Italian punctuation

Punctuation is one of the most important aspects in any language and specially the Italian punctuation. It’s also the feature of writing that gives meaning to the written words. So when you study Italian, you better be careful about it.

Much like pauses and changes in tones of the voice when speaking, an error in punctuation can convey a completely different meaning to the one that is intended. The correct use of Italian punctuation is much more than a key skill in writing.

It’s essential to know the use of special signs in writing to clarify how words are used, so if you really want to write well, you must use punctuation correctly. In written, punctuation is essential to clear up the meaning of the sentence.

Unlike in English, punctuation such as commas and periods are placed outside the quote marks when writing in Italian. For example: “Vivo in Italia da molto tempo“. The same sentence in English, though, is written: “I’ve been living in Italy for a long time.”

Most used punctuation marks in Italian punctuation

, la virgola comma
. il punto period
; il punto e virgola semicolon
: due punti colon
i puntini di sospensione ellipses
! il punto esclamativo exclamation point
? il punto interrogativo question mark
il trattino hyphen
la lineetta dashes
« » le virgolette quotation marks
( ) le parentesi tonde brackets
[ ] le parentesi quadre square brackets
* l’asterisco asterisk
l’apostrofo apostrophe
/ la sbarretta slash

Comma use

The comma is the most used mark of the Italian punctuation, which usually clarifies the meaning of the sentence and establish an order in the written language. It is also useful because it separates the structural elements of sentences into manageable segments. The typical uses of the comma are:

1. It separates the clauses of a sentence when there are two independent clauses joined by a conjunction.

Tom voleva andare al cinema ma non aveva i soldi.
Tom wanted to go to the cinema, but he didn’t have any money.

2. It is used to precede a non restrictive dependent clause (a clause that could be omitted without changing the meaning of the main clause).

La pasta che è stata appena cucinata, è nel soggiorno.
The pasta, which is recently cooked, is in the dining room.

3. It follows an introductory phrase.

All’inizio, loro avevano pochi soldi da investire.
In the beginning, they had very little money to invest.

4. It puts in motion words used in direct address.

Si, signora Rossi, sarò felice di invitarla alla festa.
Yes, Mrs. Rossi, I will be happy to invite you at the party.

5. The comma can separate two or more adjectives, nouns or verbs.

Ieri ho comprato due mele, un’arancia, e cinque fragole.
Yesterday I bought two apples, an orange, and five strawberries.

6. To isolate a vocative.

Andrea, vai a dormire.
Andrea, go to sleep.

Period use

The period has two basic functions: It is used to mark the end of a sentence and it’s used at the end of a title.

Il Dott. Bianchi è andato in ospedale la settimana scorsa.
The Dr. Bianchi went to the hospital last week.

Exclamation points and question marks

The only sentences that do not end in a period are those that end in either a question mark or an exclamation point.

Oh Dio, che sorpresa!
My God, what a surprise!

Colon

The colon has different basic functions in Italian:

1. It can introduce something, especially a list of items.

In cucina puoi trovare: i cucchiai, le forchette, i coltelli…
In the kitchen you can find: spoons, forks, knives…

2. It can separate two clauses in a sentence when the second clause is being used to explain or illustrate the first clause.

La maggior parte dei miei amici sono spagnoli: due di loro sono di Siviglia.
Most of my friends are Spanish: two of them are from Seville.

3. It can introduce a statement or a quotation.

Sua madre dice che la regola più importante è questa: dire sempre la verità.
Her mother says the most important rule is this: always tell the truth.

Semicolon

The semicolon is usually used to link two independent clauses to connect closely related ideas.

Alcune persone scrivono al computer; altre con la penna.
Some people write with a computer; others write with a pen.

Ellipses

An ellipsis usually indicates that the sentence it’s not finished or they indicate the place in a passage where stuff has been omitted.

Ma… io non so la risposta.
But… I don’t know the answer.

Hyphen and dash

They are used at the beginning of a dialogue and also they can join two or more words to make a compound, especially when so doing makes the meaning more clear.

-Papà, mi potresti dare quel libro, per favore?
-Dad, could you give me that book, please?

Parentheses

Parentheses are used, in pairs, to enclose information that gives extra detail or explanation to the text. Parentheses can separate a word in a sentence from the rest of the sentence:

Sulla via per la scuola, passiamo sulla Fattoria Verde (la più antica del mio paese) e vediamo le mucche.
On our way to school, we walk past the Green Farm (the oldest in my town) and watch the cows.

Apostrophe

In Italian the apostrophe (l’apostrofo) is generally used to indicate the dropping of the final vowel before the word that follows it.

l’amico instead of lo amico (the friend)
l’automobile instead of la automobile (the automobile)
un’università instead of una università (a university)
d’Italia instead of di Italia (of Italy)
dov’è instead of dove è (where is)

Here there are other punctuation marks and special characters that are also very useful:

, virgola coma
; punto e virgola semi-colon
. punto full stop; period, dot
? punto interrogativo question mark
! punto esclamativo esclamation mark; esclamation point
apostrofo apostrophe
“ ” virgolette quotation marks; quotes; inverted commas
* asterisco asterisk
% percento percent
& e commerciale ampersand
accento grave grave accent
accento acuto acute accent
@ chiocciola at
/ barra obliqua; barra (inversa) slash
_ trattino basso underscore
( ) parentesi tonde brackets; parentheses
[ ] parentesi quadre brackets
{ } parentesi graffe braces

So remember always that Italian punctuation is very important and that can change completely the meaning of the sentence, it’s not the same to say:

  • I detest liars like you. Odio i bugiardi come te.
  • I detest liars, like you. Noi odiamo i bugiardi.

Now it’s your turn! Try to write a letter, using as much punctuation as possible.

If you liked this article, please share it!

Other topics