Italian Preposition “a” or “in”?

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The Italian “a” can be translated as both “to” or “in” in English.  The Italian “in” is translated the same as in English — “in”! Both prepositions a and in can be used to describe where someone is going and where a person of thing is located. But each preposition has its own particular role to play to fulfill this function. If we learn how to use the Italian prepositions “a” and “in” correctly, we will truly sound like a native Italian!”

 

Use the Italian “a” or “in”
for a Country, Region, or City

Americans and Italians use the prepositions that mean to and in differently. For instance, when Americans travel, they travel to a place – to Italy, to Tuscany, to Florence. American English speakers always use to as the preposition, whether they mention that they are traveling to a general region or a specific town. Of course, when an American reaches their destination, he or she will be located in that place and then say, “I am in Italy, in Tuscany, or in Rome,” meaning that he or she can be found there.

In Italian, however, the type of place is linked to the preposition used; there is no distinction made in Italian between traveling “to” a place or being “in” the place itself.

Italians travel directly into (in) a country, region, or large island,
but to (a) a city, town, or small island.

Once an Italian has arrived at a certain place, the same preposition that was used to describe traveling to that place applies. Or, if one is living in a place, the prepositions “a” and “in” will be used according to the size of the place, as described in the rule in quotes above. Again, the Italian prepositions “a” and “in” are linked to the place that is being described.

Let’s see how an Italian would answer the polite question, “Dove va per il suo viaggio?” “Where are you going on your trip?” The answer in Italian for someone taking a trip to America, depending on how specific they would like to be, is as follows: “Vado in America, in Illinois, e a Chicago.” “I am going to America, to Illinois, and to Chicago.” Notice that the English prepositions are the same, although the Italian prepositions change, depending on the size of the place that the preposition is linked to.

Also, what we call “states” in America are treated the same as “regions” in Italy when assigning a preposition in Italian. It would seem simple enough to use the Italian preposition in to describe an American state, given that most states in America are fairly large. Notice that “in Illinois” is given in the example above.

But… of course there are some exceptions, and not all states in the United States take the Italian preposition in when speaking about them in Italian. There are enough exceptions, in fact, that this will be the subject of a future blog! For now, we’ll talk about one important exception: New York State. The reason for the exception for New York State is that the Italian focus tends to be on New York City, rather than the rural areas that make up most of in New York State. As in America, the word “city” is left out of ordinary conversation. “Vado a New York,” means, “I am going to New York City.” To emphasize that one is traveling to the state of New York, i.e. somewhere outside of New York City, by convention the phrase would be, “Vado allo stato di New York,” for “I am going to the state of New York.” In this case, the preposition a is combined with the definite article lo to make “allo,” according to the usual rule [a+lo = allo].

The polite question, “Dove abita?” forWhere do you live?” when answered uses the same prepositions for each location as described above. Here is an answer someone who lives in Italy might give, with the different options: Abito in Italia, in Toscana, e a Firenze.” “I live in Italy, in Tuscany, and in Florence.” Notice that the Italian prepositions have not changed compared with our example in the last paragraph!

Islands have their own special preposition rules in Italian. One travels “into” the large islands — in Sicilia or in Sardegna — but “to” the smaller islands using “a.” For instance, to go to the small Italian island of Capri one would say, “a Capri.” When traveling to a group of islands, such as Hawaii, the convention is to use [alle + island], leaving out the plural noun isole that alle modifies. Example: “ Vado alle (isole di) Hawaii.” “I am going to Hawaii.” Of course, the same prepositions  apply if one is living on the islands mentioned. Notice again that with alle we have combined our preposition with a definite article. (A detailed explanation of the procedure used is beyond the scope of this blog.)

Check out the table for a summary of the examples above. Of course, where someone is traveling to or is located at a particular during a particular time comes up often in conversation, and there are many variations on these questions! The answers will, of course, follow the rules for Italian prepositions outlined above.

