nouns and gender

Ever wonder why English-speaking Italians say things like, “This pizza she’s no good.”

Why the “she” there? Don’t they know pizza’s an it?

The answer may lie in a concept common to all languages derived from Latin (of which Italian is one), along with many others around the world, the concept of “grammatical gender”, today’s tutorino grammar topic.

At the heart of this concept is a part of speech known as a noun. A noun is a person, place or thing. If verbs are energy, nouns are matter. Nouns are what you stock your fridge with or buy on ebay. They’re the loveable clutter of our everyday lives.

In English, we normally think of gender as something belonging only to living creatures and, if you’re a plumber, to types of pipes. When someone says, “Did you hear Jen had a baby?” we say, “Oh yeah? Boy or girl?” This is what you call “biological gender.”

But Italian assigns all nouns a gender. That’s right, every person, place and thing from pizzas to piazzas and everything between is considered either masculine or feminine in Italian. When the noun is a living creature, its gender reflects biology: “uomo” (man) is a masculine noun, “donna” (woman) a feminine one. For everything else, the distinction is purely grammatical and arbitrary. Nothing in the thing itself will give you any hint about its grammatical gender. It’s just an old grammatical convention.

So how do you determine the grammatical gender of inanimate nouns in Italian? In a great many cases, the noun has a built-in hint: if it ends in “o”, it's masculine; if it ends in “a” it’s feminine.

The only tricky ones are the ones that end in “e”. These can be either or and you have to memorize their gender as you learn them, but here are a few guidelines:

Nouns that end in -ore or -iere are masculine. Nouns that end in -rice or -zione are feminine.

Nouns imported into Italian unchanged from English (which typically don't end in a vowel at all) are masculine.

Now you know all about Italian grammatical gender. It might seem like a silly thing to have learned but gender has a ripple effect all throughout the language, so you really have to master it. Visit the activities section for practice. Ciao for now!


how do i know which subject pronoun to use?

Do you sometimes get mixed up between voi and loro? Understanding the logic behind the subject pronouns should forever clear up any confusion they may cause you.

Which subject pronoun you use all depends on two factors: who’s doing the action and where that person stands in relation to the speaker.

If the speaker is the person doing the action, you use io.

If the person the speaker is speaking to is doing the action, you use tu. Or, to show respect, Lei.

If the person the speaker is speaking about is doing the action, you use lui or lei depending on the person’s gender.

If the speaker and the person or people the speaker is speaking to are doing the action together, you use noi.

If the people (more than one person) the speaker is speaking to are doing the action, you use voi. Voi is kind of like tu except you use it when you’re addressing more than one person. It’s like “yous guys” in English.

And if the people (again plural) the speaker is speaking about are doing the action, you use loro. Loro is kind of like lui and lei except again you use it for more than one person.

So you use voi when you are speaking to more than one person. You use loro when you are speaking about more than one person. 


pep talk

What’s the biggest obstacle you face in learning a new language? It’s not a cognitive one. It has nothing to do with intelligence or mental capacity. The biggest obstacle is an emotional one.

Most people find learning or functioning in a new language HUMILIATING. You feel self-conscious and embarrassed. You’re ashamed when you make a gaff. Your confidence goes down the toilet. You feel like a small child again. Things five-year-old native speakers can breeze through easily, you trip over like a clumsy buffoon.

To succeed in learning a new language, you don’t need a strong brain, you need a strong ego. Relax. Who cares if you mess up? In Italian we say, “Sbagliando si impara” – mistakes are the best teachers. Never pin your self-worth on the speed and ease with which you pick things up. Chi va piano va lontano. You’ll get it in time.

Always remember, it took you four or five years to learn English as an infant. Why should a second language take less?


to be or not to be

Today we're going to learn the Italian equivalent of the verb "to be".

But first, what exactly is a verb?

A verb is a playa, it’s got game, it's got it going on. A verb is a linguistic go-to guy - it gets things done. A verb is all that. It's a mover and shaker, a high roller. It’s a jet setter. It has all the fun. Verbs make the world go round. Nothing gets done without a verb.

A verb is a word you use to describe an action or event, what a person, place or thing is doing or what happened.

In the dictionary, all English verbs start with “to” – to eat, to sleep, to be. This dictionary form has a fancy name in grammarspeak: “the infinitive.”

This is the verb in its pure original form, off the rack.

But just like jeans off the rack, before you can “put the verb on” so to speak, you have to alter it to fit your particular dimensions.

You don’t say, “Hi, I to be Pino, who you to be?”

You change “to be” when you use it, sometimes to “am”, sometimes to “are”, sometimes to “is”, depending who's “doing the being”.

Changing a verb in this way, altering it like a pair of jeans off the rack to fit the person doing it, is known as “conjugating”.

Most verbs, in both English and Italian, alter according to a regular, predictable pattern.

I walk

you walk

he walks

I eat

you eat

he eats

I swim

you swim

he swims

Notice how for all three totally unrelated English verbs we added “s” in the “he” form? That’s because these are all regular verbs. You alter them according to a constant predictable pattern.

But look at “to be”.

I am

you are

he is

Here the verb changes completely for each person doing it. It doesn’t follow the pattern we saw above. It’s irregular.

Italian is the same way. Most verbs are regular, but some are “special”.

Today you’re going to learn your first irregular Italian verb, the equivalent of “to be”: essere.

essere – to be

io sono

tu sei

Lei e’

lui/lei e’

noi siamo

voi siete

loro sono

Memorize the forms of this verb. Then you can have fun telling your boss, “Signore, Lei e’ grasso e brutto.” (Sir, you are fat and ugly.)


subject pronouns

What do you mean by "subject"?

The grammatical “subject” of a sentence is the person, place or thing doing an action. So in the sentence, "Tom jumps," the subject is Tom - he's the one jumping.

What do you mean by "pronoun"?

After you mention a person, place or thing specifically once or twice, you usually refer to it again using a “pronoun”. So a pronoun is just a short word that refers to a previously mentioned person, place or thing. You use pronouns to avoid sounding clumsy and repetitive.

OK so what's a "subject pronoun"? 

This is just the pronoun you use to refer to the subject of the sentence, the person place or thing doing the action. In English these are…









In Italian they are…

io (I)

tu (you, informal)

Lei (you, formal)

lui (he)

lei (she)

noi (we)

voi (you, when addressing more than one person)

loro (they)

Unlike “I”, “io” is not capitalized.

There is no Italian for “it”.

You use Lei instead of tu when you want to be really polite and respectful towards people your own age or older before you get to know them, and towards “people of rank”. When in doubt, use Lei. Do not use it with children though.

Now you know the Italian subject pronouns.

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