Italian WORDS That Are SIMILAR But Have DIFFERENT MEANINGS!

I often get asked questions like: “Are these two words completely synonymous? Or are they different? Because they look the same to me…”! Actually, in Italian there are many different words that are similar, in meaning or appearance – these similarities might mislead students and make them think that they can use such words interchangeably… when actually they are different words!
Therefore, it is necessary to know them so to use them in the right contexts and avoid saying something we did not mean to say. For this reason, I decided to create a list of pairs (and a trio) of words that often confuse my students!

ITALIAN WORDS THAT ARE SIMILAR… BUT DIFFERENT!

In the list below you will find eight pairs of words that may look similar, but actually have different meanings. For every couple, you will find a definition of each word -or verb- and at least one example, so that you can compare them and understand the differences!

1 – “SPETTARE” vs “MERITARSI”

Let’s start with a very interesting couple of verbs! Are you familiar with them? They confuse many foreigners, so let’s make things clear…!

The verb SPETTARE indicates a job, an assignment or a task that is the competence of someone in particular, something that only that person must do, because it is their duty by birth, by work, by social context and so on.
Spettare” is conjugated just like “piacere,” so the subject is the task while the person that has to carry it out is the indirect object, which is introduced by the preposition A: [TASK, the subject] + SPETTARE + preposition A + [PERSON, the indirect object].

Let me explain with some examples:

La decisione sulla nuova autostrada spetta al sindaco e a nessun altro.

(The decision on the new road rests with the mayor and [with] nobody else.)

or…

Spettava a lei capire cosa fare della sua vita.

(It was up to her to figure out what to do with her life.)

…or even…

L’educazione dei figli è sempre spettata alla famiglia.

(The education of children has always been the responsibility of the family.)

However, spettare is also used to refer to something that is due to someone because they are entitled to it.

For example:

Ora che abbiamo venduto la nostra compagnia, mi devi dare la parte di denaro che mi spetta*!

(Now that we have sold our company, you have to give me the part of money that I’m owed!)

(*mi spetta = spetta A me!)

MERITARSI means possessing or obtaining the requirements and characteristics that are necessary to receive a certain treatment (either positive or negative).

For example:

Dopo un anno di duro lavoro, mi merito una bella vacanza.

(After a year of hard work, I deserve a nice vacation.)

or…

Ti sei comportato male con Luca e lui ora non ti parla più: te lo sei meritato!

(You misbehaved with Luca and now he doesn’t talk to you anymore: you deserved it!)

…or even…

Si meriterebbe una bella punizione per il modo sgarbato con cui ha risposto ai suoi genitori!

(He/she would deserve to be grounded for the rude way he/she talked to his/her parents!)


2 – “TERRENO” vs “TERRESTRE”

The word TERRENO refers to anything that has to do with the earth as a crossing point, as opposing to the sky, the place of eternity. So, the adjective terreno underlines the temporary and worldly nature of the name it refers to, something that pertains to concrete life and not afterlife.

For example:

Luca è un materialista: è troppo legato ai beni terreni.

(Luca is a materialist: he’s too tied to earthly goods.)

or…

Il cibo è uno dei più gradevoli piaceri terreni.

(Food is one of the most enjoyable earthly pleasures.)


TERRESTRE refers to Earth from a geophysical point of view, meaning that it indicates certain things concerning -or in some way related to- our planet.

For example:

Oggi a scuola abbiamo studiato i movimenti di rotazione terrestre.

(Today at school we studied the movements of the Earth’s rotation.)

or…

La superficie terrestre corrisponde a poco più di 510 milioni di chilometri quadrati.

(The earth’s surface corresponds to just over 510 million square kilometers.)


3 – “SPACCARE” vs “SPACCARSI”

SPACCARE means breaking something, often with a violent and decisive blow – like in the example:

Francesco sta usando l’ascia per spaccare la legna.

(Francesco is using the axe to chop* wood.)

(*split, brake)

… but it can also be used in a figurative sense, such as:

Se non la smette di provocarmi, gli spacco la faccia.

(If he doesn’t stop provoking me, I’ll smash/break his face.)

Obviously in the latter case, it involves a threat which implies a slap or a punch, not an actual “total break” of someone’s face!


SPACCARSI is often used with that same meaning of “breaking“, but it’s a reflexive verb which means that it indicates that whatever is breaking, it’s doing so by itself and nothing -or nobody- else. For example:

Il partito si sta spaccando a causa della divergenza di opinioni.

(The party is splitting/breaking up due to the difference of opinion.)

Il quadro è caduto a causa del vento e si è spaccato in mille pezzi.

(The painting fell due to the wind and it smashed to smithereens.)

But “spaccarsi,” in informal and colloquial Italian, has a very different meaning too, which often confuses foreigners: it means working, working (too) hard, so much that we almost break ourselves!