Dove va per il suo viaggio? Where are you going on your trip?
Vado in America. I am going to America.
Vado in Illinois/
allo stato di New York.
I am going to Illinois/
(the state of) New York.
Vado a Chicago/
a New York.
I am going to Chicago/
New York City.
Dove abita? Where do you live?
Abito in Italia. I live in Italy.
Abito in Toscana. I live in Tuscany.
Abito a Firenze. I live in Florence.
Abito in Sicilia. I live in Sicily.
Abito in Sardegna. I live in Sardinia.
Abito a Capri. I live on Capri.
Abito alle Hawaii. I live on (the islands of) Hawaii.

 


Italian Definite Article
with Countries

By convention, the definite article (the) (il, la, or l’) is used to refer to countries, except when talking about traveling directly into them!  So if someone should ask politely, “Da dove viene?” “Where are you from?” an Italian would answer, “L’Italia,” and an American would say, “L’America” or “Gli Stati Uniti.” 

Below is a table that lists many of the countries in the world and the Italian definite article that applies to each, along with the Italian names for several capital cities. To remember this important point, gather some friends and sit around a table in front of a map of the world. Take turns asking a question about each country’s location, such as, “Dov’è l’America?” A friend can answer, “Ecco l’America!” while pointing to America on the map. This exercise will also reinforce the idea that the word “ecco” for “here is/here are” is used to point out something in plain site.

Of course, there is no need to memorize this entire table. Just remember the correct definite article for where you and your family and friends are from for easy conversation!

 

Europe l’Europa Africa l’Africa
Austria l’Austria Asia l’Asia
Belgium il Belgio Central America l’America Centrale
 Brussels  Bruxelles Europe l’Europa
Denmark la Danimarca Middle East il Medio Oriente
England       l’Inghilterra North America l’America del nord
 London  Londra South America l’America del sud
France la Francia Australia l’Australia
 Paris  Parigi
Germany la Germania Argentina l’Argentina
 Berlin  Berlino Brazil il Brasile
Greece la Grecia Canada il Canada*
 Athens  Atene Chile il Cile
Holland l’Olanda China la Cina
 Amsterdam  Amsterdam Egypt l’Egitto
Ireland l’Irlanda Cairo  il Cairo**
 Dublin  Dublino India l’India
Italy l’Italia Indonesia l’Indonesia
 Rome  Roma Japan il Giappone
Norway la Norvegia Korea la Corea
Poland la Polonia Mexico il Messico
Portugal il Portogallo Pakistan il Pakistan
 Lisbon  Lisbona Russia la Russia
Scandanavia la Scandanavia Moscow  Mosca
Spain la Spagna Turkey la Turchia
 Madrid  Madrid United States gli Stati Uniti
Sweden la Svezia Viet Nam il Vietnam
Switzerland la Svizzera

*Il Canada uses the masculine definite article.

**In this case, il Cairo is the name of the city, rather than the noun Cairo alone, by convention.

 


 

Use the Italian “a” or “in”
for Places Around Town

As mentioned in the first section, in the Italian language, every place is linked to its own preposition, which describes both going to and being located in the place — either “a” or “in.” Remember, there is no distinction made in Italian between traveling “to” a place or being “in” the place itself. This rule is important when inviting someone to join you for activities around town.  In Italian, you’ll need to ask someone if they want to go to a certain place, with “a,” or in a certain place, with “in.”

When using the Italian preposition “a,” the preposition a must be combined with the Italian definite article (il, lo, la, l’) that precedes the noun for the name of the place. The only exceptions to this rule are the Italian words for theater and house or home, which do  not take a definite article. For all other nouns of place, the best way to remember the Italian preposition and definite article is to memorize both when learning the meaning of the noun. 

It is tempting to try to find a pattern for preposition use for Italian stores and other venues around the piazza. But there is no grammatical rule to fall back on in this instance.

It should also be noted that many verbs of going and returning, such as andare and venire, are automatically followed by the Italian preposition a when linked to another verb (see the next section).

Use the common phrases below  to invite a friend out for a good time in order to remember which preposition to use!  Included are several helpful introductory lines that can be used prior to the invitation. As you can see, knowing your Italian prepositions can even help to build a closer friendship!

