Improper Prepositions in Italian

How to express words like “under,” “over” and “behind

Woman studying Italian prepositions
Woman studying Italian prepositions. Ezra Bailey

The Italian prepositions ​di, a, da, in, con, su, per, tra (fra), the so-called preposizioni semplici (simple prepositions), perform a variety of functions and are the most frequently used.

However, these prepositions have a lesser-known counterpart -- ones with less variety, but that have a greater specificity of meaning.

They’re called “improper prepositions.” And yes, if you’re wondering, there are “proper prepositions,” and we’ll talk about those soon.

Why must you get to know these? Because they help you say things like “behind the house,” “during dinner,” or “except him.”

Many grammarians define these forms as improper prepositions (preposizioni improprie), which are also (or have been in the past) adverbs, adjectives, or verbs.

Here they are:

  • Davanti - In front, across from, opposite from

  • Dietro - Behind, after

  • Contro - In front of, against

  • Dopo - After, beyond

  • Prima - First, in front of

  • Insieme - With, together with, along with

  • Sopra - On top of, upon, above, over  

  • Sotto - Below, beneath

  • Dentro - In, inside, within

  • Fuori - Beyond

  • Lungo - During, throughout, along, alongside

  • Vicino - Nearby

  • Lontano - Faraway, distant

  • Secondo - On the basis of, according to, along

  • Durante - During, throughout

  • Mediante - By, through, via, by means of

  • Nonostante - In spite of, despite

  • Rasente - Very near to, very close to

  • Salvo - Save, except for

  • Escluso - Except

  • Eccetto - Except

  • Tranne - Except

So, which prepositions are proper?

Grammarians define proper prepositions (preposizioni proprie) as those that have only a prepositional function, namely: di, a, da,in, con, su, per, tra (fra) (su also has an adverbial function, but routinely is considered one of the proper prepositions).

The following are some examples of preposition-adverbs, preposition-adjectives, and preposition-verbs, highlighting their diverse functions.

Preposition-Adverbs

The largest group is that of the preposition-adverbs (davanti, dietro, contro, dopo, prima, insieme,sopra, sotto, dentro, fuori):

  • L'ho rivisto dopo molto tempo. - I saw him again after a long time. (prepositional function)

  • L'ho rivisto un'altra volta, dopo. - I saw him again after that. (adverbial function)

Preposition-Adjectives

Less numerous are preposition-adjectives (lungo, vicino, lontano, salvo, secondo):

  • Camminare lungo la riva - To walk along the shore (prepositional function)

  • Un lungo cammino - A long walk (adjectival function)

Participles

There are also some verbs, in the form of participles, that in contemporary Italian function almost exclusively as prepositions (durante, mediante, nonostante, rasente, escluso, eccetto):

  • Durante la sua vita - During his lifetime (prepositional function)

  • Vita natural durante - Lifetime (participial function)

Among these preposition-verbs, a special case is that of tranne, from the imperative form of trarre (tranne = 'traine').

To determine whether a certain term is used as a preposition or has a different function, note that in the previous examples what characterizes and distinguishes the prepositions from other parts of speech is the fact that they establish a relationship between two words or two groups of words.

Prepositions are special because they introduce a complement to the verb, the noun, or the entire sentence. If there is no "complement," it is not a preposition.

Some Italian improper prepositions can be combined with other prepositions (especially a and di) to form locuzioni preposizionali (prepositional phrases) such as:

  • Vicino a - Near, next to

  • Accanto a - Next to, beside

  • Davanti a - In front of

  • Dietro a - Behind

  • Prima di - Before

  • Dopo di - After

  • Fuori di - Outside of

  • Dentro di - Inside, within

  • Insieme con (or assieme a) - Together with

  • Lontano da - Away from

Prepositions & Nouns

Many prepositional phrases result from the pairing of prepositions and nouns:

  • In cima a - On top of, at the top of

  • In capo a - Within, under

  • In mezzo a - In the middle of, among

  • Nel mezzo di - In the middle of, in the midst of

  • In base a - On the basis of, according to

  • In quanto a - As for, in terms of

  • In confronto a - Compared to, in comparison to

  • A fianco di - At the side of, on the side of

  • Al cospetto di - In the presence of

  • Per causa di - Because of, on grounds of

  • In conseguenza di - As a result of

  • A forza di - Because of, through , by persisting that

  • Per mezzo di - By means of, by way of

  • Per opera di - By

  • A meno di - Less than, without

  • Al pari di - As much as, in common with

  • A dispetto di - In spite of, despite

  • A favore di - In favor of

  • Per conto di - On behalf of

  • In cambio di - In exchange for

  • Al fine di - For the purpose of, in order to

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases have the same function as prepositions, as shown by these examples:

  • L'ha ucciso per mezzo di un pugnale / L'ha ucciso con un pugnale. - He killed him using a dagger / He killed him with a dagger.

  • L'ha fatto al fine di aiutarti / L'ha fatto per aiutarti. - He did it in order to help you / He did it to help you.

Attenta!

Note, however, that prepositions and prepositional phrases are not always interchangeable: for example, either of the following phrases are valid: il ponte è costruito dagli operai (or da parte degli operai). But “la costruzione del ponte dagli operai” is grammatically incorrect, while “la costruzione del ponte da parte degli operai” is acceptable.