Italian Definite Articles

Learn the many ways of saying 'the' in Italian

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In English, the definite article (l'articolo determinativo) has only one form: the. In Italian, on the other hand, the definite article has different forms according to the gender, number, and even the first letter or two of the noun it precedes.

This makes learning definite articles a bit more complicated, but once you know the structure, it’s relatively simple to get used to.

Gender and Number

Gender and number of the definite article function much like the gender and number of Italian nouns; and in fact, they must agree. How does it work?

Feminine Singular and Plural: La, Le

Single feminine nouns use the single feminine article la; plural feminine nouns use the feminine plural article le.

For example, rosa, or rose, is a feminine noun; its article is la. In the plural, it is rose and it uses the article le. Same for these nouns:

  • La casa, le case: the house, the houses
  • La penna, le penne: the pen, the pens
  • La tazza, le tazze: the cup, the cups

It is important to remember that this is true no matter if the noun is one of those ending in -e in the singular and -i in the plural: if it is feminine, it gets a feminine article, singular or plural:

  • La stazione, le stazioni: the station, the stations
  • La conversazione, le conversazioni: the conversation, the conversations

It is good to review the rules regarding the pluralization of nouns and how those work. Remember that the gender of nouns is not something that you choose: It simply is, much like a mathematical formula, and sometimes you need to use a dictionary to find out what it is (if you have no article available to tell you).

Masculine Singular and Plural: Il, I

Most singular masculine nouns get the article il; in the plural, that article becomes i.

Example:

  • Il libro, i libri: the book, the books
  • Il gatto, i gatti: the cat, the cats

Again, as for the feminine, this stands even if it is a masculine noun with the ending in -e in the singular; if it is masculine, it gets a masculine article. In the plural, it gets a masculine plural article.

  • Il dolce, i dolci: the dessert, the desserts
  • Il cane, i cani: the dog, the dogs.

Masculine Articles Lo, Gli

Masculine nouns do NOT get the articles il and i but rather lo and gli when they begin with a vowel. For example, the noun albero, or tree, is masculine and it begins with a vowel; its article is lo; in the plural, alberi, its article is gli. Same for the following:

  • L(o)' uccello, gli uccelli: the bird, the birds
  • L(o)' animale, gli animali: the animal, the animals
  • L(o)' occhio, gli occhi: the eyes, the eyes

(note on eliding the article below).

Also, masculine nouns they take the articles lo and gli when they begin with the following:

  • s plus a consonant
  • j
  • ps and pn
  • gn
  • x, y, and z

Examples:

  • Lo stivale, gli stivali: the boot, the boots
  • Lo zaino, gli zaini: the backpack, the backpacks
  • Lo psicoanalista, gli psicoanalisti (if it's a man): the psychoanalyst, the psychoanalysts
  • Lo gnomo, gli gnomi: the gnome, the gnomes
  • Lo xilofono, gli xilofoni: the xylophone, the xylophones

Yes, gnocchi are gli gnocchi!

Remember, lo/gli is only for masculine nouns. Also, there are a few exceptions: il whiskey, not lo whiskey.

Eliding to L'

You can elide the -o or -a of a singular article masculine or feminine before a noun beginning with a vowel:

  • Lo armadio becomes l'armadio.
  • La America becomes l'America.

It is helpful to make sure you know the gender of the noun before you elide since the gender of the noun can affect many things, including the gender of the adjective, of the past participle of the verb, and of such things as possessive pronouns.

Without the article, some nouns in the singular can look identical:

  • Lo artista or la artista (the artist, masculine or feminine) becomes l'artista.
  • Lo amante or la amante (the lover, masculine or feminine) becomes l'amante.

You do not elide plural articles even if followed by a vowel:

  • Le artiste remains le artiste.

When to Use Definite Articles

You use a definite article in front of most common nouns most always. Generally, in Italian you use more definite articles than in English, though there are some exceptions.

Categories

For example, you use definite articles in Italian with broad categories or groups, while in English you don't. In English you say, "Man is an intelligent being." In Italian you have to use an article: L'uomo è un essere intelligente.

In English you say, "Dog is man's best friend." In Italian you have to give the dog an article: Il cane è il miglior amico dell'uomo.

In English you say, "I love botanical gardens"; in Italian you say, Amo gli orti botanici.

In English you say, "Cats are fabulous"; in Italian you say, I gatti sono fantastici.

Lists

When you are making a list, each item or person gets its own article:

  • La Coca–Cola e l’aranciata: the Coke and the aranciata
  • Gli italiani e i giapponesi: the Italians and the Japanese
  • Le zie e gli zii: the aunts and uncles
  • Le zie e il nonno: the aunts and the grandfather

If you say, "I need to get bread, cheese, and milk," very generically, those can go with or without articles: Devo prendere pane, formaggio, e latte.

But, if you say, "I forgot flour for the cake," or, "I left bread for dinner in the oven," in Italian you need to use articles: Ho dimenticato la farina per la torta, and, Ho lasciato il pane per cena nel forno.

