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I fell down a rabbit hole when I decided to take on Italian prepositions.
You might not know this yet, but those tiny two and three-letter words are formidable opponents.
They trick you into thinking that they’re easy and then when you try to make conversation, you realize that they’re to blame for tripping you up and stopping your Italian from sounding, well…Italian.
Whether you’re just starting out with Italian or you’ve been on this journey for a while, the mistakes below are ones that learners at every single level of Italian make.
This is because the shades of meaning and the details you need to know to get prepositions right can be miniscule.
But as we’ve just learned, miniscule does not mean unimportant.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
If you’re not even aware of what simple or articulated prepositions are yet, then I suggest you start with the articles below first.
- Simple Prepositions in Italian (or why the smallest words hurt the most)
- Articulated Prepositions in Italian (or the baby makin’ magic that happens when an article marries a preposition)
So why are prepositions so complicated in the first place?
It’s because one preposition, “di” for example, can have six different meanings – of, by, about, from, at, and than.
To make matters worse, the other prepositions – a, da, in, per, su, tra/fra, – share meanings with “di.”
Here’s an example
So how do we remedy this dilemma?
We pay more attention to prepositions when we’re hearing Italian in any context.
We give special attention to our opponents that one day we will triumph over.
Because if we really buckle down and focus, one day, maybe in 3 months, 6 months, or a year, the stuff that used to trip us up will just be a part of the way you think.
It’s like when you learn how to do anything new for the first time – whether it’s how to do something at work or how to ride a bike – and after a while it just becomes a part of the way you function.
Italian prepositions, while they might plague you now, will be like that for you one day.
It’s up to you to decide when.
So what are the 9 reasons you keep making mistakes?
1.) Not knowing which verbs hang out with which prepositions
Let’s say that we want to express this sentence: “She decides to go to New York.”
This is a mistake that I made during one of my lessons on Italki with my tutor (referral link).
I thought that because “a” usually means “to” that it would be the right choice…but I was wrong.
— Not quite right: Decide a andare a New York.
— Right: Decide di andare a New York.
I was wrong because the verb “decidere” takes the “di.”
Certain verbs taking certain prepositions is a common occurrence in Italian.
Another verb that takes the preposition “di” is “ricordare”
Ricordare di – to remember about
— Ricordati di studiare bene la lezione di italiano! – Remember to study hard for the class of Italian.
There are SO MANY verbs like this, so when I was researching everything for the 7-Week Italian Prepositions Challenge, I was inundated by them.
I mean…lists and lists of these things.
2.) Not knowing the sentence structure in Italian
If you wanted to say “I’m leaving the house,” how would you say it?
When I tried to say this, my initial reaction was to say…
“Esco la casa,” which is not right.
In fact, the right way to say it is:
— Esco di casa.
Literally you could think of that as “I’m leaving from home.”
This is another way where knowing Italian sentence structure plays a huge role in using the right preposition and of course, being understood.
We must learn to think in the same structure that Italians think when forming sentences.
What’s even more interesting is that you would never say “Esco di scuola (I’m leaving from school)” or “Esco di lavoro (I’m leaving from work).”
You would need to use the preposition “da” in these cases, so it would be:
— “Esco da scuola” or;
— “Esco dal lavoro.”
3.) Not knowing the difference in meaning between verbs like “Pensare a” and “Pensare di”
And here is where the shades of meaning begin.
What would you say are the differences between “Pensare a” and “Pensare di?”
Pensare di – to think about doing something
— Sto pensando di imparare l’Italiano. – I’m thinking about learning Italian.
Pensare a – to think about something/someone/to concentrate on something
— Pensiamo alla mamma. – We are thinking of our mom.
— Smettila di criticare sempre gli altri e pensa a te stesso – Stop criticizing other people and think about your issues.
There are lots of verbs that change slightly in meaning like this, but can make a big difference when you’re trying to express yourself a certain way.
Remember how we looked at “Decidere” and how it takes the preposition “di”?
Well if we changed the verb slightly to “decidersi” (reflexive verb), it will most likely take the preposition “a,” now and imply that it’s a decision you made after thinking long and hard about it as opposed to “decidere” that’s understood as a decision you just make quickly or with little thought.
4.) Not knowing the everyday, spoken language
A lot of us have had the experience of learning Italian at university and while it provides great structure, it doesn’t always prepare us to have actual conversation with real Italian people.
Meaning, we don’t really learn the everyday, spoken language.
