Nomi difettivi – ‘Defective’ Nouns (I)

In Italian, there are two types of defective nouns (i nomi difettivi): difettivi del plurale (that lack a plural and are used in the singular) and difettivi del singolare (which lack a singular and are used in the plural).

Today we’ll look at the first type: nouns that are used only in the singular (note that our list is not exhaustive, but I included those nouns/situations that would most likely be encountered):

  1. Abstract nouns are generally used in the singular: la pazienza (patience), il coraggio (courage), l’amore (love)
  2. Diseases: il tifo (typhus), la malaria (malaria), il vaiolo (smallpox), l’Aids (AIDS), il morbillo (measles – note how it is plural in English).
  3. Some foods: il cioccolato (chocolate), il pane (bread), il miele (honey), il riso (rice; for example: to refer to one piece of rice, you would say un chicco di riso or a grain of rice)
  4. Some collective nouns: la gente (people), la roba (stuff), il fogliame (foliage)
  5. Chemical elements from the periodic table and metal: l’idrogeno (hydrogen), l’ossigeno (oxygen), il ferro (iron), l’ottone (brass)
  6. Months of the year: gennaio, febbraio, etc.

Some singular nouns can be used in the plural when they are modified to make the item less generic. For example, gli amori (loves) can be used in the plural when they refer to something specific: gli amori di Don Giovanni (Don Juan’s lovers). When food items are used in the plural, they often refer to a specific brand or type of food: i mieli di Turchia (honeys of Turkey). Some metals, too, when modified and refer to a specific use can also be used in the plural: gli ottoni della London Symphony Orchestra.

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