How would you describe "a" in these two sentences?

Organo a canne - Pipe organ.
Giocare a biliardo - Playing (to play) billiards.

Usually "a" means "to".

Tornate a Parigi? - Do you come back to Paris?

It is a bit weird for me to think of "organ to pipes" and "playing to billiards". Please explain.

  • 6
    There's very rarely a perfect correspondence of prepositions in different languages.
    – egreg
    Jan 5, 2020 at 13:30
  • 3
    Translating Italian expression into English and pondering about the English expressions won't get you anywhere. :) Italian, as any other language, has its own rules and uses.
    – DaG
    Jan 5, 2020 at 14:27
  • A volte la "a" è usata per indicare un'importante caratteristica di un oggetto: "organo a canne" per distinguere da "organo elettrico"; significherebbe "che funziona con...". Ma ci sono altri casi: "lasagne al forno" sono lasagne cotte nel forno. Molte volte si tratta di francesismi. E' bene usare quella costruzione solo se si è certi che sia di uso comune perchè non è una costruzione normale nella lingua italiana. Jan 28, 2020 at 17:11

1 Answer 1


The English preposition to corresponds to several Italian prepositions:

I'm going to the sea — Vado al mare
John came to the rescue – Giovanni è venuto in soccorso
Alice came to repair the car – Alice è venuta per riparare l'auto
Philip is an advisor to the boss — Filippo è un consigliere del capo

Conversely, in order to render the Italian preposition a, you have to use different English constructions, like in the examples you mention.

There's rarely perfect correspondence between prepositions in different languages. Italian da can mean from or by (or also other English prepositions), depending on the context.

In the construction organo a canne, the preposition a introduces a “complemento di mezzo”: “organo che suona per mezzo di canne”. English uses a different rendering: pipe organ is “organ that produces sound by pipes”. Similarly, sedia a rotelle is wheelchair; not so similarly, andare a piedi is “going on foot”.

  • What does "a" in Organo a canne? Organ to pipes seems like a weird translation. Does "a" also mean something else than "to"?
    – user5727
    Jan 5, 2020 at 23:40
  • 2
    @Hank Also “sedia a rotelle”, "andare a piedi" and other similar usages; it's a “complemento di mezzo”. So “organo a canne” is "organo che suona per mezzo di canne”. I'm unsure why you aren't surprised that the English translation uses “pipe” (Italian: tubo) instead of "cane” (Italian: canna).
    – egreg
    Jan 6, 2020 at 11:05

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