Comparing and contrasting are an important way we understand things and communicate in our everyday lives. When we are expressing an opinion or making a decision–whether it’s about a gift for a friend, our plans for the weekend, or what to eat for dinner–we are constantly assessing similarities and differences, weighing the pros and cons of two or more options.
The grammar that comes in handy in all of these situations is the comparative form, which allows making comparisons between people, animals, things, and activities, thus helping us draw analogies and point out differences.
We can distinguish three types of comparatives based on the relation between the two terms of comparison:
When a person or object possesses a quality to a greater extent than its term of comparison, you employ the following structure:
PIÙ + … + DI / CHE
(more + … + than)
When you want to suggest that a quality is less pronounced in a subject than in its term of comparison, you use the following structure instead:
MENO + … + DI / CHE
(less + … + than)
Let’s take a look at a few examples:
The English word “than” can be translated with both di and che. Choosing the right preposition for a specific sentence structure in Italian can prove difficult to non-native speakers, but these few simple rules will surely be of help.
Note: If the second term of comparison is preceded by a definite article, the preposition di combines with the article, thus building an “articulated preposition”. For example, di + la makes della, while del is di + il, etc.
When both terms of a comparison possess a certain quality to the same extent, you can use one of the following correlative structures:
(TANTO) + … + QUANTO
(COSÌ) + … + COME
In both cases, the first part–the part in brackets–is optional and usually omitted.
When the objects of comparisons are adjectives and adverbs, the two structures are interchangeable; when it comes to verbs and nouns, however, the first option is preferred:
Comparatives of majority and minority can be reinforced or weakened through the use of adverbs, such as molto, troppo, poco, and leggermente:
The common phrases di più (more) and di meno (less) tend to be mistaken for comparatives but, unlike the latter, they do not introduce a second term of comparison and are thus not followed by “than”. The following examples will show you how to use them correctly:
In Italian, double comparatives such as “better and better” or “stronger and stronger” are built as follows:
SEMPRE + comparative adjective / adverb
Read these examples carefully:
Italian has some irregular comparative adjectives and adverbs. Here are the most common:
Buono (good) → Migliore (better)
Cattivo (bad) → Peggiore (worse)
Grande (big) → Maggiore (bigger)
Piccolo (small) → Minore (smaller)
Alto (tall) → Superiore (taller)
Basso (low) → Inferiore (lower)
Bene (well) → Meglio (better)
Male (badly) → Peggio (worse)
Molto (much) → Più (more)
Poco (little) → Meno (less)
What better way to learn how to build comparative structures in a foreign language than through its most common expressions?
Italian is indeed rich in idioms and expressions–some of which are humorous–that point out a particular quality of a person or thing by comparing it to something else.
Here are several common Italian idioms with their literal translation as well as their English equivalents (if any).
Bere come una spugna (lit: to drink like a sponge)
= “To drink like a fish”
Dormire come un ghiro (lit: to sleep like a dormouse)
= “To sleep like a log”
Essere brutto come la fame (lit: to be ugly as hunger) or Essere brutto come un rospo (lit: to be ugly as a toad)
= “To be ugly as sin”
Essere buono come il pane (lit: to be good as bread)
= “To be good-hearted”
Essere cieco come una talpa (lit: to be blind as a mole)
= “To be blind as a bat”
Essere contento come una Pasqua (lit: to be as happy as Easter)
= “To be happy as a clam”
Essere fuori come un balcone (lit: to be out like a balcony)
Essere matto come un cavallo (lit: to be crazy like a horse)
= “To be nutty as a fruit cake” or “to be mad as a hatter”
Essere magro come un chiodo (lit: to be thin as a nail)
Essere magro come un grissino (lit: to be thin as a breadstick)
= “To be thin as a stick / a rail”
Essere sano come un pesce (lit: to be healthy as a fish)
= “To be fit as a fiddle”
Essere sordo come una campana (lit: to be deaf as a bell)
= “To be deaf as a post”
Fumare come un turco (lit: to smoke like a Turk)
= “To smoke like a chimney”
L’erba del vicino è sempre più verde (lit: the neighbor’s grass is always greener)
= “The grass is always greener on the other side”
Meglio soli che male accompagnati
= “Better alone than in bad company”
Meglio tardi che mai
= “Better late than never”
Meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani (lit: better an egg today then a hen tomorrow)
= “Half a loaf is better than no bread”
Prevenire è meglio che curare (lit: preventing is better than curing)
= “Better safe than sorry”
Note that some of these idioms can be “compressed”, i.e. they can evoke the same vivid analogy without resorting to a direct, explicit comparison.
For instance, if you want to emphasize someone’s bad vision, you might tell him or her sei una talpa! (the shorter version of sei cieco come una talpa!). Or if you wish to point out someone’s good heart, you might describe him or her as un pezzo di pane (derived from the expression essere buono come il pane).
About the Author: Viola Librenti is a translator who, as part of her work, translates for Drops.
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