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Italian word of the day: ‘Finché’

Hopefully it won't be long until you can use this tricky Italian word with ease.

Italian word of the day: 'Finché'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s word is one that is commonly muddled up by Italian language students.

Finché and finché non translate quite differently into English, but the two are so easy to confuse that even Italians themselves do it. And even more confusingly, sometimes that’s ok.

So let’s look more closely at how to use them both:

Finché (pronounced ‘fin-keh’) is often thought to mean “until”, when in fact it means “as long as” or “as much as”.

– Finché va bene a te.

– As long as it’s ok with you

Instead, finché non means “until”

– Non mi interrompere finché non ho finito

– Don’t interrupt me until I have finished. (or literally “Don’t interrupt me as long as I haven’t finished.”

– Si lavorava finché il padrone non diceva “basta”,

– We worked until the boss said, “that’s enough.” (Or literally: “we kept working as long as the boss had not said “that’s enough.”)

Maybe because this construction is so awkward for English speakers, students often accidentally miss out the non.

But that’s not always wrong.

Sometimes you might also hear Italians use finché when we might think finché non would be correct.

Just as we do in English, Italian speakers abbreviate when speaking quickly and informally, using lots of contractions and missing out words. (In fact, finché itself is a contraction of a fine che.)

You might hear something like:

– Possiamo continuare a fare le pizze finché finisce tutto l’impasto.

– We can keep making pizzas until all the dough has been used up. (or literally: as long as the dough isn’t finished.)

So the meaning here is still clear.

That’s because when the meaning of finché is “until the time that…”, the use of the negation ‘non’ is optional as the sentence should make sense without it.

But – attenzione – sometimes it’s not optional and will change the meaning completely – like when the meaning of finché is “as long as”.

Compare these two sentences and you’ll see what I mean:

– Sono stato bene finché ho abitato a Milano

– I’ve been fine as long as I’ve been living in Milan.

– Sono stato bene finché non ho abitato a Milano

– I was fine until I lived in Milan.

As you can see, the little non makes a big difference.

Still, with practice you’ll eventually get the hang of the rule, and then you can (maybe) get away with breaking it yourself. As long as (finché?) your Italian teacher isn’t listening.

Do you have a favourite Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

Member comments

  1. It would be great for learners of Italian to also have the pronunciation of the word so we can practice saying it correctly . Wiuld that be a possibility please?

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Conosco i miei polli’

We know what we're dealing with with this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Conosco i miei polli'

You don’t have to be a poultry farmer to go around telling people ‘conosco i miei polli’ – literally, ‘I know my chickens’ – in Italian.

There’s no perfect translation, but it means something along the lines of ‘I know who I’m dealing with/ what they can get up to/ what they’re like’; I know what to expect from them, for better or worse.

It usually implies slightly mischievously that the people or person being discussed could be troublemakers, and that the speaker has the necessary knowledge to deal with them effectively.

You might think of it as ‘I know what those little devils/rascals are like’ if referring to naughty children, or ‘I know how those jokers/b******s operate’ if discussing petty officials or difficult colleagues.

Saranno tornati entro la mattinata; fidati, conosco i miei polli.
They’ll be back by morning; trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

Conosco i miei polli; vedrete che arriveranno alla riunione con mezz’ora di ritardo e daranno la colpa al traffico.
I know them: you’ll see, they’ll get to the meeting half an hour late and blame it on the traffic.

Business Guy Nbc GIF by Sunnyside

According to at least one source, the full original phrase is ‘conosco i miei polli alla calzetta‘, or ‘I know my chickens by their stockings’.

It refers back to a time when chickens roamed the streets or shared courtyards freely.

So they didn’t get mixed up, each bird had a little scrap of coloured cloth tied around their foot that allowed each owner to quickly spot their chicken.

The next time you’re dealing with some tricky characters, you’ll know just what to say.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.