How many times have you heard someone using the Italian expression “si tratta di…“? I am sure it has happened more than just a couple of times – after all, the verb trattare has several different meanings and uses! This is precisely the reason why, once you reach an intermediate level in your study of the Italian language, it’s advisable that you introduce it in your personal vocabulary, and do not forget to use it from time to time! I know that it’s not easy, but that’s why I am here: in this article we will try and understand together the meaning of this verb, how it’s used and what are the most common mistakes made by foreigners who try to use it.
SI TRATTA DI…
In this article you will find as many as five different ways in which this verb is mistakenly used by those who study the Italian language. Obviously, there is something I have to do first: explaining what this verb means, because it has nothing to do with the verb TRATTARE!
THE VERB “TRATTARSI”
TRATTARSI is a reflexive verb that means “consisting in something”, “being the issue, the object of something“, “being the true nature of an event”. It is always accompanied by the preposition DI, which is then followed by a noun or a pronoun.
-Ho ricevuto un pacco! (I received a package!)
+Di che cosa si tratta? (what is it?)
–Si tratta della mia nuova crema per la pelle! (it’s my new lotion!)
As you can see in the example above, the question you would have to ask is “di che cosa si tratta?” which, in this case, is another way of asking what is inside the package. This is the question we have to ask our interlocutor when we want to ask them the nature of said thing. The answer (si tratta di…) means that the content of the package is a lotion.
So, as we have already said, TRATTARSI DI is a very commonly used form: it can be found both in written and spoken Italian, and foreigners try to use it too, but they often do so incorrectly. How so? What kind of mistakes do they make? Let’s see them together!
EXPRESSIONS AND COMMON MISTAKES
- QUESTO FILM / LIBRO SI TRATTA DI…
During my lessons, I often hear students say “Questo film si tratta di un uomo che…” or “Questo libro si tratta di guerra”, when they want to talk about the topic of a film or a book. These sentences are completely wrong because the verb TRATTARSI DI is an impersonal verb and, as a result, it can only be conjugated at the third person singular, without a subject, exactly like any other impersonal verb.
Other examples of impersonal verbs in Italian are:
– Piovere (piove) = Rain (it rains);
– Nevicare (nevica) = Snow (it snows);
– Bisognare (bisogna) = Need (it needs)/ Must (it must).
They are intransitive verbs, and it means that sentences such as “il cielo piove” (the sky rains) and “la macchina bisogna la benzina” (the car needs gasoline) are completely wrong in Italian!
Therefore, if I say “Questo film si tratta di…” I am assigning a subject to the verb, but it is not possible because TRATTARSI DI is used on its own, often at the beginning of a sentence, and it’s followed by the object whose existence we want to emphasize.
Let’s see some examples to make things clearer:
-Ieri ti hanno vista a un evento a Parigi! (Yesterday, they saw you at an event in Paris!)
+Si tratta di un errore. Non ho mai lasciato la mia casa ieri. (It’s not possible. I did not leave my house yesterday.) — SI TRATTA DI un errore = IT IS a mistake
-Che succede? Sembri preoccupata… (What is going on? You look troubled…)
+Si tratta del mio lavoro. Temo che mi licenzieranno. (It has to do with my job. I’m afraid I’ll get fired.) — SI TRATTA DEL mio lavoro = the OJECT OF MY CONCERN is my job
-Vedo che stai guardando qualcosa in TV. Di cosa si tratta? (I see you’re watching something on TV. What is it?) — di cosa SI TRATTA? = what IS the show you’re watching ABOUT?
+Si tratta di un documentario sulla vita di Pablo Escobar. (It’s a documentary on Pablo Escobar’s life= — SI TRATTA DI un documentario = the show I’m watching IS a documentary
Having clarified this point, I must open a parenthesis: the sentence “Questo libro si tratta di guerra” there is another mistake because TRATTARSI DI is used to introduce the topic of the book – this is NOT right! It does not express the topic, but rather the existence, the essence, the character of something.
If I grabbed a book, you could ask me: “Cosa hai in mano?” (What are you holding?) – and I would reply: “Si tratta di un libro” (It’s a book) because it’s the nature of what I am holding, its essence. On the other hand, if I wanted to tell you what this book is about, its topic, I would have to use different verbs, such as:
“Questo libro parla di guerra”, “Questo libro tratta la guerra”, “Questo libro affronta il tema della guerra”.
The verbs PARLARE DI (+ noun), TRATTARE (+ article+noun) and AFFRONTARE IL TEMA DI (+article+noun) can all be used to talk about a topic and are all roughly translated as “it is about”.
- È SI TRATTA DI…
The second most frequent mistake is using TRATTARSI DI with the verb ” to be”, as if it was an adjective – this is NEVER possible! What you can do, if necessary, is to use TRATTARSI DI with the modal verbs DOVERE (must) and POTERE (can), to express a hypothesis and some personal opinions on the essence of something.
