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The learning resources I'm using suggest the following formats to state the time of day (emphasis mine):

  • Le undici del mattino
  • Le due del pomeriggio
  • Le nove di sera

Why do mattino / pomeriggio use the definite article ("del") but sera does not ("di")?

Are the following alternatives correct and, if so, idiomatic?

  • Le undici di mattino
  • Le due di pomeriggio
  • Le nove della sera

1 Answer 1

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It depends.

The differences are mostly dictated by the evolution of the language, including the influence of regional aspects. Also, since these verbal forms are extremely common, it's also easy to have differences in the way they may be (or were/will be) accepted, including dialectal influences.

It's also worth noticing that there are both masculine and feminine forms of "morning" in Italian: mattino and mattina; they are fundamentally identical but not always interchangeable.

Nowadays, the feminine "mattina" is the most common, except for established forms like the one you mention, and some "literary/poetic" expression; depending on the situation, the masculine normally requires the article, but, generally, there is no absolute consistence.

Morning as an absolute reference in time:

  • "this morning": "questa mattina", not "questo mattino";
  • "that morning": "quella mattina"; "quel mattino" is also accepted, but has a slightly "solemn" meaning;

As a generic time reference:

  • "lavoro di mattina", "lavoro [al]la mattina"; "lavoro il mattino" is less frequent but also acceptable;
  • "il mattino" or "la mattina", partially interchangeable when indicating the time after dawn of any day is the subject; sometimes, "il mattino" is felt more poetical or formal, while "la mattina" has a more casual attitude;

Interestingly enough, consider the following:

  • "il mattino ha l'oro in bocca" (a proverb similar to "The early bird catches the worm");
  • "la mattina mi alzo presto" ("I get up early in the morning");

Changing to "la mattina ha l'oro in bocca" would be grammatically acceptable, but it would slightly deviate from the known proverb, which has a somehow established phonetic form. There are some results for the exact phrase, but the masculine form is much more common (~8000 results for "la mattina" against more than 160 thousands for "il mattino").

Controversially, using "il mattino mi alzo presto" wouldn't be wrong, but would sound a bit archaic, but "mi alzo presto al mattino" (or "al mattino mi alzo presto") is completely acceptable.

Note that the above may change depending on the role of the word "morning" in the phrase, also considering common conventions:

  • a phrase like "the morning is the beginning of a new day" may use both "il mattino" and "la mattina" (see above);
  • "what do you do on mornings?" could be "cosa fai di mattina?", "cosa fai al mattino?" "cosa fai la mattina?", while "cosa fai di mattino?" is a bit odd, but less than "cosa fai alla mattina?" would;
  • "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" was localized as "Mi piace l'odore del napalm al mattino", but other acceptable forms would have been "di mattina", "di mattino" and even "alla mattina"; note that, while all those forms are conceptually identical, their semantics are not equal: the usage of the article instead of the simple preposition may elevate the importance of the noun within the phrase context, but, interestingly enough, "alla mattina" may have given an odd sound to the phrase due to the more generic and less aulic usage of the word genre, even if it's not technically wrong per se: using "alla mattina" would have been perfect for a morning snack commercial, or for some black-humor sarcasm, but probably not to highlight bombings in the pseudo-heroic sense intended for that particular scene;

Also note that some of the above examples are technically wrong, grammatically speaking, even if they are accepted for spoken language, if not by established convention. Most notably, the usage of the indeterminate article as opposite to the composed preposition, which brings us to the next point.

Consider the phrase "what do you do during <period of the day>?".

Common forms use "di mattina/la mattina", "al mattino", "di/nel pomeriggio" (also, rarely, "al pomeriggio" or "il pomeriggio"), "di/la sera", "di notte/la notte", while, theoretically speaking, every form using the article should use "alla", "al" or "durante il/la".

As you can see, there's no logical rule or connection, it's just common usage. And you also have to consider that periods of the day may have different start/end hours depending on both language and location (or even personal habits).

Back to your question, here are the commonly accepted, possible variations:

  • morning hours (usually since 5/6, sometimes used for 3/4, rarely for 1/2):
    • Le nove di mattina
    • L'una del mattino (the masculine form is less common and always requires the full preposition: "L'una di mattino" is odd)
  • afternoon (since 1 to 5, rarely 6 or 7):
    • Le due del pomeriggio
    • Le quattro di pomeriggio (slightly less common)
  • evening (usually since 6 to midnight, rarely up to 2/3):
    • Le nove di sera
  • night hours (since after midnight and up to 4/5):
    • Le due di notte

All other forms are not specifically wrong, it depends on the context: some may be unusual, others a bit "courtly", and you can always use a specific form for semantic reasons.

If you have enough experience with the Italian language, you can check this Accademia della Crusca article on the matter: Di sabato ci vediamo di mattina, la domenica alla sera, e il resto della settimana ci vediamo nel pomeriggio.

Note: my English is mostly self-taught, so many grammar terms I used above are probably wrong; feel free to point them out and/or edit my post.

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