Italian Lessons


Tricky Adverbs: Sempre, Ancora, and Mai

In a recent video, Marika talks about avverbi di tempo (time adverbs). Some of these are pretty straightforward, but some have multiple meanings, depending on the context. We have already looked at some of the tricky ones in previous lessons: ancora (yet, still, again) and sempre (always, still).


The title of a TV series offered on Yabla is Provaci Ancora Prof. (“Try Again, Professor,” or “Play it Again, Professor”). In this case, ancora clearly means “again,” but as we can see in the following example, it can also mean “still.”

Camilla è ancora in casa?

Is Camilla still home?

Caption 52, Provaci Ancora Prof! - S1E1 - Il regalo di Babbo Natale - Part 1

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And when used with the negative nonancora  means “yet.” In English we usually say “not yet,” and this is true in Italian as well

Sicura? -Be', ho compiuto quarant'anni, ma non sono ancora del tutto rimbecillita.

Are you sure? -Well, I've reached forty years, but I'm not yet totally senile.

Caption 57, Provaci Ancora Prof! - S1E1 - Il regalo di Babbo Natale - Part 7

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Ancora can also mean “even” as an adverb modifying another adverb.

Uno si stanca ancora prima di cominciare a...

You get tired even before you begin to...

Caption 4, Provaci Ancora Prof! - S1E1 - Il regalo di Babbo Natale - Part 4

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When sempre means “always,” it’s pretty easy. But sempre also means “still,” which is a bit less familiar.

Sei sempre qua?
Are you still here?


And we might feel even more challenged, because we can also use ancora to mean the same thing.

Sei ancora qua?
Are you still here?


We use sempre when in English we would say “more and more” as an adverb. Semprereplaces the first “more.” To harmonize with the Italian, we could say “ever more.”

Sì, però, volendo si può anche fare la cena a lume di candela sul Tevere.

Yes, but if you want to, you can also have dinner by candlelight on the Tiber.

Mh, sempre più romantico.

Hm, ever more romantic/more and more romantic.

Captions 56-57, Anna e Marika - Il fiume Tevere

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Another “time” adverb that can get a bit tricky is mai (never, ever).


It’s basically straightforward, but we need to remember that although English does not allow double negatives, Italian does allow them. So we will usually see non together with mai to mean “never.” It may be helpful to remember that in English we have “never” or “not ever.” They mean the same thing.

Io, in vita mia, non l'avevo mai vista la pizza bianca e neanche sapevo cosa fosse.

Me, in my life, I'd never seen white pizza and I didn't even know what it was.

Captions 14-15, Anna e Marika - Pizza al taglio romana - Part 1

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In questions, where in English we would use “ever,” we still use mai in Italian, but we don’t use the negation non.

Hai mai viaggiato in aereo?
Have you ever traveled by plane?


In the response, if negative, we use mai to mean “never” or “not ever.”

Non ho mai viaggiato in aereo. 
I have never/I haven’t ever traveled by plane.


Mai is used in some modi di dire, so take a look at these lessons about them.

Casomai (if need be, if at all)
Come mai (how come)?


Are there particular Italian adverbs of time that confuse you? Let us know, and we’ll see what we can do to help. 


The Underlying Meaning of "Allora"

Allora (so, then, well) is one of those filler words that’s highly useful when thinking of what to say in Italian. It buys you a little time and tells the listener you’re thinking things over, especially when used by itself, or to introduce a sentence. Used by itself, it can express impatience:

Allora! (Come on!, Hey!)

or can be introductory:

Allora, vediamo. (Well then, let’s see.)


But what does it really mean? The word actually comes from the Latin ad illa horam (at that time). And, not surprisingly, allora can indeed mean “at that time,” when it refers to the past. It’s true that we can use “then” as a translation, but “then” has other meanings as well, so it helps to have an idea of allora’s underlying meaning.

The following example gives you the idea:


Io penso che tu lo sappia che prima di allora... eh, Roma aveva un grandissimo problema proprio per le alluvioni.

I think that you know that before that time... uh, Rome had indeed a huge problem with flooding.

Captions 36-37, Anna e Marika - Il fiume Tevere

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In a video series about the recent history Italian cuisine, Chef Gualtiero Marchesi is telling the story of his restaurant. He uses allora twice in the same sentence, but to mean different things: the first instance is the filler that gets used so often; the second instance is a bit more specific.


E allora proponevo questo piatto, il grande antipasto di pesce, che allora aveva tre versioni.

And so I offered this dish, a large fish antipasto, which at that time had three versions.

Captions 12-13, L'arte della cucina - L'Epoca delle Piccole Rivoluzioni

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Allora can also mean “in that case.” In fact, the second instance of allora in the above example could also possibly have meant “in that case.” In the following example, the meaning is less ambiguous. You might be asking, can’t we just say “then”? In this case, yes, because it’s clearly an “if/then” situation, but “in that case” helps us understand allora more fully.


Quindi, la differenza è minima, però capirete quando vedete: è un aggettivo o un avverbio? Se io parlo di un avverbio, allora è sempre "bene", una situazione, se parlo di un aggettivo uso "bello" o "buono".

So, the difference is minimal, but you'll understand when you see: is it an adjective or an adverb? If I'm talking about an adverb, in that case it's always "bene," a situation, if I'm talking about an adjective I use "bello" or "buono."

Captions 24-27, Corso di italiano con Daniela - Le parole: bello, buono e bene

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In place of allora, Daniela could have used in tal caso or in quel caso to mean “in that case,” but since she is speaking informally, she has used allora.

We use allora a lot in speech without even thinking about it, so being aware of where it comes from may give us una marcia in più (“an edge,” literally “one more gear”).


In a nutshell:

Allora is a filler word much of the time (well, so, then).

Allora comes from the Latin ad illa horam (at that time) and means precisely that, when talking about the past. Allora means “then” in several senses of the word (well/so, at that time, in that case).


Just for fun:

Allora, vi racconto un po’ della mia storia. Da bambina portavo una gonna per andare a scuola. Allora era vietato alle ragazze mettersi pantaloni. Il sabato, per giocare, allora potevano mettere anche i pantaloni. Allora! Mi ascoltate? No? Allora, non vi dico più niente.

Well, I’ll tell you a bit about my past. As a girl I wore a skirt to go to school. At that time girls were not allowed to wear pants. But on Saturdays, to play, then (in that case) they could wear pants, too. Hey! Are you listening to me? You’re not? In that case, I won’t tell you anything more.



Learning suggestion:

There are a great many instances of allora in Yabla videos. By doing a search and just scrolling through, now that you’re in the know, you’ll be able to figure out if someone’s thinking of what to say, or if he or she is being more specific.


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