Prepositions are invariable words that serve to link and connect parts of a sentence or clause: vado a casa di Maria; or to join two or more clauses: vado a casa di Maria per studiare.
The example illustrates the funzione subordinante (subordinate function) of prepositions that introduce a "complement" of the verb, either of the noun or the entire sentence. In particular: the prepositional group a casa depends on the verb vado, of which it is a complement; the prepositional group di Maria depends on the noun casa, of which it is a complement; the prepositional group per studiare is the final implicit clause (corresponding to an ending clause: 'per studiare'), which depends on the primary clause vado a casa di Maria.
In the transition from the single clause vado a casa di Maria to the two-clause sentence vado a casa di Maria per studiare, a functional analogy can be defined between the preposizioni and congiunzioni subordinative. The first introduce an implicit subject (that is, with a verb in an indefinite mood): digli di tornare; the latter introduces an explicit subject (that is, with a verb in a definite mood): digli che torni.
The statistically most frequent prepositions are:
- di (can be elided before another vowel, especially before an i: d'impeto, d'Italia, d'Oriente, d'estate)
- a (the term ad is used, with la d eufonica, before another vowel, in particular before an a: ad Andrea, ad aspettare, ad esempio)
Di, a, da, in, con, su, per, tra (fra) are called simple prepositions (preposizioni semplici); these prepositions (except tra and fra), when combined with a definite article, give rise to the so-called prepositional articles (preposizioni articolate).
The high frequency of these prepositions corresponds to the variety of meanings they express as well as the wide range of connections that can be made between the parts of the phrase. The specific value that a preposition such as di or a takes in diverse contexts is understood only in relation to the words with which the preposition is grouped, and changes according to the nature of them. In other words, the only way for a non-native Italian to understand how Italian prepositions are used is to practice and become familiar with the many different patterns!
This multiplicity of functions at the semantic and syntactic level is manifested, in fact, with a particular emphasis in ambiguous contexts. Consider, for example, the preposition di. The prepositional phrase l'amore del padre, depending on the context, can be labeled either a complemento di specificazione soggettiva or a complemento di specificazione oggettiva. The term is equivalent to either il padre ama qualcuno (the father loves someone) or qualcuno ama il padre (someone loves his father).
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Study Prepositions
A historical example of ambiguity occurs in Dante's famous expression perdere il ben dell'intelletto (Inferno, III, 18), which has become proverbial in the sense of "lose the good that is the intellect, lose reasoning." Dante was referring instead to the souls of Hell, and intended ben dell'intelletto in the sense of "the good of their own intellect, that which is good for the intellect," that is, the contemplation of God, excluding the damned. A different interpretation of the prepositional article dell' profoundly changes the overall meaning of the phrase.