lend me your ear.

Captions 62-63, Volare - La grande storia di Domenico Modugno Ep. 1 - Part 15

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We have already mentioned that sentire is more of a passive verb than ascoltare. It corresponds to the verb "to hear." But that's not all! Sentire has to do with the senses, and the sense of hearing — l'udito — is one of them. But sentire is also used for the sense of smell, the sense of touch, and even the sense of taste sometimes. 


Sentire can be used to get someone's attention, for example, in a restaurant when you want to call the waiter or waitress. Although literally, it's "Hear [me]," it's a very common way to say, "Excuse me."

Senta, mi sa dire che ore sono adesso?

Excuse me, can you tell me what time it is now?

Caption 11, Barzellette L'asino che dà l'ora

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In the first instance of the man wanting to know the time in the video, he uses mi scusi (excuse me).

Mi scusi, buon uomo. Mi sa dire l'ora, per favore?

Pardon me, my good man. Can you tell me the time, please?

Captions 1-2, Barzellette L'asino che dà l'ora

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Senta is a different way of saying the same thing, even though it really means "to hear." 


In the following example, on the other hand, it's clear we're talking about hearing. 

Come dici? No, no, non ti sento.

What are you saying? No, no, I can't hear you.

Caption 57, Il Commissario Manara S1EP2 - Vendemmia tardiva - Part 5

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In the following example, we have translated sentire with "to hear," but, come to think of it, Eva might have been talking about not smelling the potatoes frying. Il risultato non cambia (the result is the same)!

Ferruccio, non sento friggere le patate.

Ferruccio, I don't hear any potatoes frying.

Caption 65, La Ladra EP. 6 - Nero di rabbia - Part 9

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So sentire presents problems that ascoltare does not. Another issue is that we use sentire very often in its reflexive form, sentirsi. In this case, it means "to feel."

Vi prego, mi sento male!

Please, I'm feeling ill.

Caption 17, La Ladra EP. 7 - Il piccolo ladro - Part 13

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There's a common expression with sentirsi plus some particles. It's used when you don't feel up to something, and more often than not is used in the negative.

Sì, lo so, ma io ancora non me la sento di affrontare questo argomento.

Yes, I know, but I don't feel up to facing this subject just yet.

Caption 7, La Ladra EP. 8 - Il momento giusto - Part 2

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Or it can be used in a question: Can you do this? Are you up to it?

Te la senti? and in the polite form:  Se la sente?


We have talked about both ascoltare and sentire in a previous lesson, with a different slant, so feel free to check it out! 


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