 

 

Perché non ci vediamo? Let’s get together.
(lit. Why don’t we get together/see each other?)
Hai tempo domani? Do you have time tomorrow?
Posso rivederti domani? May I see you again tomorrow?
Sei libera(o) domani, Are you free (to female/male) tomorrow,
domani sera, tomorrow night,
la settimana prossima? next week?
Posso invitarla/ti a cena? May I invite you (pol.)/(fam.) to dinner?
al bar? to a (coffee) bar?
al caffé? to a cafe?
in pizzeria? to a pizzeria?
a casa mia? to my house?
Ti piacerebbe/Vuoi… Would you like to/Do you want to…
andare in piazza? go to the piazza?
andare in chiesa? go to church?
andare al cinema?
andare a teatro?
go to the movies?
go to the theater?
andare al concerto? go to the concert?
andare allo spettacolo? go to the show (performance)?
andare alla mostra? go to the show (exhibit)?
andare al museo? go to the museum?
andare a ballare? go dancing?
andare in ufficio? go to the office?
 
Ti piacerebbe/Vuoi … Would you like to/Do you want to…
venire con noi… come with us…
in spiaggia / al mare? to the beach / to the sea?
in montagna? to the mountains?
in campagna? to the countryside?

 


When to use “a”
to Link Italian Verbs

 

There are some Italian action verbs that need to be followed by the preposition a before an infinitive verb is added to complete the sentence. This may seem a little redundant to the English speaker, since in English infinitive verbs already include the word “to.”  For instance, the translation of the Italian infinitive verb andare is “to go.” To the Italian speaker, though, it is natural to insert the preposition a between certain conjugated verbs and an infinitive verb — Italian phrases just sound correct this way!

As examples, remember the important phrases “andare a trovare” and “venire a trovare” that mean “to go to visit” and “to come to visit.”  These phrases are used to describe visiting people; to visit a place, use visitare.  Riuscire is also used on a daily basis to describe the effort one has been putting into a specific action. Try to listen for the “a” when you hear the verbs in the list below and soon it will become natural for you, also, to combine these verbs correctly.

aiutare to help
Aiuto mia mamma a.…cucinare la cena.
I help my mother to cook (the) dinner.
 
andare to go
Mamma va a.…fare la spesa ogni mattina.
Mother goes grocery shopping every morning.
cominciare to start
Comincio a.…cucinare la cena.
I start (am starting) to cook (the) dinner.
divertirsi to enjoy onself
Mi diverto a…suonare il violino.
I enjoy playing the violin.
imparare to learn
Tutti imparano a.…parlare italiano.
Everyone learns to speak Italian.
insegnare to teach
Lei insegna a.…scrivere la lingua francese.
She teaches (how to) write French.
invitare to invite
Lui  mi invita a…mangiare al ristorante.
He invites (is inviting) me to eat at the restaurant.
mandare to send
Io mando Pietro a…prendere una pizza.
I send Peter to get a pizza.
prepararsi to get ready
Mi preparo ad…andare in Italia.
I am getting ready to go to Italy.
riuscire to be able to/manage
Non riesco a… trovare le chiavi.
I can’t manage to find the keys.
venire to come
Caterina viene a… trovare i suoi cugini.
Kathy comes to visit her cousins.

 


 

Use the Italian “a” or “in”
in Reference to Time

In a previous blog in this series, “How to Use ‘Di’ in Italian, we discussed that the preposition di is used to refer to the general time of day with the phrases di mattina, di pomeriggio, di sera, and di notte.

We also mentioned in the same blog that both di and in are used to refer to the seasons: d’estate, d’inverno, in primavera, in autunno.

The Italian prepositions a and in also have a role to play when describing units of time.

When referring to the month that something is going to happen, either a or in can be used. English always uses in.

Andiamo a Roma a giugno / in giugno.
We will go to Rome in June.

 

The question, “A che ora succede (qualcosa)?” “At what hour does (something) happen?” is answered with the phrase [alle + number]. In this case, the Italian “a” means “at.”

Andiamo alle sei e trenta. / Andiamo alle sei e mezzo.
Let’s go at 6:30.

 


 

When “a” Means “By”

Sometimes the Italian preposition “a” is translated into “by” in English. For instance, we say that an article of clothing is made “by hand” to refer to human, rather than machine labor. In Italian, the phrase is “a mano.” A similar phrase is “fatto a casa” for “homemade.” 

To learn something “by heart” is  to “imparare a memoria.” 

