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I am trying to learn basic Italian. One thing that, as a native English speaker, I find very confusing is the apparent lack of a need to supply in/definite articles.

So for example take the phrase "Io cucino il pollo". The literal translation of this is "I cook the chicken". However, I'm given to understand that the actual translation is "I cook chicken". Another example might be "Mangio formaggio" which literally translates as "Eat cheese" but which is understood as "I eat cheese".

While these differences may seem small in English the sentence structure does render them subtly different. "I cook the chicken" is a statement which implies a definite chicken to be cooked whereas "I cook chicken" is more of a question or a generalisation.

Do these subtle differences just not exist in Italian? Or is there another way of phrasing the sentences to make the difference understood? Either way, is there any consistency or rule here I can use as an aid to learning and remembering?

  • Welcome to Italian.SE! – Charo Sep 1 '16 at 9:50
  • Welcome! While in the cases you're talking about English and Italian don't really differ in the usage of articles, there are other situations where they do. For instance in the usage of articles would become nell'uso degli articoli (or, maybe better, nell'uso dell'articolo). – egreg Sep 1 '16 at 10:20
  • «Another example might be "Mangio formaggio" which literally translates as "Eat cheese" but which is understood as "I eat cheese"»: this would be a subject for a different question, about the fact the Italian often omits an explicit subject; no articles involved here, in either language. – DaG Sep 1 '16 at 13:47
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    While not the same as your question (and in one case with no accepted answer), you might find this question and this question and some of their comments and answers interesting. – DaG Sep 1 '16 at 13:50
  • @DaG My word. The first of those is close to a duplicate of this, and the answer is enough to put me off trying to learn 0_o – Bob Tway Sep 1 '16 at 13:57
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There is another issue in your examples that complicates the problem, and it is the difference between present simple and present continuous. I believe that there are three different concepts that you may want to express; here they are with their most idiomatic translations (in my opinion).

  • I cook chicken, in general, as a habit: Cucino il pollo. As you noted, in Italian definite articles are often used in a generic meaning that is not present in English.
  • I am cooking chicken, in this specific moment (but it doesn't matter which chicken): Sto cucinando il pollo, or also Sto cucinando un pollo, or also less formally Cucino il/un pollo. In Italian the present simple is often used also in this sense, especially in spoken form. Sto cucinando pollo, without an article, is less common but it sounds acceptable to me, especially in the form of an answer: Cosa stai cucinando/Cosa cucini? Pollo.
  • I am (now) cooking the chicken; I mean, that specific chicken that we bought yesterday: Sto cucinando quel pollo, or Sto cucinando il/quel pollo che abbiamo comprato ieri.
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You asked two things:

  1. I eat cheese, why don't we use I?
  2. I cook the chicken, why do we use the?

1 : I eat cheese, why don't we use 'I'?

The thing is that in italian we can omit the subject because any predicate has its own different declinations for each of the basical subjects. This means that if you say

Mangio il formaggio

Mangio is used just as first singular person, so it always means I eat.

The reason why you always use I is because the predicate is basically the same for first and second singular and plural persons. Indeed the sentence eat cheese can be used as it is, in english, by the following subjects:

I, you, we, you (multiple people), they

In italian things are different, predicates have their own subject implicitly exposed their declination

First singular Mangio il formaggio | (Hidden I: Io)

Second singular Mangi il formaggio | (Hidden You: Tu)

Third singular Mangia il formaggio | (Hidden He/She: Egli, Ella)

First plural Mangiamo il formaggio | (Hidden We: Noi)

Second plural Mangiate il formaggio | (Hidden You (pl): Voi)

Third plural Mangiano il formaggio | (Hidden They: Essi, Loro)


Please have a look here for further informations about italian regular predicates usage: http://italian.about.com/library/fare/blverbs01.htm


2 : I cook the chicken, why do we use 'the'?

Because in italian we pretty much always use articles.
There are two types of articles, like in english: definite article, and indefinite article.

Definite articles are Il, lo, la, i, gli, le

Undefinite articles are Un, uno, una

The usage is very close to the english but it has an addition: they have to be ever used with common nouns or pronouns. The only exception is with proper nouns, which basically don't need the article (even if in some italian regions the dialect involves the use of it in this way).

Let's go over some example:
Grandmom cooks chicken:

La nonna cucina il pollo

Kim cooks chicken:

Kim cucina il pollo

The exception involves just the proper nouns or pronouns, let's say that common nouns can't be used without articles.

Of course this also means that our definite articles aren't so tight as the english ones. Saying the chicken in english means that specific chicken, while in italian doesn't, even if it could.

Another great example involves the possessive adjectives, here you don't put any kind of article, while we do: indeed my car becomes la mia macchina

About italian possessive adjectives: http://italian.about.com/library/fare/blfare132a.htm

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  • This seems a very helpful answer, thank you. I don't know why it's been downvoted. – Bob Tway Sep 7 '16 at 10:44
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    Because it is actually a mess, @MattThrower: it mixes dubiously-stated general rules, special cases, odd examples, irrelevant stuff (not to mention broken English). And its seemingly clean and useful look makes it worse, as you prove, being misled into believing it useful. – DaG Sep 7 '16 at 17:26
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    In English we speak of declining nouns but conjugating verbs. – PJTraill Sep 7 '16 at 19:10
  • @DaG help me to improve it, then. I've tried to answer as better as I could, I'm not a teacher. – snailer Sep 7 '16 at 22:03

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