According to their meaning, Italian nouns can be divided into various categories. These categories are based on semantic criteria, and each subdivision is different from the others according to certain syntactic properties. The distinctions that follow are those most commonly recognized by grammarians:
- nomi propri (proper nouns) denote a particular individual of a species or category: un essere umano—Carla (a human being), una nazione—Francia (a country), una città—Bergamo (a city)
Italian proper nouns are always written with the initial letter capitalized: Dante Alighieri, Mediterraneo, Venezia. Also always written with a capital letter are:
» soprannomi (nicknames)
Federico I detto il Barbarossa
Michelangelo Merisi detto il Caravaggio
» pseudonimi (pseudonyms)
Alberto Moravia (Alberto Pincherle)
Pietro Metastasio (Pietro Trapassi)
» personified things
La Luna allora le sorrise (The Moon then smiled at her)
NOTE: Italian proper nouns do not require the definite article to identify a specific person or geographical reference: Marco piange.
- nomi comuni (common nouns) denote a generic individual of a species or category: essere umano—bambino, animale—elefante, oggetto—sedia
- nomi individuali (singular nouns) indicate a single being or a single thing: giocatore (player), cavallo (horse), nave (ship)
- nomi collettivi (collective nouns) describe a group of individuals: popolo (a group of human beings), mandria (animals), mobilia (objects)
- nomi concreti (concrete nouns) denote material things perceptible to the senses: uomo (man), leone (lion), strada (street), tavolo (table), albero (tree)
- nomi astratti (abstract nouns) denote feelings, concepts, and qualities that are not directly perceivable through the senses: amore (love), gioia (joy), cattiveria (nastiness), malvagità (wickedness), pace (peace)
The distinction between abstract and concrete nouns is not always clear; for example, it would be difficult to categorize as concrete versus abstract nouns such as sonno (sleep), malessere (malaise), corsa (running), salto (jumping), caduta (falling), arrivo (arrival)—terms that indicate facts that can perceived by the senses, but do not have a material substance. Moreover, many nouns can be either abstract or concrete, according to the context in which they are used. Celebrità is an abstract noun when used in the sense of fame or reputation (raggiungere la celebrità—achieve stardom). It is a concrete noun when it denotes a famous person (è una celebrità nel campo della medicina—she is a celebrity in the field of medicine).
Countable and Uncountable Nouns
Nouns may also be classified on the basis of the concept being referred to:
- nomi numerabili (countable nouns) denote definable entities: sedia (chair), finestra (window), libro (book), penna (pen), matita (pencil)
- nomi non numerabili (uncountable nouns), as opposed to nomi numerabili, denote amorphous substances: acqua (water), vino (wine), sale (salt), colla (glue); or materials considered in general: ferro (iron), legno (wood), gomma (rubber).
PROPERTIES OF UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS:
» they do not have the plural (in Italian, i latti and i brodi are not correct). The plural versions of such nouns mean something much different: gli zuccheri, i sali (different types of sugar and salt, especially in a technical-scientific context: il fruttosio e il glucosio sono zuccheri semplici; i sali sono composti chimici derivanti dall'unione di un acido con una una base), i ferri (utensils)
» in the singular may be preceded by a few modifiers such as the adverb abbastanza and the indefinite adjectives molto and poco: c'è poco latte; nel caffè non c'è abbastanza zucchero. Countable nouns may be preceded by such modifiers only in the plural: ho molti ombrelli (NOT molto ombrello).
» take the singular partitive article del: vorrei del pane, del prosciutto. Countable nouns take the partitive article only in the plural: dei libri, delle scatole, but not del cucchiaio.
In some cases, the categories listed may overlap. For example, the distinction between countable and uncountable as regards both concrete and abstract nouns. The latter, denoting entities that cannot be perceived physically and therefore are not easily definable—ingordigia (greed), cattiveria (nastiness), pazienza (patience)—for the most part fall under the category of uncountable nouns. However, some abstract terms, such as opinione (opinion), dispiacere (grief), virtù (virtue), and aspetto (aspect), which indicate concepts more easily definable, can be treated as countable.
Therefore, it's possible to reference nomi non numerabili astratti (uncountable abstract nouns) (intransigenza, calma, tolleranza, coraggio) and nomi numerabili astratti (countable abstract nouns) (vantaggio, parere, qualità). The uncountable abstract nouns share some of the properties of uncountable concrete nouns. For example, use of the indefinite article uno is possible, but involves a shift in meaning (la gioia / una gioia). Furthermore, only countable abstract nouns can be turned into the plural: i dispiaceri, i pareri, le virtù, in contrast to le tolleranze, le pazienze.
Among the nomi collettivi, there are some that behave like countable nouns (mandria, flotta, reggimento) and others (flora, fauna, pubblico) that behave like uncountable nouns. Some nomi collettivi undergo a change of meaning in the plural: il popolo / i popoli; la gente / le genti; la clientela / le clientele.