Today, we decided to surprise you and discuss one of the most common errors in Italian: those involving accent marks and apostrophes. If you think you’ve already mastered the accent marks, don’t be hasty. Don’t think it’s worth it to review basic grammar rules that you learned early on? Would you be offended if I told you that you might be wrong? We all make mistakes, and sometimes we don’t even realize it.
Personally, I like grammar. Maybe it was because my mom was a teacher, but I always did well on logical analysis homework, and I proudly recited all the nursery rhymes to remember spelling rules. Qui, quo, qua, l’accento non ci va. (“Here, there, and there, the accent won’t go there.”)
Maybe it’s because of social media, text messages and the rush of day-to-day modern life, but unfortunately when we write and speak, we often make careless grammatical errors, use a limited vocabulary, and don’t check whether or not we should put the “i” for a plural noun or whether or not we should use an accent mark or an apostrophe instead.
So what exactly am I asking you right now? I’m asking for precise spelling, a well-researched lexicon and for you to pay special attention to the Italian. If you’re still with me, keep reading. I made a short list of the most common errors in Italian. If you’ve ever fallen into the temptation of not checking what you write before you send it (or when you speak), now you don’t have any more excuses!
The Difference Between An Accent And An Apostrophe
An accent mark is a graphic signal that’s used to accentuate or pronounce a syllable in a more marked manner, and it always goes above a vowel. The accent mark is optional if it’s not on the last syllable, but it’s recommended that you use it if the word has different meanings depending on where the accent mark is placed (for example, sùbito means “immediately” while subìto is the past participle of the verb subire). If the emphasis falls on the last syllable, the accent mark must be used.
The apostrophe, in contrast, is placed between one word and the other. It substitutes a vowel that could be omitted to make pronunciation flow more smoothly, which isn’t too different from how it’s used to shorten words like “don’t” and “would’ve” in English. For example, Italian speakers say un’arancia instead of una arancia.
Why You Can’t Forget Accent Marks
You’ll have to guess a bit when it comes to the tiny punctuation mark that appears at the end of some words. It’s not a stylistic choice or a calligraphic whim. If it’s there, there’s a reason for it.
How would you distinguish the following words without an accent mark?
- Dà (third-person singular of the present infinitive verb dare) and da (simple preposition)
- Lì (an adverb of place) and li (a personal pronoun complement)
- Né (a correlative conjunction) and ne (a pronominal partitive)
The Struggle Between Accent Marks and Apostrophes
I use the word “struggle” here because it seems like these two punctuation marks can never reach an agreement. Why is it so hard to distinguish the two, and why do so many people think they can be used interchangeably?
Take these three words.
Di, dì, di’.
Why are they written differently even though they’re pronounced the same? Exactly: it’s only to distinguish their meaning. Consequently, writing dì (with the accent mark) when you mean the imperative second person singular of the verb dire is wrong. Still, sometimes people use the apostrophe out of laziness (di’) because it takes longer to add accent marks using a keyboard or smartphone.
There have been more than several occasions where I’ve come across authors using apostrophes instead of accent marks while reading books (edited, published and sold books at that.) I’m talking about grammatical horrors like E’, to give you an idea.
And worse, instead of finding an apostrophe when it would be appropriate (you remember the rule, right? “The apostrophe is the ‘tear’ left by the letters that disappear…”) you’ll find an accent mark. Or worse, nothing!
I’m sorry, but things like un pò, un anatra, and un occhiata are unacceptable. That kind of writing that gives me a headache.
Time for a quick recap.
1) The accent mark and apostrophe are different.
The accent mark gives a word its intonation, and in some cases (like the previous point) it helps to differentiate words that are pronounced the same way. Using an accent mark instead of an apostrophe or visa versa is wrong.
2) The apostrophe is the “tear” from the part of the word that disappears.
- Un po’ would be un poco (un poco > un po’)
- Di’ would bedici (dici > di’)
- C’è would be ci è (ci è > c’è)
The rule also applies for indefinite articles (un, una) that only become contractions in the case of feminine nouns. Why? In a nutshell:
- Un’anatra would be una anatra (the a disappears and leaves the tear: una anatra > un’anatra)
- Un animale doesn’t need an apostrophe because none of the letters disappear.
When in doubt, leave una written as is. It may sound awkward, but it’s correct.
Is It Written Qual È Or Qual’è?
That’s the million-dollar question of our time, isn’t it? The answer is Qual è, full stop. A lot of people put an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong for no reason. The word qual exists as is, so there’s no need to add anything more.
In fact, the rule is this: a contraction is used when a vowel at the end of a word is removed when it precedes another word that starts with a vowel. For example, l’artista is the contraction of lo/la artista. In this case, the “o” and “a” disappear and are substituted by an apostrophe. Instead, the apocope (word without an ending) is the result of removing a vowel, consonant or syllable without needing to add an apostrophe, for example buon compleanno.
Given that “qual” exists on its own (as in Qual buon vento ti porta? meaning “To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you?”), the term is an apocope, not a contraction of quale è. Bonus: qual era is written without an apostrophe while quali erano could be written as qual’erano because, in this case, the term qual doesn’t exist in the plural form in Italian.
Grave And Acute Accents
Now that we’ve cleared up the difference between an accent mark and apostrophe, let’s focus on the former.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes the accent goes up (the acute accent that’s used, for example, in perché) and other times it goes down (the grave accent, as in caffè)? Naturally, the accent’s direction isn’t chosen at random. It indicates the open or closed pronunciation that should be given to the last syllable of a certain word.
The first rule to keep in mind is that the acute accent is only used when the final vowel is E (but not always, so be careful.) Here are the cases where you’ll find an acute accent:
- If the E has a closed pronunciation, it has an acute accent:perché, benché, giacché, affinché, né, macché…
- If you find yourself reading a third person singular preterite conjugation of a few verbs: ripeté, poté…
- If the word has tre: ventitré, trentatré, quarantatré…
The good news is that the grave accent mark is used in nearly every other case!
- When the E is pronounced openly (like we explained before): caffè, cioè, è… (if you’re still not convinced, try a little test. Pronounce caffè and then macché. Do you hear the difference?)
- When the word ends in O, because it’s a vowel that always has an open pronunciation: mandò, però, andò, penserò…
- When the word ends in an A, I, U, regardless of pronunciation: più, serietà, colibrì…
Does everything make sense? It can take some time, but you’ll get used to it soon!