For members


Italian expression of the day: Tenere testa

See if you can hold your own with this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day tenere testa
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

The Italian words tenere and testa separately mean ‘to hold/keep’ and ‘head’, so it would be reasonable to hazard a guess the phrase tenere testa means ‘to keep your head’ – reasonable, but wrong.

In fact tenere testa means any of hold your own against, keep up with, be a match for, or stand up to.

La sua pasticceria si è rivelata così popolare che ha dovuto assumere altri due dipendenti per tenere testa alle richieste!
Her bakery’s proven so popular she’s had to hire two more employees to keep up with the demand!

Temo che non riuscirò a tener testa al resto della classe.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up with the rest of the class.

Tryna Keep Up Lauren Lapkus GIF - Tryna Keep Up Lauren Lapkus The Great Debate GIFs

Non può tenermi testa.
He’s no match for me.

You’ll often see or hear the final e on the end of tenere dropped, like in the second example above – this is common in spoken Italian where one infinitive follows another (like dover andare, ‘to have to go’), or when you have a set phrase starting with an infinitive (like aver fame, ‘to be hungry’).

Note that although in English we can talk about someone ‘holding their own’ in isolation, tenere testa is transitive, meaning it requires an object; you should mention who or what the subject is holding their own against.

As mentioned above, tenere testa doesn’t just mean to keep up, but can also be used in a more combative sense to talk about facing off against someone.

È ora di tener testa a quei bulli.
It’s time we stood up to those bullies.

Se ci uniamo, possiamo tenere testa alle multinazionali che vogliono sottrarci le risorse.
If we band together, we can stand against the multinationals who want to take our resources from us.

Il dibattito è durato ore, ma gli ho tenuto testa.
The debate went on for hours, but I held my own against him.

Whether you want to tener testa in your language classes or with a noisy neighbour who keeps you up at night, with this phrase now in your arsenal, we’re confident you’re up to the challenge.

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

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Italian expression of the day: ‘A meno che’

You might want some help mastering this phrase, unless your Italian is already advanced.

Italian expression of the day: 'A meno che'

It’s always helpful to have a little caveat up your sleeve when making plans – just in case something crops up and you need to change course.

In English, there’s a pretty simple way to express this idea: we just use the word ‘unless’ followed by the present simple.

Italian, however, is a bit more complicated. We need to add a non after a meno che – something that can trip up anglophones – and then follow this with a subjunctive, since we’re talking about a hypothetical situation.

Potremmo andare a fare un giro in bicicletta, a meno che tu non abbia da fare?
We could go for a bike ride, unless you’re busy?

La festa si terrà all’aperto, a meno che non piova.
She’ll have the party outdoors unless it rains.

To wrap your head around this addition of a negative, it can help to think of the Italian translation less as “unless XYZ is the case” so much as something along the lines of “as long as XYZ weren’t the case.”

A meno che is the most common variant you’ll hear, but if you want to mix things up a bit, you could instead use any of salvo che, tranne che, or eccetto che.

Il rimborso sarà effettuato entro 24 ore, signora, salvo che Lei non cambi idea prima di allora.
The refund will be processed within 24 hours, madam, unless you change your mind before then.

L’intervento chirurgico non è necessario, tranne che i sintomi non causino dolore.
Surgery isn’t necessary unless the symptoms are causing you any pain.

Unless you’ve been watching TV throughout this explainer, we’re sure you’ll be confidently using a meno che and its equivalents in no time.

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