Italian expression of the day: ‘Man mano’

Italian expression of the day: 'Man mano'
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Now here's a phrase that comes in – ahem – handy.

Chances are you've already come across the word mano ('hand'). It's one of the most fundamental bits of vocabulary you need, as well as being one of those pesky nouns that looks like it should be masculine but is actually feminine (la mano, le mani). 

But did you know that something magical happens when you say mano twice? 

Man mano – Italians drop the first 'o' because, well, it just sounds nicer that way – turns the word from a noun into an adverb, one that means 'little by little' or 'gradually'. 

Picture to yourself someone climbing up a rope, step by step, 'hand by hand'.

La situazione man mano migliorerà.
The situation will gradually improve.

Decideremo man mano.
We'll decide bit by bit (or: as we go along).

Another easy way to remember it is that it sort of rhymes with an even more common expression meaning the same thing: pian(o) piano. As these phrases demonstrate, Italians are fond of using repetition to convey the sense of advancing one small step after another; a third way of saying something very similar is via via ('little by little').

You might also see a slightly wordier form, a mano a mano: purists will tell you that it's the original version, but either one is perfectly acceptable today.

The little extra you do need to watch out for, though, is che, which transforms the expression again. Man mano che… becomes a conjunction meaning 'while' or 'as' when you're describing two things happening at the same time.

Man mano che arrivavano, si sedevano.
They sat down as they came in.

A mano a mano che s’avvicinava l’inverno gli alberi si facevano più spogli.
As winter approached, the trees got barer.

A pair of hands, a pair of actions: just think of this phrase as a way to juggle two things at once.

Do you have a favourite Italian word you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan with your suggestion.

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