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What is the difference between "fare la spesa" and "fare spese"? What items are bought when using "fare la spesa" and what when using, "Fare spese"?

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This is well explained in the entry for spesa on the Treccani website.

In particular fare la spesa has a peculiar meaning:

Nell’uso fam., sempre al sing., gli acquisti che si fanno ogni giorno, o quasi ogni giorno, dei generi alimentari o dei prodotti di uso domestico necessarî per il sostentamento di una famiglia o di una collettività

While fare spese is something very similar to shopping.

In other words use fare la spesa for "routine shopping" where you buy food, or other basic goods. Use fare spese when you want to translate shopping.


Also note that fare le spese di can figuratively mean (again from Treccani):

sopportarne il maggior onere e disagio a vantaggio di altri: è lui che ha fatto le spese della serata, in quanto è stato l’oggetto dei discorsi, degli scherzi altrui.

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    I basically agree, but, @Bakuriu, mind the fact that the English word “shopping” and the way it is used in Italian do not agree. The former is actually nearer to “la spesa”, especially in such phrases like “a bag of shopping”, while Italian “shopping” is more about having a look at shops and windows with clothing, shoes and the like. – DaG Apr 6 '14 at 15:02
  • "fare spese" could be "browsing shops" in English. Browse: To look casually over articles for sale. – Any Body Apr 12 '16 at 8:12
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Fare la spesa is basically when you go to the supermarket to buy food for your family (like on a weekly basis).

Fare spese is more like going to the mall, hanging out and going from one shop to the other, see if there is something interesting you may decide to buy (it's more the kind of shopping usually women like to do, just to give you an idea of what fare spese means).

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fare la spesa means food/grocery items; fare spese usually means clothes.

As others have pointed out, fare la spesa normally means you will buy something.

Fare spese implies that you might buy something.

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