Cercare, tentare, provare: All three of these verbs have multiple meanings, but they are also all synonyms meaning “to try.” There are nuances in their meanings that lead us to choose one over the other in a given situation, but that will get easier over time.
This week Daniela explains about using the verb cercare with infinitives when it means “to try.” Cercare takes the preposition di (to) before a verb in the infinitive.
Cerco di aprire la bottiglia.
I try to open the bottle.
Caption 58, Corso di italiano con Daniela: Verbo + Verbo all'infinito + preposizione DI - Part 1 of 3
We could use the verb tentare to mean much the same thing. It also takes the preposition di when used with a second verb in the infinitive.
Ho tentato di aprire la bottiglia, ma ...
I tried to open the bottle, but...
A helpful cognate for this verb is “to attempt.”
I attempted to open the bottle...
We can say something similar with the verb provare. Attenzione! Provare takes the preposition a. Daniela will soon be talking about this preposition. When she does, you’ll be ready!
Ho provato ad aprire la bottiglia.
I tried to open the bottle.
All three of these verbs have additional meanings.
Daniela told us about cercare. You use it when you’re searching for something.
Ho cercato il libro, ma non l’ho trovato.
I looked for the book but I didn’t find it.
Tentare has an additional meaning, “to tempt.“
Non mi tentare con quel dolce. Sono a dieta.
Don’t tempt me with that dessert. I’m on a diet.
There’s a noun form, too: una tentazione (a temptation).
Provare has an English cognate “to prove,” which is a synonym for dimostrare (to demonstrate).
Non ha rubato le scarpe, ma non lo può provare.
He didn't steal the shoes, but he can't prove it.
The noun form is la prova (the proof, the evidence).
e quindi tutte le prove sono a carico di Ninetta.
and so all the proof is against Ninetta.
Caption 6, Anna e Marika: in La Gazza Ladra - Part 1 of 2
But provare also has to do with feelings, and in this case is a synonym for sentire (to feel). In the following example the impersonal si is used.
Ce la fai a dirci che cosa si prova in questo momento?
Can you let us know what you're feeling right now?
È un'emozione grandissima, sono emozionatissima.
It's a very great emotion, I'm very excited.
Captions 7-8, Gioia Marconi: Vado avanti
It should be mentioned that we use la prova, or le prove, for when we practice music, theater, or dance with others, when we rehearse. This meaning has more to do with provare when it means “to try.”
Dove devi andare?
Where do you have to go?
A fare le prove per il concerto.
To practice for the concert.
Captions 23-24, Milena e Mattia: L'incontro
Try switching verbs among cercare, tentare, and provare. Remember to use the correct preposition! In this exercise we are only dealing with cercare, tentare and provare when they mean "to try."
Tutti i giorni, cerco di arrivare puntuale a scuola (every day, I try to get to school on time).
A volte provo ad andarci in bici, ma arrivo troppo stanco (sometimes I try to go by bike but I arrive tuckered out).
Ho tentato di chiedere un passaggio alla zia, ma lei parte troppo tardi (I tried asking my aunt for a ride, but she leaves too late).
Hai provato a chiamare il dottore (did you try to call the doctor)?
Tenterò di dire qualche parola in inglese (I will try to say a few words in English).
Cerca di parlare un po’ più piano, altrimenti non ti capiscano (try speaking more slowly, otherwise they don’t understand).
Cercherò di darti una risposta entro questa settimana (I will try to give you an answer within the week).
L’ultima volta che ho cercato di cucinare il pesce, è stato un fallimento (the last time I tried cooking fish, it was a failure).
Provare is a verb that has so many meanings and nuances that it merits some attention. In this week's episode of La Ladra, it has a special meaning that is important to be aware of, especially for those who are thinking about dating.
But first, let's go to the basic meanings of this verb. Provare is one of several synonyms meaning "to try." See this lesson about this meaning of provare.
Ora ci provo. Vediamo se ci riesco.
I'm going to try it now. Let's see if I succeed in it.
Caption 50-51, Francesca: neve - Part 3 of 3
This exact same construction takes on a different meaning when we're talking about people being sentimentally interested in one another. Every language has different terms that come into general use when talking about relationships, like "going out," "dating," "going steady" in English, and in Italian, stare insieme (to be together, to be a couple, to go steady).
But before that happens, there is usually an approach. We used to call this courting. These days it can be in person, by text, by phone or in person. It can start with a flirtation. But one person has to approach the other. He or she has to try to get the other person's attention. Because there isn't a true equivalent in Italian, flirtare (to flirt) has become a verb we find in the dictionary.
But generally, this stage of the game, the approach, especialy when it's not very subtle, is described in Italian with provarci.
So if I want to say, "That guy was flirting with me!" I might say: Ci stava provando con me!
Literally, it means "to try it" as in our first example, but, ci, as we know from previous lessons, means many things, and it can mean "to or with something or someone."
Ci vengo anch'io. I'll come with you [there].
In this week's episode of La Ladra, Barbara, an employee, is interested in her boss and she doesn't want any interference, and so she gives Alessia, her co-worker, a rough time and accuses her of flirting with him. In reality, poor, shy Alessia has no such intentions, and is quite shocked to be accused of anything of the sort. In this specific context, provarci means to try to get the sentimental attentions of someone (often by flirting).
Ma questo non significa che io...
But that doesn't mean that I...
Ho visto come lo guardi, sai?
I've seen how you look at him, you know.
Ma tu, con Aldo, non ci devi neppure provare.
But you with Aldo, you mustn't even try to get his attention.
Io? Ma sei matta?
Me? But are you nuts?
Captions 18-21, La Ladra - Ep. 5 - Chi la fa l'aspetti - Part 4 of 14
On a general level, however, provarci just means "to try it," as in our first example. In English we leave out any object: we just say "I tried." In Italian, there is usually ci as a general, even neutral, object. It is often shortened to a "ch" sound in a contraction. C'ho provato (I tried). Provaci is an informal command: "Give it a try!"
The Italian title for an old Woody Allen film is Provaci ancora, Sam.