Making mistakes is not only natural, but in the case of language acquisition, also an essential part of the learning process. After all, if we don’t make mistakes, how will we ever improve? No one is born knowing a language, so the only way to reach fluency is to keep making mistakes until we achieve perfection. This applies to both young children acquiring their mother tongue and adults learning their second or third language.
In the case of English speakers learning Italian, there are certain errors that tend to crop up over and over again. Some can be attributed to differences in grammar between the two languages, whereas others stem from challenging pronunciation and false friends. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at 15 of the most common errors English learners make in Italian.
Note: All errors throughout the article have been marked with an asterisk symbol *.
1. Sono freddo / caldo*
One of the most common errors English speakers make is to use the verb essere (to be) with certain nouns that require avere (to have). These include:
- freddo = cold > Ho freddo = I am cold (lit. I have coldness)
- caldo = hot > Ho caldo = I am hot (lit. I have warmth)
- fame = hunger > Ho fame = I am hungry (lit. I have hunger)
- sete = thirst > Ho sete = I am thirsty (lit. I have thirst)
- sonno = sleepiness > Ho sonno = I am sleepy (lit. I have sleepiness)
- paura = fear > Ho paura = I am scared (lit. I have fear)
We make this error as English speakers because we are influenced by the structure [“to be” + adjective] in our own language.
Also worth remembering is that the verb avere doesn’t require gender agreement with the subject, so it is incorrect for a woman to say ho fredda* or for a group of people to say abbiamo freddi*. The correct forms are ho freddo and abbiamo freddo respectively.
2. False friends
False friends are so pervasive that we have an entire article dedicated to them. They are defined as “a word or expression that has a similar form to one in a person’s native language, but a different meaning” (Oxford Dictionary).
Here are a few examples that English speakers easily confuse:
morbido = soft
morbid = morboso
fattoria = farm
factory = fabbrica
parenti = relatives
parents = genitori
3. Pesky prepositions
Just as it is extremely difficult for Italians to learn how to properly use English prepositions, it is also no small feat for an English speaker to master those in Italian.
For example, in English we use the preposition “to” for all three of these phrases:
- I am going to the station.
- I am going to the bank.
- I am going to the dentist.
But in Italian, three different prepositions are required: a, in and da.
- Vado alla / in stazione.
- Vado in banca.
- Vado dal dentista.
A is often given as the primary translation for “to” in Italian, so it isn’t uncommon for English learners to overuse a and produce ungrammatical sentences such as Vado alla banca* or Vado al dentista*.
Another good example is the preposition in, which sometimes corresponds to the English “in” and sometimes does not. For instance:
- I’m in the area. = Sono in zona. ✅
- I will be there in 3 days. = Sarò lì fra 3 giorni. ❌
- I’m going to the countryside. = Vado in campagna. ❌
Unfortunately, prepositions in languages – even those closely related to one another – rarely correspond perfectly, so all you can do is memorise them, preferably in example phrases that are easy to remember.
4. “Per una settimana” vs “Da una settimana”
Time expressions in Italian can be a challenge for English speakers, particularly those involving the prepositions per (for) and da (since). Let’s take a look at the following two sentences:
- Sono qui per una settimana. = I am here for a week.
- Sono qui da una settimana. = I have been here for a week.
In the first sentence, the speaker is talking about an event that has just begun and will extend into the future. The structure of the two phrases is very similar in English and Italian: both use the present tense and the preposition per / for.
The second sentence is a bit more tricky. The speaker is talking about an event that started in the past and is ongoing. In English, we need to use the present perfect “have been” and the preposition “for” whereas in Italian, the present tense is used along with the preposition da. It literally translates as “I am here since a week”.
Because we use “for” in English, regardless of the tense, it isn’t uncommon to hear English learners mistakenly use per for both structures.
5. Io piace te*
Many English speaking learners struggle when they have to create a sentence with the verb piacere (to like).
This is because, in Italian, the thing or person that is “liked” is not the object of the sentence but the subject, and the person doing the “liking” is expressed with the indirect object pronoun. It’s a bit like saying “X is pleasing to me” rather than “I like X”.
In the case of the phrase “I like you”, there are two ways to word this in Italian:
Tu (subject – “you”) + mi (indirect object pronoun – “to me”) + piaci (“are pleasing”)
Tu (subject – “you”) + piaci (“are pleasing”) + a me (indirect object pronoun – “to me”)
Tu mi piaci.
I like you.
(You are pleasing to me.)
Tu, which means “you”, is the subject in Italian, whereas in English it would be the direct object. Piaci is the second person singular of the verb piacere, so it means something similar to “(you) please / are pleasing”. Finally the indirect object pronouns mi and the more emphatic a me both translate as “to me”.
The phrase io piace te* (io = I, piace = one likes, te = you) does not make any sense in Italian and is possibly one of the biggest errors English speakers make.
6. Fare senso vs Avere senso
In English, we use the expression “to make sense” when we want to say that something is intelligible, justifiable or practical.
If you translate this expression into Italian, however, you end up with an entirely different meaning! Fare senso in Italian means “to be disgusting” or “to gross [someone] out”.
If you want to say “to make sense” in Italian, you need to use the verb avere (to have) instead of fare (to do / to make).
It makes sense.
It is gross / disgusting.
7. Vado a… (I am going to…)
In English, and other languages like French, it is possible to use the form “to be going to [infinitive verb]” to construct the future tense. It is commonly used in informal situations to talk about plans, arrangements and predictions, as well as things that are about to happen or have just started to happen.
In Italian, by comparison, the verb andare (to go) cannot be used to express a future event. So, for example, if you want to say “I am going to go”, you must use the future tense andrò (I will go) rather than vado ad andare* (lit. I am going to go).
