The Correct Use of Definite Articles with Italian Proper Nouns

Here are a handful of ways to use the definite article before proper nouns

How do you use definite articles with Italian proper nouns?
How do you use definite articles with Italian proper nouns?. RilindH

First, what’s a definite article? It’s the equivalent of “the” in English, and you’ll see it written as words like “la,” “gli,” and “il.” In Italian, proper nouns usually do not require the definite article:

  • Daniele è un bravo ragazzo. - Daniel is a good boy.
  • Tra poco verrà Mario. - Mario will soon arrive.
  • Ho scritto a Paola. - I wrote to Paola.

Note: Nouns are preceded by the article only in northern Italian regional usage:

  • Ho visto la Carla. - I saw Carla.
  • Telefono alla Pina. - I’m calling Pina.

Here are 6 ways to use definite articles with proper nouns in Italian.

1) Metaphors

However, Italian proper nouns take the article when used in a metaphorical sense:

  • Si sta rappresentando l'Otello. - He is performing the part of Othello.

Namely, the opera by Verdi entitled Otello; or when they are accompanied by a noun or an adjective:

  • l'imperatore Augusto—the emperor Augustus
  • l'astuto Ulisse—the wily Odysseus

2) Surnames for Women

The surnames of women require the article:

  • la Duse
  • la Deledda
  • la Serao

As do Italian surnames in the plural

  • gli Sforza
  • i Malatesta
  • i Visconti

With men's surnames in the singular, the use of the article is not uniform in the spoken language, and increasingly also in the written. In fact, it’s usually omitted and therefore the sentence construction: Ho incontrato Rossi is more common than Ho incontrato il Rossi (I met Rossi).

The use of the article before surnames is maintained in bureaucratic language and news stories:

  • Dopo la cattura del Ferri e del Binazzi la pericolosa banda di rapinatori è stata sgominata. - After the capture of Ferri and Binazzi the dangerous band of robbers was routed.

In recent years, especially in the political, social, and cultural areas, the tendency has been to avoid the definite article even before female surnames, to avoid inconsistencies between the genders:

  • Ho letto le opere di Deledda (della scrittrice Grazia Deledda). -I read the works of Deledda (Grazia Deledda).
  • Nella tarda mattinata Rossi e Bianchi si sono incontrati per una colazione di lavoro (instead of Rossi e la Bianchi or la signora Bianchi). - In the late morning, Rossi and Bianchi met for a working lunch.

Such use is very limited and restricted to specialized settings (such as essays), in which it is not possible to confuse the identity of the person.

Many last names of famous people do not take the article:

In front of others, however, the predominant form includes the article:

  • l'Alfieri
  • l'Alighieri
  • l'Ariosto
  • il Tasso

3) Nicknames of Famous People

The nicknames of famous people may or may not include the article:

  • (il)
  • (il)

Nicknames of regional or popular usage always take the article if they are aggettivi sostantivati (substantivized adjectives—that is, they imply and replace the surname):

  • lo Smilzo - a person is who is very skinny
  • il Guercio - a crossed-eyed person
  • il Rosso - a redhead person (gingernut)

While with nouns the use is not constant:

  • Ho incontrato Patata (or il Patata). - I met Patata.

4) Titles

The article, however, is always present before country appellatives: l'Astigiano (Vittorio Alfieri).

5) Exceptions

In some cases, a noun can be preceded by the plural definite article or the indefinite article:

  • Sono stati i Cavour, i Mazzini, I Garibaldi a costruire l'unità d'Italia. - It was Cavour, Mazzini, and Garibaldi who constructed Italian unity.
  • Per ritrarre questa scena ci vorrebbe un Michelangelo (o il pennello di un Michelangelo). - To portray this scene it would take a Michelangelo (or the brush of a Michelangelo.
  • Crede di essere un Einstein.—He believed himself to be an Einstein (i.e., as smart as Einstein).

Here the proper noun ceases to indicate a specific individual and designates a type, or a class of persons, characterized by certain quality or defects. This grammatical device corresponds to the figure of speech antonomasia.

6) Works of Art

To indicate a work of art the article often prefaces the name of the artist:

  • Quello è un Picasso. - That's a Picasso (a Picasso painting)
  • Ecco il Carrà di cui ti ho parlato. - Here is the Carrà (the Carrà painting) of which I spoke.