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When trying to write in Italian, I always feel insecure about the use of partitive articles. For instance, what should I say:

In questa fotografia ci sono piccole case in legno

or

In questa fotografia ci sono delle piccole case in legno?


Nella mia scuola ci sono insegnanti italiani

or

Nella mia scuola ci sono degli insegnanti italiani?

  • Personally I would not use the partitive in those cases. – egreg Aug 28 '14 at 17:44
  • It depends on what do you want to say. For example I'd interpret Nella mia scuola ci sono insegnanti italiani as if you wanted to say that all teachers are Italian, while, adding degli, you stress the fact that there are teachers who are not Italian. In the same way I'd interpret In questa fotografia ci sono piccole case di legno as if you were saying that the only things you can see in the picture are small wood houses, while adding delle you open the possibility that the picture simply contains some small wood houses, possibly with something else. – Bakuriu Aug 28 '14 at 19:33
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    @Bakuriu, but it could also be the other way around: ci sono insegnanti italiani might be interpreted as, yes, there are at least two, without specifying whether they are few or many; ci sono degli insegnanti italiani could then be interpreted as yes, there are a few, at least two but few with respect to all others. So, if you want to state the mere existence of something (plural), you omit the partitive article; if you want to stress the relative scarcity of something, you use it. – user193 Aug 28 '14 at 20:48
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    @Bakuriu If I want to say that all teachers in my schoola are Italian, I'd use gli insegnanti nella mia scuola sono italiani. – egreg Aug 28 '14 at 21:16
  • I did not state that the sentence is not ambiguous. I just pointed out one possible interpretation. That's also why we can use other words to clarify what we mean (e.g. ci sono solo insegnanti italiani). – Bakuriu Aug 29 '14 at 6:50
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In the sentence

In questa fotografia ci sono delle piccole case in legno

you are saying that you see a bunch of small wooden houses, more than two but relatively few. The form 'delle piccole case' is the plural of 'una piccola casa', the partitive article delle acts as the plural of indefinite article una and can easily be replaced with 'alcune', i.e. 'some' in English.

If you say

In questa fotografia ci sono piccole case in legno

without any particular emphasis, most people would understand that there are at least two small wooden houses, without making specific assumptions whether these are few or many; as per egreg's comment, this might be enough. However, as pointed out by Bakuriu, depending on intonation, pauses, context, etc., people might even think that small wooden houses is all that you can really see in the picture.

The same applies to your other example.

My point of view is that the use of partitive articles depends on whether you intend to specify the relative scarcity of something or not. For example, in poetry, partitive articles can be omitted to create a sense of indefiniteness, vagueness:

Navi vanno laggiù e cercano nel vento il nuovo orientamento della rotta alle Indie

Are all ships going there? Only few of them? More and more everyday? After all, the fact that ships are going there is more important than their number: they are changing the world alright.

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