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Why do you say "il mio gatto" but not "la mia madre" in Italian?

Sep 2, 2009

This is one of those things in the Italian language that either you’re a native speaker or you’ll struggle with.

Sometimes, native people use grammar rules correctly without even knowing they’re grammar rules—they just come natural to them. To answer this question, I myself had to look it up in my old grammar books.

And the answer was easier than I thought:

In a grammatically correct Italian you always have to say “the” (il, la, gli, le) before a possessive adjective like my, your, his, her (mio, tuo, suo…) or you’ll end up sounding like Tarzan.

Let's see an example:

  • Tarzan would say: "mio gatto mangiare crocchette" (notice that there's no "the" before mio). This is wrong ✖️
  • A native Italian would say: "IL mio gatto mangia crocchette". This is correct ✔️

Exception

But this is Italian we’re talking about, it can’t be that easy! There are exceptions, of course: mother is one of those. The other ones are:

  • Padre (father)
  • Fratello/Sorella (brother/sister)
  • Zio/Zia (uncle/aunt)
  • Nonno/Nonna (grandmother/grandfather)
  • Nipote (niece/nephew)
  • Cugino/Cugina (cousin)
  • Marito/Moglie (husband/wife)
  • Figlio/Figlia (son/daughter)
  • Suocero/Suocera (mother-in-law/father-in-law)
  • Genero/Nuora (son-in-law/daughter-in-law)
  • Cognato/Cognata (brother-in-law/sister-in-law)

So really, all family names used in their singular form are exceptions and DO NOT want “the” (il, la) before.

  • Mio nonno  ✔️
  • IL mio nonno  ✖️
  • Mia madre  ✔️
  • LA mia madre ✖️

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