Mi sono spaccata tutta la notte per riuscire a finire il progetto, ma i clienti lo hanno criticato dall’inizio alla fine! Che sfiga!

(I worked hard all night long to be able to finish the project, but my clients criticized it from start to end! What bad luck!)

Laura ha diritto a una promozione perché si spacca più di tutti i suoi colleghi in ufficio!

(Laura has the right to a promotion because she worked harder than all her colleagues in the office!)


4 – “INGAGGIARE” vs “ASSUMERE”

These two verbs have the same meaning, more or less: both ingaggiare and assumere mean employing someone and paying them.

However, there is a difference in use between the two verbs:

  • INGAGGIARE is used mainly used in sport and entertainment– “Il Milan proverà a ingaggiare nuovi calciatori quest’estate.” (AC Milan will try to sign new players this summer.), or “Per il suo compleanno, Marco ha ingaggiato un DJ molto famoso!” (For his birthday, Marco has hired a very famous DJ!).
  • Whereas ASSUMERE is used mostly in all other work contexts (companies, offices, shops, restaurants, etc.) – “Ultimamente, la ditta per la quale lavoro ha assunto nuovi impiegati.” (Lately, the company I work for has hired new employees.), or “Se continuiamo a lavorare con la Polonia, dovremo assumere una persona che parli molto bene il polacco!” (If we keep working with Poland, we will have to hire someone who can speak Polish very well!).

5 – “SUPPORTARE” vs “SOPPORTARE”

SUPPORTARE means helping someone, comforting or encouraging someone, supporting someone:

Sara è la mia migliore amica, mi è sempre stata vicina e mi ha supportata anche nei momenti più difficili.

(Sara is my best friend, she’s always been there for me and has supported me even in my toughest moments.)


Meanwhile SOPPORTARE means patiently tolerating a difficult or unpleasant situation

Non sopporto il freddo! Ma quando arriva l’estate?

(I can’t stand the cold! When does summer come?)

…or a person that bothers us.

Non so per quanto tempo ancora riuscirò a sopportare Marco: è troppo infantile!

(I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to put up with Marco: he’s too childish!)


6 – “GRIDARE” vs “SGRIDARE”

GRIDARE means yelling, screaming, raising your voice a lot:

Giulia era molto arrabbiata e ha gridato così forte che l’ha sentita tutto il vicinato!

(Giulia was really angry and she shouted so loudly the whole neighborhood heard her!)


Despite the slight visual difference, SGRIDARE means something else entirely: it means scolding someone for a mistake they have made, or for their bad attitude:

La mamma ha sgridato il bambino perché stava attraversando da solo una strada molto trafficata.

(The mom scolded her child because he was crossing a very busy street on his own.)


7 – “FARE UN GIRO” vs “PORTARE IN GIRO” vs “PRENDERE IN GIRO”

FARE UN GIRO means going for a stroll, walking around a place:

Oggi io e Lucia abbiamo fatto un giro in centro e abbiamo comprato molti vestiti nuovi.

(Today Lucia and I have taken a walk downtown and have bought many new clothes.)


PORTARE IN GIRO means accompanying someone for a walk or to run some errands by walking…

Quando Marco verrà a trovarci, lo porteremo in giro per la città e gli faremo vedere tutti i luoghi più interessanti.

(When Marco will come and visit us, we will take him around the city, and we will show him all the most interesting places.)

… or by means of transportation.

Mio fratello porta sempre in giro in macchina mio nonno quando deve sbrigare delle faccende importanti.

(My brother always drives* our grandfather around when he has some important errands to do.)

*Portare in giro (in macchina) = “drive around”, or “take around by car”

PRENDERE IN GIRO means mocking, offending someone in a light -or heavy- way, but it also means to con someone, deceive them with false promises.

For example:

Quei due ci hanno preso in giro. Pensavamo davvero che fossero degli avvocati e invece erano solo dei truffatori. 

(Those two fooled us. We thought they were lawyers, but they were just scam artists instead.)


8 – “DIRIGERE” vs “DIRIGERSI”

DIRIGERE means being in charge of something, leading something from a technical or administrative point of view (directing a company, an orchestra).

For example:

Stefano dirige l’azienda di famiglia da più di 10 anni.

(Stefano has been running the family business for over 10 years.)


DIRIGERSI means moving, going toward a specific place, on foot or by public transportation (or car).

For example:

Non appena la cerimonia è finita, ci siamo diretti alla sala ricevimenti per festeggiare gli sposi.

(As soon as the ceremony was over, we headed toward the reception room to celebrate the newlyweds.)

That’s all for this article! Did you already know the differences between all these pairs of words? Let us know in the comments below! If after reading this article you want to continue studying the Italian language, we recommend the article on invariable nouns and adjectives.

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