In Italian grammar the article, whether a definite article (articolo determinativo), an indefinite article (articolo indeterminativo), or a partitive article (articolo partitivo), has no independent lexical meaning in a sentence. It serves in various ways, however, to define the noun it is associated with, and with which it must agree in gender and number.
If the speaker wants to say something about a dog (for example), he must first specify whether the statement is intended to refer to all class members (Il cane è il migliore amico dell'uomo—Dog is man's best friend) or a single individual (Marco ha un cane pezzato—Mark has a spotted dog). The article, along with other parts of speech, for example, demonstrative adjectives (questo cane—this dog), indefinite adjectives (alcuni cani—some dogs), or qualifying adjectives (un bel cane—a beautiful dog), performs the important function of determining the nominal group.
Not suprisingly, there is a close link between the article and the noun; only in certain circumstances can a noun stand without the article (for example, with some proper names, like Maria or Parigi), while the article is always followed by a noun. Also, in Italian the article has the ability to make nouns from words which would not, ordinarily, be categorized as such (grammatically speaking, it's called nominalization). In fact, any part of speech (parte del discorso), when accompanied by an article, is transformed into a noun.
Consider the adjectives utile and dilettevole, the conjunctions ma and se, the adverbs assai and troppo, and the verbs dare, avere, and fare. Preceded by an article, they are changed into nouns:
unire l'utile al dilettevole—to combine business with pleasure
con i "ma" e con i "se" non si fa la storia—with "buts" and "ifs" one does not make history
l'assai basta e il troppo guasto—enough is enough, and too much spoils
calcolare il dare e l'avere—to consider giving and receiving
si avvicina con un fare sospetto—he approaches with suspicion
In contemporary Italian the article represents two fundamental oppositions:
1. opposition between classe (class) and membro (member)
il cane è l'animale più fedele / un cane abbaiava nella strada
the dog is the most faithful animal / a dog barked in the street
The articolo determinativo represents the class that is attributed to the dog; in this instance il cane = i cani = tutti i cani. The articolo indeterminativo indicates that it is dealing with a member of the class of dogs.
2. opposition between noto (known) and nuovo (new)
il bambino è nel giardino / un bambino è nel giardino
the child is in the garden / a child is in the garden
The definite article refers to the fact that the speaker already knows the bambino that she's talking about, a bambino who is also known to those who are listening to her; in this case bambino is a known element, but when the indefinite article is used it does not assume that the speaker or the listeners are knowledgeable of what is being referred to; the use of bambino here is a new reference.
The article determines if the noun is to be regarded as determinato or noto (definitive article) or as indeterminato or nuovo (indefinite article); it's the difference, for example, between il cane and un cane. This difference is better understood when observing the transformation in a text from the indefinite article to the definite article. Remember the beginning of a famous fairy tale:
Un lupo e una pecora s'incontrano presso un ruscello. Il lupo disse […].
La pecora rispose [...].
A wolf and a sheep meet near a stream. The wolf said [...].
The sheep said [...].
Why the change of articles? The indefinite article represents the individuation of the entire set of all wolves (in the class of wolves) of a wolf that is not yet identified: it is the first time mentioned. In this case it is necessary to use the article un, which expresses a sense of "currently" undetermined. The same is true for the expression una pecora. Once the individual has been mentioned for the first time, the identification has been made; then the reference shifts to the articles il and la, which express a sense of "currently" determined.
un lupo » il lupo
a wolf » the wolf
una pecora » la pecora
a sheep » the sheep
In some cases, the close link between article and noun can be broken by the insertion of:
» an adjective: la nuova costruzione (the new building)
» the relative pronoun cui: il direttore, la cui lettera me è appena giunta, mi informa sui nuovi sviluppi dell'azienda (the director, whose letter had just reached me, made me aware of the new developments in the company)
» a past participle: il suddetto autore (the above author)
» certain adverbs: l'allora capo del governo; il già menzionato autore (the then prime minister, the already mentioned author)
NOTE: The last three examples are characteristic of a formal bureaucratic style.
Italian Definite and Indefinite Article Forms
As shown in the table below, the contrast between "definite" and "indefinite" is further evidenced in the singular and plural:
- in the singular the article has specific forms to indicate the definite as well as indefinite:
il cane / un cane
la casa / una casa
- in the plural only the definite article has specific forms, while the indefinite article is denoted by its absence (or the articoli partitivi dei, delle, degli):
i cani / cani (or dei cani)
le case / case (or delle case)
In Italian the article agrees with the noun that it refers to. Before nouns that have the same form for the masculine and feminine, or have the same form for the singular and plural, the article specifies both the type and number.
il / la nipote
the nephew / the niece
la / le specie
the species (singular or plural in context)
|singolare||il, lo (l')||la (l')||un, uno||una (un')|