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When do you use certain definite articles in the Italian language?

I’m learning on Duolingo and it seems to be random wether a noun has a definite article or not.

I know it’s different to English in the sense that more words are preceded by definite articles, but is there a rule to which ones are and does it rely on the situation?

One example is “La donna mangia panini” (The woman eats sandwiches) but then “La donna mangia le mele” (The woman eats apples) requires a definite article.

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As a first approximation, saying la donna mangia panini, while being a legitimate way to say “the woman eats sandwiches”, sounds slightly wooden, like that's the only thing she eats, a bit like saying that a herbivore feeds on such and such. La donna mangia i panini would mostly mean that she is eating some particular sandwiches we already know about. Finally, la donna mangia dei panini is a possible way to say that she eats (some, generic) sandwiches. Of course, the same holds for la donna mangia -/le/delle mele.

A general coverage of the use in Italian of definite articles (i panini), indefinite articles (un panino), partitive articles (dei panini) or no article at all (panini) would require a book, including situations that, while not at all random, are nevertheless very idiomatic. For instance you often use definite article even with a generic noun, rather than one you have recently mentioned (for instance, I love coffee = Mi piace il caffè).

Sorry to say so, but just with Duolingo you'll never get even close to catching these nuances, said as one who's giving Duolingo a chance but is exasperated by its utter lack of explanations.
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  • What other apps/websites would you suggest to learn with? Sep 5, 2023 at 16:01
  • @Th3Ark1t3kt Duolingo is fine, but it needs to be treated as an exercise book and not enough to learn the language on its own. When learning German I supplemented it with a grammar book, and it worked more or less fine (I also used the Assimil courses at the same time, so I cannot credit only that for my learning outcomes)
    – Denis Nardin
    Sep 5, 2023 at 19:38
  • @DenisNardin: This way, Duolingo is kind of a stone soup... :D
    – DaG
    Sep 5, 2023 at 20:19
  • @DaG No, I don't want to repeat myself, but Duolingo's approach is great for forcing you to do some small exercise every day - which is very valuable in my opinion, especially if you're trying to learn a language in your spare time. As I said, it's a valid exercise book, which is an important component of the language learning process. I would love if it had better explanations and more complex listening exercises, but hey, it's free so why complain :)
    – Denis Nardin
    Sep 5, 2023 at 20:28
  • Yes, I see your point, and indeed I'm presently using it as you say, but often I feel it's not the best way to use my time, even as a portable exercise book. Mostly random exercises, with no context, perhaps repeating stuff I know, and with no connection to the subjects I'm interested in. I'm about to abandon it, and force myself to read or listen a bit every day. (I know: we are going heavily off topic. Sorry!)
    – DaG
    Sep 5, 2023 at 20:40

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