Vado a… can only be used if you are physically moving from one place to another. So, if you say vado a studiare (I am going to study), it means you are physically moving to another room to study, not that you are going to study in the future.
8. Double consonants
Double consonants, known as le doppie in Italian, can be a nightmare for English speakers. These consonants appear between vowels and are pronounced with a longer sound than single consonants.
Leaving out the second consonant, or inserting an extra one by accident, can lead to many misunderstandings – consider pairs such as: pala (shovel) and palla (ball), capelli (hair) and cappelli (hats), and the infamous source of embarrassment, pene (penis) and penne (pens).
Pala – Palla
Capelli – Cappelli
Pene – Penne
I’ve been speaking Italian for over ten years and I still trip up over certain doppie if I speak too quickly!
9. Using ‘potere’ for ‘can’ in all situations
The English modal verb “can” is used to express a wide range of functions including ability, opportunity, requests, granting permission, and showing possibility or impossibility (Source: EC).
The equivalent in Italian, potere, is also used in many of these situations but with a slightly more limited scope. For this reason, English speakers often make the mistake of using potere whenever they would use “can”, even in situations where another verb or expression would be more appropriate.
Here are some situations in which “can” can be safely translated with potere:
- I can go. = Io posso andare. (permission)
- Can I go? = Posso andare? (request)
- You can learn Italian in a year. = Puoi imparare l’italiano in un anno. (possibility)
- We can see Luigi tomorrow. = Possiamo vedere Luigi domani. (opportunity)
And here are some situations in which another verb, such as riuscire (to be able / to be capable) or sapere (to know how), is the better choice:
- I can see it. = Riesco a vederlo. (ability)
If you said Posso vederlo, you would be implying that you have permission to see the thing in question, not that you have the ability.
- Luisa can play the piano. = Luisa sa suonare il pianoforte. (to know how)
If “can” means “to know how”, then the best choice is the verb sapere. If you said Luisa può suonare il pianoforte, you would be implying she has permission to play.
10. Il mio favorito*
In English, we use the word “favourite” to describe something that one likes best of all.
In Italian, the adjective favorito does exist, but the proper translation for “favourite” is actually preferito (literally “preferred”).
La mia pizza preferita è la napoletana.
My favourite pizza is the Napoletana.
Favorito is used to describe someone who has an advantage over someone else, such as favoured children – e.g. il figlio favorito (the favourite child) – or someone with prospects of winning – e.g. il favorito in questa corsa (the favourite in this race).
11. Using “eccitato” to mean “excited”
Eccitato isn’t exactly a false friend in that it can mean “excited” in the sense of being agitated or hyper, but it cannot be used to say that you are “excited to do something”.
What’s more, it is often used in a sexual context to indicate arousal.
Instead of eccitato, it is better to use adjectives such as emozionato or entusiasta.
- Sono emozionato / entusiasta di andare. = I am excited to go. ✅
- Sono eccitato di andare.* ❌
12. Qualcosa + adjective
Many English speakers have the tendency to place an adjective directly after the pronoun qualcosa (something / anything). This means they might say qualcosa bello* or qualcosa interessante* to mean “something beautiful / nice” and “something interesting” respectively.
However, it Italian, grammar dictates that the preposition di (of) must always appear between qualcosa and the adjective.
- qualcosa di bello = something beautiful / nice
- qualcosa di interessante = something interesting
13. Sono di America*
One of the first lessons you’ll learn in any Italian textbook is the phrase Sono di [city name] which means “I am from [city name]“.
Sono di New York.
I’m from New York.
The mistake many English speakers make is that they apply this rule to countries as well. For example, they might say Sono di America* to mean “I am from America” which is a massive grammatical error.
The most natural way to state which country you come from is to either state your nationality, or to use the verb venire (to come) + the preposition da (from).
- Sono americano / americana. = I am American.
- Vengo dall’America. = I come from America.
14. Avere vs Essere
In Italian, the present perfect (passato prossimo) is formed by using two verbs: one of two auxiliary verbs – essere (to be) or avere (to have) – and the past participle of a verb.
In English, by comparison, we only use the verb “to have” to form the present perfect. Compare the two examples below:
- Sono andato = I have gone (sono is the first person singular of essere)
- Ho mangiato = I have eaten (ho is the first person singular of avere)
Because we only use “to have” in English, we have the tendency to ignore the auxiliary essere in Italian and use avere for all verbs. Indeed, it isn’t uncommon to hear beginners say ho andato* instead of sono andato.
15. Conoscere vs Sapere
To translate “to know” in Italian, we have the choice between two verbs: conoscere and sapere. The problem for English speakers is knowing when to use which!
Indeed, it isn’t uncommon to hear errors like the following:
- Sai Giovanni?* ❌
Conosci Giovanni? ✅
Do you know Giovanni?
The verb conoscere should be used whenever you talk about knowing or being acquainted with a person.
- So tutte le opere di Dante.* ❌
Conosco tutte le opere di Dante. ✅
I know all of Dante’s work.
The verb conoscere should be used to say you are familiar with something.
- Conosco bene cosa stai facendo! ❌
So cosa stai facendo! ✅
I know what you’re doing!
The verb sapere should be used to say you are aware of something.
- Non conosco come accendere la televisione. ❌
Non so come accendere la televisione. ✅
I don’t know how to turn on the TV!
The verb sapere should be used to say you know how to do something.
As a general rule, sapere means “to be aware of something” or “to know how to do something” and is often followed by conjunctions such as “che / come / quando / etc.” whereas conoscere means “to be acquainted or familiar with something” and is always followed by a noun. The two are rarely interchangeable as they express different kinds of knowledge.
Did you enjoy learning about these fifteen common errors English learners make in Italian? Can you think of any others? If so, let us know in the comment section below!