I've stumbled upon the following cases:

  • Da (spelled this way this word means from)
  • (spelled this way this word means he/she/it gives)
  • Da'(spelled this way this word means give (second person imperative form of "to give")

Clearly in this case one needs to distinguish between two verb forms and hence must choose whether to write a grave accent or an apostrophe accordingly in proper writing.

I wonder whether there are other "trichotomous" words like this, or perhaps even "quadrichotomous" ones involving the acute accent as well, involving the use the apostrophe to produce a word having yet another separate meaning. (?)



I did not realize it at first, but perhaps, besides for reasons of disambiguation, another reason why Da' is written with an apostrophe is that it is a shortened version of Dai which can also work as a second person imperative in some contexts (e.g. Dai a Cesare quel che è di Cesare, (literally: Give Julius Caesar what Julius Caesar owns)). Hence, the apostrophe works just like in the word po' which is an abbreviation of poco (not to be confused with Po which is the name of the longest river entirely contained within Italy and is its only other near homonym) or the definite feminine article l' which is an abbreviation of the full definite feminine article la used before nouns starting with a vowel.


  • 3
    Nice question, John!
    – DaG
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 19:27

3 Answers 3


I don't know "trichotomous" or "quadrichotomous" words other than the ones mentioned in the question and by @DaG, but there are plenty "dicotomous" words, whose third form represents a common error:

  • Fa => musical note, third person of the present indicative of "fare" (to do) / fa' => imperative of fare, second person singular;
  • Sta => third person singular of the present indicative for stare (to stay)/ sta' => second person singular of the imperative of stare;
  • La => musical note, definite article/ là => there;
  • Li => pronoun/ lì => there;
  • Va => must be, has-have to be, third person singular of the present indicative for andare (to go)/ va' => imperative for andare, second person singular;
  • Ne => pronoun/ né => nor/ ne' => in (elision of nei);
  • Si => pronoun/ Sì => yes;
  • Te => pronoun/ Tè => beverage.

Fà, stà, la', li', và, ne', si' and te', as I said before, represent common orthographic errors and should be avoided.
Fa', sta' and va' are a shortened version of "fai", "stai" and "dai", where the last letter has been suppressed and replaced by an accent. This happens in order to make those verbs easier to pronounce in some cases, but it is absolutely correct to use the extended forms.
Edit: it seems that fa',sta' and va' developed indipendently from fai, stai and dai.

  • Thank you @Stubborn, your illustrative post was constructive. However, allow me to comment that in all of the above cases, just as with the example in my original question, the reason why fa', sta', and va' (which are second person imperatives of the verbs to do, to remain/to stay, and to go) are spelled with an apostrophe rather than with a grave accent is that they are contractions of the longer and somewhat less informal but also informal and still frequantly used forms fai, stai, and vai. Perhaps you can update your answer accordingly. Regards. Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 20:12
  • 1
    @JohnSonderson you're right, do you suggest me to remove those points from my answer or just explain that?
    – Stubborn
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 20:24
  • no, your answer is great, don't delete the points. Perhaps just add a short explanation outlining how elision works with some words in Italian which get abbreviated to their shorter forms thus ending up with an apostrophe added at the end in case I have omitted something from my original post. Thanks! Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 20:27
  • 2
    Great answer: let me add that Treccani records also a ne’ article, as an elision of nei, so “ne” would be a “trichotomous” example too. (And please correct to .)
    – DaG
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 23:13
  • 1
    The forms fa', sta' and so on are not “abbreviated forms” of fai, stai and so on. They're not even elisions, but independent alternative forms.
    – egreg
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 0:06

Off the top of my head, hoping in further contributions:

  • e meaning “and”;
  • è meaning “(he/she/it) is”;
  • e' ancient (also used in modern Tuscan), truncated form for ei, that is, egli (“he”) or essi ("they"). As this word is a proclitic word, it is pronounced together with the following word which is the one that is stressed. Another archaic and modern Tuscan usages of e' include alternatives to i (masculine plural article) or e i (the conjunction and followed by the masculine plural article).
  • Di: preposition, "of", "from" and others. Il libro di Marco.
  • : substantive, a bit antiquated/literary but still used here and there, "day". La sera del dì di festa.
  • Di': imperative of "dire". Di' la verità.

Edit: perhaps also:

  • Ne: adverb, pronoun (does not have an english counterpart). Non ne sapevo nulla.
  • : conjunction, "neither/nor". Né l'uno né l'altro mi piacciono.
  • Ne': poetic/literary/regional variant for "nei", no longer used. Già mi pasco ne' tuoi sguardi.

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