Generally, anything that has specificity gets an article. But:

  • Quel negozio vende vestiti e scarpe. That store sells clothes and shoes.

But:

  • Ho comprato il vestito e le scarpe per il matrimonio. I bought the dress and shoes for the wedding.

But:

  • Ho comprato tutto per il matrimonio: vestito, scarpe, scialle e orecchini. I bought everything for the wedding: dress, shoes, shawl, and earrings.

Much like English.

Possessives

In Italian you have to use an article in possessive constructions (where you would not use one in English):

  • La macchina di Antonio è nuova, la mia no. Antonio's car is new, mine is not.
  • Ho visto la zia di Giulio. I saw Giulio's aunt.
  • Hai preso la mia penna? Did you take my pen?
  • La mia amica Fabiola ha un negozio di vestiti. My friend Fabiola has a clothing store.

You can remember this by thinking of the possessive construction in Italian as "the thing of someone" rather than "someone's thing."

You use both articles and possessive adjective or pronouns with almost everything except singular blood relatives (la mamma, without possessive, or mia mamma, without article); also, when it is obvious what we are talking about without using both:

  • Mi fa male la testa. My head hurts.
  • A Franco fanno male i denti. Franco's teeth hurt.

One can assume they are his teeth that are hurting.

With Adjectives

If there is an adjective between the article and the noun, the first letter of the adjective (not the noun) determines the form of the article: whether it is il or lo, and whether it can be elided:

  • L'altro giorno: the other day
  • Il vecchio zio: the old uncle
  • Gli stessi ragazzi: the same boys (but, i ragazzi stessi: the boys themselves)
  • La nuova amica: the new friend

Time

You use an article when telling the time, knowing that the unspoken word with time is ora or ore (hour or hours).

  • Sono le (ore) 15.00. It is 3 p.m.
  • Parto alle (ore) 14.00. I leave at 2 p.m.
  • Mi sono svegliato all’una (alla ora una). I woke up at 1 p.m.
  • Vado a scuola alle (ore) 10.00. I’m going to school at 10 a.m.

(Notice here the article combined with a preposition, making something called an articulated preposition).

Mezzogiorno and mezzanotte do not need an article in the context of telling time. But if you say that you love the midnight hour generally, you say, Mi piace la mezzanotte.

Geography

You use articles with geographical locations:

  • Continents: l'Europa
  • Countries: l'Italia
  • Regions: la Toscana
  • Large islands: la Sicilia
  • Oceans: il Mediterraneo
  • Lakes: il Garda
  • Rivers: il Po
  • Mountains: il Cervino (the Matterhorn)
  • Directional territories: Il Nord

But, not with the preposition in, for example, which you use with continents, countries, islands, and regions:

  • Vado in America. I am going to America.
  • Andiamo in Sardegna. We are going to Sardegna.

Definite Articles with Names

Definite articles are used with the last names of famous people:

  • Il Petrarca
  • Il Manzoni
  • Il Manfredi
  • La Garbo
  • La Loren

With all surnames in the plural:

  • I Visconti
  • Gli Strozzi
  • I Versace

Often with nicknames and pseudonyms:

  • Il Griso
  • Il Canaletto
  • Il Caravaggio

With proper names used with specification:

  • ll signor Mario (not when addressing him, though)
  • La signora Beppa
  • Il maestro Fazzi

(In Tuscany, articles are liberally used before proper names, particularly feminine names, but sometimes male names too: la Franca.)

Again, if an adjective precedes the last name, you use the article that fits the gender, of course, but adapting to the first letter of the adjective:

  • Il grande Mozart: the great Mozart
  • Lo spavaldo Wagner: the arrogant Wagner
  • L'audace Callas: the audacious Callas

When Not to Use Articles

There are some nouns that do not require articles (or not always):

Languages and Academic Subjects

You don't have to (but you can) use a definite article before an academic subject, including a language, when you are speaking it or studying it:

  • Studio matematica e italiano. I study math and Italian.
  • Parlo francese e inglese. I speak French and English.
  • Franca è esperta in matematica pura. Franca is an expert in pure math.

But you do use an article generally if you are talking about something about the subject itself:

  • La matematica è difficilissima. Math is very difficult.
  • Il francese non mi piace molto. I don't like French much.

Days of the Week and Months

You do not use definite articles in front of days of the week unless you mean every one such day or if you are speaking of a specific Monday. With months, you use an article if you are speaking of the next or the past April, for example.

  • Il settembre scorso sono tornata a scuola. Last September I returned to school.
  • I negozi sono chiusi il lunedì pomeriggio. Stores are closed on Monday afternoons.

But:

  • Torno a scuola a settembre. I am returning to school in September.
  • Il negozio chiude lunedì per lutto. The store is closing Monday for bereavement.

So, if you want to say, "Monday I am leaving," you say, Parto lunedì.

Buono studio!