Also use “a” in Italian to describe what type of energy something “runs by/on.”

Quest’orologio funziona a batteria.
This watch runs by battery.

Other types of combustible energy a machine can run on include: a energia solare, a benzina, a gas, a legno for by… solar energy, benzine, gas, wood).

One can also run on “people energy” when walking by foot (a piedi) or take advantage of an animal’s energy when riding a horse (a cavallo).

Note: electric energy does not require a preposition! L’elettricità = the electricity and una macchina elettrico = an electric machine.

 


When “in” Means “Made of”

In the previous blog, “How to Use ‘Di’ in Italian, we discussed how to use the preposition di to describe what something is composed of, as well as the exception with materials that require “in” as the preposition. To repeat, by convention, for all metals that are not gold (oro) and for the cloth velvet (veluto) use the Italian preposition in prior to mentioning the material.

Questa è una scultura in bronzo.
This is a sculpture made of bronze.

La vecchia poltrona è stata rivestita in velluto.
The old chair was restored with velevet cloth.

 


Using “a” to Refer to Age

In a previous blog in this series, “How to Use ‘Di’ in Italian, we discussed that the preposition di is used to state the age of an acquaintance or even a bottle of wine; use di as part of a phrase  before the number of years, as in una signora di 82 anni. “

One can also simply say, “at [number of] years,” in Italian, just like in English, by using the Italian preposition “a” for “at.”

Pietro si è laureato all’Università a ventidue anni.
Peter graduated from college at 22 years.

Mi sono sposata a venticinque anni.
I got married at 25 years old.

 

Remember when saying the specific phrase, “at your age” that Italian requires the “a” for “at” to be combined with the definite article to make the possessive “your.”

Per favore, nonna, alla tua età, non lavorare più!
Please, grandma, at your age, don’t work any more!

 


Getting  “in” and “out”
of Transportation

Note that different prepositions are used for cars vs. other forms of transportation when using the Italian verb salire to describe getting in. Salire has an irregular conjugation, with two forms given below. Note also and how the preposition su (on) is combined with the different forms of the (il, la, l’).  

Salgo in macchina.                               I get into the car.
Sali in macchina                                 Get into the car! (fam. command)

 

Salgo su                                            I get on/I board/I go aboard…

Salgo… sull’autobus, sul treno, sulla motocicletta, sulla bicicletta, sull’areo.

I get onto… the bus, the train, the motorcycle, the bicycle, the airplane.

 

Remember when to use
the Italian prepositions “a” and “di” in conversation
and I guarantee you will use these prepositions every day!

For “All the Italian you need to enjoy your trip to Italy” click on the links for my Conversational Italian for Travelers books  -Kathryn Occhipinti

Conversational Italian for Travelers books are shown side by side, standing up with "Just the Verbs" on the left and "Just the Grammar" on the right
Conversational Italian for Travelers “Just the Grammar” and “Just the Verbs” books: Available on  amazon.com  and Learn Travel Italian.com
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Conversational Italian for Travelers “Just the Important Phrases” book downloaded onto a cell phone from www.learntravelitalian.com

 

About Kathryn Occhipinti

Dr. Kathryn Occhipinti is a radiologist who has been leading Italian language groups in the Peoria and Chicago areas for more than 10 years. She is the author of the “Conversational Italian for Travelers” series of books to teach adults Italian with the vocabulary they need to travel to Italy. She is very active on social media promoting Italian language and culture through her Facebook group Conversational Italian! as well on Twitter @travelitalian1. Links to audio for her Italian language dialogues and her blogs for beginning and intermediate Italian can be found at www.learntravelitalian.com.

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4 comments

  1. very helpful blog, grazie

    L’ottavo giorno il Signore creò le lingue. Il nono giorno il Diavolo creò le preposizioni.

    I don’t mean to single out Italian, all prepositions are difficult in all languages.

    • Kathryn Occhipinti

      Grazie David! Mi piace molto, “I eighth day God created languages. The ninth day the devil created the prepositions.” I’ve noticed that the preposition use from our native language stays with us and trips us up in little ways, whether we are proficient in our second language or not! But it is always fun to try to understand how another culture views prepositions, and thereby their world.

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