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Is there any difference between the following sentences?

  • Fa caldo al sud.
  • Fa caldo nel sud.

I have read the first one in a Italian learning tool and I wonder if using "in" instead of "a" is correct/usual.

  • I think both are correct. Searching for examples of "nel sud" and "al sud" at Grande dizionario della lingua italiana, I found, for instance, "un viso come spesso si vede nel sud" (written by Corrado Alvaro) and "Esercito volontario di liberazione nazionale: quello del Regno d’Italia, ricostituito al Sud dopo l’8 settembre 1943" (see here). – Charo Aug 31 '19 at 14:10
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Nel sud used that way is surely atypical, and I'm sure I've never heard it about the weather. A quick Google search (with double quotes) for "caldo al sud" e "caldo nel sud" shows 60k vs 7k results (including "fa", the results are 1.7k vs just 9, including this thread).

You usually use "nel {cardinal point} [of] {geo region}" combined explicitly with a country or geographical region of some kind. You always see al without the explicit reference to the geo region when talking about the weather.

(example) Ho fatto un viaggio nel sud della Scozia ("I went on a trip to the south of Scotland")

(example) forti temporali previsti al nord ("heavy thunderstorms are forecast in the north [of Italy]") (this is not a random example, it's the one of the most common sentences during weather forecasts)

So the possible forms are:

  • al {cardinal point}
  • nel {cardinal point} [di/della/dei/...] {geo region}
  • nel {cardinal point}
  • (bonus) a {cardinal point} (means "sth south/north/east/west of sth else")

The first two have the same meaning: to express that something happened inside the boundaries of that region. You could reformulate your given phrase like this: fa caldo nel sud Italia, and like this it would sound perfectly fine.

The third one can be used if the geographical region has already been determined and it's implicit. It makes more sense if used to talk about something someone did inside the given geo region. Example: "Viaggio nel sud" ("Trip in the south"), a 1958 TV documentary. It has an encyclopedic/documentary meaning. Still, it sounds archaic or even plain wrong to use it to talk about the weather. Why? Probably because our ears are just too used to the main mass medias weather forecasts using "al".

To answer your question: if the implicit geographical region is the same, the sentences can be intended to have the same meaning. The second one just sounds very very odd. Without additional information:

  • with fa caldo al sud, i'd think you mean that "it's hot in the south [of Italy] right now"
  • with fa caldo nel sud, i'd ask you "nel sud di cosa?" ("in the south of what?")
  • with fa caldo nel sud Italia, i'd think you mean that the typical climate in the south of Italy is hot
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    Thanks for the answer! Small correction: I went on a trip to the south of Scotland. Curious that you ears assume "Italia" when you hear "al sud", but they don't do the same when you hear "nel sud". – Alan Evangelista Sep 4 '19 at 0:11
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    Tuttavia, su questo articolo del Corriere della Sera si può leggere: "caldo semi estivo al Sud" e "un’anomala condizione di caldo nel Sud Italia". – Charo Sep 4 '19 at 7:07
  • @AlanEvangelista yeah right thanks for the correction. I think our ears' habit to "al ***" instead of "nel ***" derives from mass media constantly talking about north vs south differences (the most commonly talked about being the weather), and the fact that "al sud" sounds more fluid and shorter than "nel sud" – amm0nium Sep 5 '19 at 14:53
  • @Charo exactly. With "nel" they had to specify "Italia", with "al" the didn't have to, it's implicit – amm0nium Sep 5 '19 at 14:55
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If Sud refers to Southern Italy (capital letter), they are both correct but there is a nuance in meaning. "Fa caldo al Sud" means it's hot right now. "Fa caldo nel Sud" means that Southern Italy is hot in general (with an implied comparison to Northern Italy).

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