One of the most frequent “comparison” questions we receive on this website concerns the difference between the words tra and fra in Italian.
Tra and Fra – What do they mean?
Tra and fra are both Italian prepositions that translate in numerous ways in English including between, among, in, within, away, through and into.
Yes, I know, that’s a lot of possible translations, so let’s take a moment to look at each one in-depth.
The most common translation for tra / fra is between. When this is the translation, it generally implies a spacial or temporal distance, a middle ground, or a relationship between two things – although these aren’t the only definitions. The key is to remember that whenever you want to translate the word between into Italian, tra / fra will almost always be the optimal choice.
Siamo a metà strada fra / tra Roma e Tivoli.
We are halfway between Rome and Tivoli.
(physical distance between two places)
Partiremo fra / tra le 10 e le 11.
We will leave between 10 and 11.
(temporal distance between two times)
Questa canzone è un incrocio fra / tra il rap e il rock.
This song is a cross between rap and rock.
Tra / Fra Lucia e Marco, le cose non vanno molto bene.
Things aren’t going very well between Lucia and Marco.
(relationship between two things)
Among is another very common translation for tra / fra, and their usage is almost identical. Broadly speaking, both can be used to describe (a) something that is in the middle of other things, (b) something that exists as a part of a group of things, or (c) something that is divided up into groups.
(a) La fattoria è situata fra / tra le colline.
The farm is situated among the hills.
(b) I maiali sono tra / fra gli animali più intelligenti del pianeta.
Pigs are among the most intelligent animals on the planet.
(c) Ha spartito la sua proprietà fra / tra i figli.
He split his property among his children.
When something moves through something else, you can use tra / fra, or a synonym such as attraverso.
La luce filtrava fra / tra le foglie.
The light filtered through the trees.
In / Within
Tra / fra generally translate as in or within in time expressions that mean “occurring inside” or “not longer than”. A common synonym is nel giro di (within, around).
Arriviamo fra / tra un’ora.
We’ll be there in / within an hour.
Two very common time expressions in Italian are fra poco and tra breve which both mean shortly, soon, or more literally, in a little bit/while.
Away, on the other hand, is the appropriate translation in expressions concerning physical distance. In this case, you can also use the verb distare.
Il traguardo è fra / tra cento metri.
The finish line is 100 metres away.
Finally we have a handful of fixed expressions in which tra / fra appear:
- tra / fra l’altro = in addition, among other things, besides (Tra l’altro, non è facile ricominciare da capo. = Besides, it’s not easy to start from scratch.)
- tra / fra tutto = everywhere, with all this (Tra tutto questo rumore, come fai a lavorare? = How can you work with all this noise?)
- fra / tra sé e sé = to oneself (Pensare fra sé e sé = To think to oneself)
So, what’s the difference?
Apologies upfront to anyone hoping for a deeply profound answer to this question, but there is almost no difference in meaning whatsoever between tra and fra. Whether you use one or the other is very much a personal choice.
That being said, there is one condition in which tra is preferred to fra and vice versa. If the following word begins with the letters TR, fra is always the preferred choice. Likewise if the word starts with the letters FR, tra will be used instead of fra. This is because Italians like to avoid the unpleasant sound and difficult pronunciation of repeated consonants.
Tra fratelli ✅
Fra fratelli ❌
Fra treni ✅
Tra treni ❌
Moreover, according to Treccani, fra tends to appear more frequently in time expressions such as fra un’ora (in an hour) and when talking about a group of things or people (e.g. fra tutti saranno stati una quarantina = there must have been some forty of them in all). In some cases, fra may also be preceded by another preposition such as di or in.
Idiomatic Expressions with Tra / Fra
Below we’ve shared a few of the most frequently heard expressions in Italian featuring the words tra and fra. Some have a close English equivalent, which should hopefully make them easier to remember!
Avere la testa tra le nuvole
Literal translation: to have the head between the clouds
English meaning: to have one’s head in the clouds
Mettere i bastoni fra le ruote a (qualcuno)
Literal translation: to put a stick between the wheels of (someone)
English meaning: to put a spoke in (someone’s) wheel
Mettersi le mani tra i capelli
Literal translation: to put one’s hands in one’s hair
English meaning: to tear one’s hair out
Essere tra l’incudine e il martello
Literal translation: to be between the anvil and the hammer
English meaning: to be between a rock and a hard place
Tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare
Literal translation: between saying and doing there is a sea in between
English meaning: easier said than done, there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip
Literal translation: between parentheses
English meaning: by the way, incidentally
Heather Broster is a graduate with honours in linguistics from the University of Western Ontario. She is an aspiring polyglot, proficient in English and Italian, as well as Japanese, Welsh, and French to varying degrees of fluency. Originally from Toronto, Heather has resided in various countries, notably Italy for a period of six years. Her primary focus lies in the fields of language acquisition, education, and bilingual instruction.