For example, if we wanted say “Lucia’s house,” we might be wise enough to know from our classes to use the preposition “di,” which implies ownership.
So we might say “La casa di Lucia” and feel very accomplished.
This is correct grammatically, but it sounds more natural, more Italian to say “Da Lucia.”
Literally we could think of this as “At Lucia’s.”
Another example of this is:
— Vado dai miei. – I’m going to my parents’ house.
5.) Not knowing a wide range of vocabulary
Another reason Italian learners make mistakes is because they don’t have a wealth of vocabulary to dip into.
Studies show that for the first two years learning a foreign language, we learn something like 2,000 words a year, but once we hit the third year, we falter and learn about 200 words a year.
If you’re in a vocabulary rut, that could be why prepositions are getting in your way, too.
For example, when I started learning vocabulary I couldn’t understand for the life of me why some objects took “di” and some took “da.”
Let me elaborate.
I would see “libro di matematica (math book)” and then “campo da tennis (tennis court)” and not understand why they took different prepositions.
It wasn’t until I realized that the first example, with “di”, has to do with one piece of a larger whole and the second example, with “da”, has to do with purpose.
So the math book is just one book specifically about math in all of the books of the world.
And the tennis court is a court made for the purpose of tennis.
Once I got this down, I made far less mistakes with the preposition “da,” but I still needed to learn specific vocabulary words that took “da” because even though I understand why, I don’t know them all.
6.) Not knowing idioms or common phrases
There are many phrases in Italian that can’t be translated into English that use prepositions.
So you really just have to learn them one by one.
— An example of this would be: “Fuori dai piedi!” – Get out of the way!
If we literally translated it, it would be “Out from the feet,” which sounds odd and makes you wonder if there is something living in your feet that shouldn’t be.
7.) Not knowing which locations are with which preposition
There are certain locations, like the beach or the bar, that require a specific preposition before them.
It’s just a matter of learning and knowing which one to use.
For example, if you wanted to say that you are going to the countryside and you know the word for that is “campagna,” which preposition might you choose?
I used to say “a,” and it’s actually “in.”
— Vado in campagna. – I’m going to the countryside.
Another one would be “to the movie theaters,” and you’re more likey to get this one right if you default to “a” like me because it’s “al cinema.”
CPF: Why isn’t it “alla cinema?”
Because “cinema” is short for the masculine noun “cinematografo.”
Want one from “da,” too?
Let’s say that you’re going to the “lattaio” – a milk/cheese shop in Italy.
You might want to guess “al lattaio” or if you’re feeling dubious “in lattaio,” but it’s actually “dal lattaio.”
8.) Trying to add prepositions where they don’t belong
This category makes me laugh because it’s something I ALWAYS do. I’m always trying ot make the sentence more complicated than it is by adding in prepositions where they don’t belong.
For example, if you wanted to say “He goes on the tram,” how would you translate that?
My initial answer was “Va sul tram.” It was a literal translation.
But when my tutor Giulia corrected me, it turned out that I didn’t need to use the preposition “su” at all.
The correct translation would be: “Prende il tram” – He takes the tram.
No need for “su” at all. Boh.
9.) Not knowing which verbs require prepositions and which do not
How would you say: “He’s waiting for her.”
You might think that since there’s a “for” in what you want to say that you would just replace that with “per.”
So “Aspetta per lei.”
But unfortunately, as I learned too, in Italian you don’t “Aspettare per qualcuno (wait for someone)”, you “Aspettare qualcuno (await someone).”
So the correct translation would be “La aspetta.”
(Why does the “la” go first? Indirect object pronouns, yo.)
If you now understand why prepositions are such a menace and why you keep making mistakes, there is a solution for mastering them.
To solve the pain that many of us were feeling toward prepositions, I created the 7-Week Italian Prepositions Challenge.
It’s a focused + structured 42 days where you’ll learn all about each prepositions and how it functions so you can stop making so many mistakes and have a fluid conversation.
That’s the reason we’re here, right?
We want to be able to have conversations with Italians so we can connect, embrace and thrive in their culture.
If you want prepositions to become just part of the way you think in Italian, as opposed to being a struggle, take the first step by signing up for this challenge.
It might be your new grammatical best friend.
Questions on prepositions or comments about when you learned how to use one? Drop it all in the comments below.
Want to sound more like a native in Italian?
My favorite part about Rocket Italian is their healthy balance between the phrases that are fun to learn, the grammar you need to know, the practice for understanding Italian, and the pronunciation that will get you speaking with confidence.