10 Common Errors In Italian Usage: Italian Grammar Mistakes

An Italian Would Never Say That

Ponte Sant'Angelo, Rome
Ponte Sant'Angelo, Rome. Stuart Black/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images

You know not to order an "expresso" when you step into a caffè and order a coffee. You're comfortable with Italian verbs and can even competently conjugate the congiuntivo trapassato. But you'll never sound like an Italian native if you persist in repeating linguistic "dead giveaways"—that is, grammatical mistakes, habits, or tics that always identifies a native English speaker regardless of how competent that person is in Italian.

Whatever your reasons for studying Italian, there are Italian grammar usage errors that have been pointed out to you innumerable times by your teacher, tutor, and Italian friends, yet you still persist in making them. Or sometimes, those Italian lessons never stick. Here then is a Top 10 list of the red flags that make English speakers stick out no matter how melodious their pronunciation or despite the fact that they've learned how to roll their r's.

1. No Pain, No Gain

Many English speakers have difficulty pronouncing double consonants in Italian. Here's a simple rule: if you see a consonant in Italian, say it! Unlike English, Italian is a phonetic language, so be certain to pronounce (and write!) both consonants in Italian words when they are doubled. That should help you avoid asking for pain (pena) instead of a pen (penna) at la cartoleria (the stationery store), even though some people consider pens instruments of torture since they dislike writing.

2. I Think I Can, I Think I Can

Students of Italian (especially beginners) tend to stick with what they know. Once they learn the three modal verbs, including potere (to be able to, can), they usually unleash a torrent of sentences beginning "Posso...?" in an effort to sound tactful. But the tendency to use the verb potere when the verb (to succeed, to manage, to be able) is more accurate is a linguistic quirk that immediately identifies a speaker of Italian for whom English is their madrelingua (native tongue). For example, Non sono riuscito a superare gli esami (I was't able to pass the exams) is correct, whereas the sentence Non ho potuto superare gli esami proves the point in more ways than one.

3. Preposterous Prepositions

At that very second. On December 26. In 2007. For those studying English as a second language it seems that there is no logic, no reason, no rationale for the use of prepositions. Those studying Italian usually share the same sentiments. Just compare the difference in these sentences: Vado a casa. Vado in banca. Vado al cinema. Not to mention the fact that tra and fra are interchangeable.

Reconcile the fact that, just as in English, there are few rules and many exceptions regarding the usage of Italian prepositions. The sooner you accept that, the quicker you can move on to... reciprocal reflexive verbs! Seriously, though, there's only one sure-fire way to approach them: commit to memory how to use the preposizioni semplici (simple prepositions) a, con, da, di, in, per, su, and tra/fra.

4. Magari Fosse Vero!

Listen to a reasonably fluent non-native English speaker and chances are you won't hear her use the term "goes" in place of "says" ("...so my friend goes: 'When are you going to learn to speak English correctly?'"), or the hackneyed conversation filler "it's like, you know,..." There are many other words and phrases that are not part of standard English grammar but are common features of casual conversation, as opposed to the formal, written language. Likewise, there are several words and phrases in Italian that have minimal semantic content on their own, but serve important linguistic functions. A conversant who never utters them sounds slightly over-formal and textbookish. They are difficult to translate, but mastering such terms such as cioè, insomma, magari, and mica might even get you elected to the board of Accademia della Crusca.

5. Speaking Without Opening Your Mouth

Italians use body language and hand gestures to punctuate an expression and give it a shading that the word or phrase itself lacks. So, unless you want to be mistaken for the indifferent (read non-native Italian) in the corner who keeps his hands stuffed in his pocket, learn a few Italian hand gestures and other nonverbal responses, and join in the animated discussion.

6. Thinking In English, Speaking in Italian

Ask an American to name the colors of il tricolore italiano (the Italian tricolor flag) and they'd probably respond: rosso, bianco, e verde (red, white, and green). That would be comparable to referring to the U.S. flag as: "blue, white, and red"—technically correct, but grating to most natives' ears. In fact, Italians invariably refer to their national flag as: verde, bianco, e rosso— the order, from left-to-right, in which the colors appear. A seemingly trivial difference, but a certain linguistic dead giveaway.

The phrase: "red, white, and blue" is ingrained in Americans' linguistic DNA. It's used in marketing, movies, poems, and songs. So it's probably unavoidable to use the same formula "red, white, and [color]" for the Italian flag. These types of errors might not be egregious, but they instantly brand the speaker as a non-native.

7. Dining in the Prison Cafeteria

Read any cooking magazine during the spring and summer, when the weather turns warm and families eat outside on terraces, decks, and porches, and there is sure to be an article about dining "al fresco." There are even restaurants throughout the United States named Al Fresco (or worse, Alfresco). On your next trip to Italy, though, when you arrive at that highly-recommended trattoria in Siena for lunch and have to decide between dining indoors versus outside on the terrace overlooking Piazza del Campo, the hostess will probably snicker if you ask to dine "al fresco." That's because, strictly speaking, the term means "in the cooler"—similar to the English slang term that means to be in jail or prison. Instead, use the term "all'aperto" or "all'aria aperta" or even "fuori."

Other terms that English speakers tend to misuse include "il Bel Paese" when referring to Italy (it's the name of a popular Italian cheese, though). It's analogous to a native New Yorker referring to New York City as The Big Apple. They almost never utter it. Another term, commonly found in English textbooks or travelogues when referring to the Italian language, is "la bella lingua." Native Italians never use that phrase when referring to their native tongue.

8. Neigh? Nay? No, Ne

The Italian pronoun ne is the most overlooked part of speech, probably because it can be omitted in English (but not in Italian—and old linguistic habits die hard). Get used to whinnying like a horse, and you'll sound more like a native Italian.

9. The Early Bird Catches Fishes

Like humor, proverbs are difficult to learn in a foreign language. Oftentimes they are idiomatic, and typically reflect the culture (a preponderance of proverbs in Italian are agrarian or nautical in nature given the country's background). For example, consider the sentiment: The early bird catches the worm. The popular Italian proverb that conveys the same sentiment is: Chi dorme non piglia pesci (Who sleeps doesn't catch fishes). So transliterating from English might lead to perplexed looks.

Linguistic experts point out that "proverbiando, s'impara"—that is, by speaking and parsing out proverbs one learns about the language and about the tradition and mores of a culture.

10. Linguistic Training Wheels

Io parlo, tu parli, lei parla...Want to immediately identify yourself as a non-native Italian speaker, even if you can conjugate verbi pronominali (pronominal verbs) in your sleep? Persist in using subject pronouns as a linguistic crutch even after learning how to conjugate Italian verbs.

Unlike in English, the use of the subject pronouns (io, tu, lui, noi, voi, loro) with the conjugated verb forms is not necessary (and considered redundant unless used for emphasis), since the verb endings identify the mood, tense, person, number, and, in some cases, gender.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Filippo, Michael San. "10 Common Errors In Italian Usage: Italian Grammar Mistakes." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/an-italian-would-never-say-that-2011404. Filippo, Michael San. (2023, April 5). 10 Common Errors In Italian Usage: Italian Grammar Mistakes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/an-italian-would-never-say-that-2011404 Filippo, Michael San. "10 Common Errors In Italian Usage: Italian Grammar Mistakes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/an-italian-would-never-say-that-2011404 (accessed May 30, 2023).