-Ho ricevuto una lettera. Cosa sarà? (I have received a letter. What can it be?)
+Deve trattarsi della multa che hai preso la scorsa settimana. (It must be the traffic ticket you got last week.)
Here, the modal verb DOVERE + TRATTARSI DI express a hypothesis based on solid facts: it’s highly probable that she has received a traffic ticket because she knows she has broken some traffic rules.
-Ho del rossore proprio qui sul braccio… (I have some redness right here on my arm…)
–Potrebbe trattarsi di un’allergia al tessuto della maglia. (It could be an allergic reaction to the t-shirt fabric.)
In this example, the modal verb POTERE + TRATTARSI DI express an opinion, a hypothesis that is not completely sure: the fabric could have caused the redness, but it is not a certainty.
- “TRATTARSI DI”: SYNONYMOUS WITH THE VERB “TO BE”?
Once you read and understand the previous point, another doubt might arise spontaneously: is the verb TRATTARSI DI synonymous with the verb TO BE? Well, generally speaking, yes – and the examples we have just seen are a proof of this.
– Deve trattarsi della multa = Deve essere la multa
– Potrebbe trattarsi di un’allergia = Potrebbe essere un’allergia
Be careful though, because TRATTARSI DI gives greater emphasis on the object, it focuses all the attention on it!
- SI TRATTANO DI… + plural object
Another very frequent mistake is using SI TRATTA DI (which is at the 3rd-person singular) when it’s followed by a singular object and SI TRATTANO DI (3rd-person plural) when the object is plural…this is wrong! Once again, the reason why it’s wrong is given by the fact that TRATTARSI DI is an impersonal verb: impersonal verbs do not have a subject, hence there’s no agreement between subject and verb! Yes, this means that TRATTARSI DI is always conjugated at the 3rd singular person, regardless of the object that follows it.
-Chi ti manda tanti messaggi? (Who is texting you this much?)
+Si tratta di mia madre. Vuole sapere se ho mangiato. (It’s my mother. She wants to know if I have eaten.)
+Si tratta dei miei amici. Vogliono invitarmi a una festa stasera. (It’s my friends. They want to invite me to a party tonight.)
- SI HA TRATTATO DI…
Being an impersonal verb, TRATTARSI DI can be conjugated in all tenses and moods – this is something we will talk about later on, but first we have to clarify the auxiliary verb it needs. Many people mistakenly use the verb AVERE + TRATTATO DI (past participle of the verb trattare), when trattare is always paired with the auxiliary ESSERE.
-Ho saputo che hai fatto un incidente! Come stai? (I have heard that you had an accident! How are you?)
+Bene, bene, niente di grave per fortuna! Si è trattato solo di un piccolo tamponamento. (I’m good, no big deal! It was just a small rear-end collision.)
Quando il capo mi ha convocato in ufficio, pensavo che mi avrebbe licenziato. Invece no! Si trattava della nuova cliente, che aveva voglia di conoscermi. (When my boss called me in his office, I thought he was going to fire me. But he didn’t! It was just the new client, she wanted to know me.)
-Ma davvero Luca ha aggredito quell’uomo? (Did Luca really attack that man?)
+ Sinceramente penso si sia trattato di un malinteso. Luca non farebbe male a una mosca! (Honestly, I think it’s a misunderstanding. Luca wouldn’t hurt a fly!)
Hanno arrestato un sospettato per l’omicidio di ieri sera. Si tratterebbe del giardiniere della casa della vittima. (A suspect has been arrested with regard to the homicide that took place last night. It would be the victim’s gardener.)
Ho appena ricevuto una chiamata da un lontano cugino che non sento quasi mai. Si tratterà dell’invito al suo matrimonio. (I have just received a call from a distant cousin that I almost never hear from. It must be an invitation to his wedding.)
You thought this lesson was over, didn’t you? Well, there is one last thing we need to talk about. Up until now, we have talked about the use and meaning of TRATTARSI DI when it’s followed by a noun or a pronoun…but we have yet to talk about TRATTARSI DI + infinitive verb! In this case, it takes the meaning of “it is necessary, must be, have to” – this meaning is less common.
– Questo questionario è molto facile da compilare. Si tratta solo di rispondere sì o no. (This questionnaire is easy to complete. You just have to answer yes or no.)
– Lucia mi ha chiesto di farle da testimone alle sue nozze. Si tratterà solo di mettere una firma.(Lucia asked me to be her maid of honor. I will just have to sign my name and make a speech.)
– Quando io e le mie amiche eravamo piccole, giocavamo a fare le modelle: in pratica, si trattava di sfilare nel corridoio indossando i vestiti e le scarpe delle nostre mamme. (When my friends and I were little girls, we pretended to be models: basically, we just had to walk down the hallway wearing our moms’ dresses and shoes.)
Now we’re actually done! I hope you liked this article and that you found it useful. Let me know in the comments if you already knew this expression and do not forget to read our article on the most common mistakes made with the locution VALERE LA PENA.