How do adjectives work in Italian?
First off, let's review what an adjective is and what it does. An adjective describes or modifies a noun, as opposed to an adverb, which describes or modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.
The distinction is important because in Italian, adjectives need to agree with the nouns they describe, whereas adverbs don't. This means that the ending of the adjective changes according to the gender and number of the noun it describes. In English, we don't have this problem, so it can be tough to learn in a language where it does matter.
The first thing we need to consider is: Which type of adjective is it? Positive or neutral?
There are two basic types: aggettivi positivi (positive adjectives) that end in o in their masculine singular form, and aggettivi neutri (neutral adjectives) that end in e in their masculine (and feminine) singular form. When you look up an adjective in the dictionary you will see the singular masculine form of the adjective.
If you would like to learn about adjectives in Italian, see Daniela's lessons: Don't forget: you can turn English and Italian captions on and off!
In italiano abbiamo due tipi di aggettivi: noi li chiamiamo aggettivi positivi e aggettivi neutri.
In Italian, we have two kinds of adjectives. We call them positive adjectives and neutral adjectives.
Captions 23-24, Corso di italiano con Daniela Aggettivi positivi e neutri - Part 1 Play Caption
An example of a positive adjective is caro (expensive).
An example of a neutral adjective is grande (big).
The second thing we have to consider is: What's the gender of the noun we are describing? Masculine or feminine?
The noun that the adjective describes may be masculine or feminine. Often, a masculine noun will end in o when in the singular, but not always.
Il forno (the oven, the bakery) ends in "o" but il pane (the bread) ends in "e." Both are masculine, singular nouns.
Tip: It's always a good idea to learn the article that goes with a noun when you learn the noun. It will make using adjectives easier.
The third thing we have to consider is: Is the noun we are describing singular or plural?
This factor, together with the gender and the type of adjective (o or e/positive or neutral) will determine the ending of the adjective. That's a lot to think about, so let's look at each of the four possible endings one by one in the "positive" adjective category.
Adjectives that end in "o":
This is the more common of the two kinds of adjectives, so let's see how these adjective endings work.
There can be 4 different endings for this kind of adjective if the noun it describes has both a masculine and a feminine form (like il ragazzo (boy) / la ragazza (the girl) / i ragazzi (the boys/ le ragazze (the girls).
Masculine + singular = o.
È un tipico teatro diciamo shakespeariano, con il palco rotondo al centro
It's a typical, let's say, Shakespearean theatre, with a round stage in the center
Caption 18, Anna presenta Villa Borghese - Part 2 Play Caption
Feminine + singular = a.
Masculine + plural = i
Feminine + plural = e.
Bambino means "child" or "baby. Piccolo means "small. Bambino is the type of noun that can change according to gender, so as a consequence, it's quite easy to see the different endings of the adjective piccolo.
• Il bambino è piccolo (the little boy is small).
• La bambina è piccola (the little girl is small).
• I bambini sono piccoli (the little boys are small).
• Le bambine sono piccole (the little girls are small).
This noun - adjective combination is straightforward. In other words, you see a certain letter at the end of the noun, and the adjective ends the same way. But don't be fooled into thinking all nouns and adjectives are like this. They often are, so it may be a good guess, but not all the time.
What are some other common positive Italian adjectives (ending in "o")?
• bello (beautiful or handsome)
• brutto (ugly or bad)
• buono (good)
• cattivo (bad)
• duro (hard, difficult)
• caro (dear, expensive)
• crudo (raw, uncooked)
• cotto (cooked)
• creativo (creative)
• pulito (clean)
• sporco (dirty)
• rosso (red)
• grosso (big)
• pieno (full)
• vuoto (empty)
• bianco (white)
• bravo (good)
To sum up about adjectives that end in "o," if the noun is masculine and singular, like, for example, il cielo (the sky) which also happens to end in "o," the adjective will end in "o," as well: un cielo nuvoloso, cielo scuro (cloudy sky, dark sky), not because the noun ends in "o" but because it's masculine and singular. Even if the noun ends in "e," such as il pane (the bread), or in "a" such as il sistema (the system), the positive adjective will still end in "o."
Il pane duro (the hard bread)
Il pane vecchio (the old bread)
il pesce fresco (the fresh fish)
il vecchio sistema (the old system)
il ponte nuovo (the new bridge)
By the same token, if you have a singular feminine noun such as la giornata (the day), the positive adjective will end in "a." La giornata nuvolosa (the cloudy day). Una giornata scura (a dark day), la strada vecchia (the old road), una fine inaspettata (an unexpected ending), la mano ferma (the steady hand).
You can now take the positive adjectives in the list above and apply them to any appropriate noun. Remember, both gender and number count, but, as you will see, not all nouns are like bambino/bambina. Not all nouns have both masculine and feminine versions.
Here's a short list of nouns and adjectives to get you started.
La casa (the house) pulita, sporca, vecchia, nuova, rossa, grossa, etc.
Le case (the houses) pulite, sporche, vecchie, nuove, rosse, grosse, etc.
Il lavandino (the sink) pieno, vuoto, sporco, pulito, bianco, etc.
I lavandini (the sinks) pieni, vuoti, sporchi, puliti, bianchi, etc.
Gli spaghetti crudi, buoni, cotti, duri, cattivi, etc.
La pasta cruda, buona, cotta, dura, cattiva, etc.
Il prosciutto crudo, cotto, buono, cattivo, etc.
Get the idea? Can you find positive adjectives to go with these nouns?
La verdura (the vegetables) (this noun can be used in the plural, but is generally used as a singular collective noun).
Una stanza (a room)
Le mele (the apples)
Gli alberi (the trees)
Un letto (a bed)
Un fiore (a flower)
Una pianta (a plant)
Use the dictionary if you're not sure how to form the plural of a noun.
Write to us if you have questions!
Stay tuned for the next part of this lesson about adjectives, when will discuss aggettivi neutri (neutral adjectives), or those adjectives that end in "e" and do not change according to gender: they only change according to singular and plural. Thus, they have only 2 possible endings.