Media still need improved understanding of STV

Perhaps the big moment of the recent Assembly Election campaign was Mike Nesbitt’s statement that he would transfer to the SDLP. The debate will rage about whether this was politically or strategically the right thing, but what was widely missed by the media at the time was that his statement was in fact irrelevant, at least in terms of his own vote.

Firstly, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP together were running only 45 candidates – not enough for a majority of the 90 seats in order to pursue their programme, even if they happened to be the largest party in each designation. On top of that, there was no chance of the SDLP winning a seat in East Belfast, where in the previous election they had attained the worst result ever in any constituency by an incumbent Executive party. Even this time, on a rising turnout, the party could muster only 250.

Mr Nesbitt’s vote, therefore, was never going to reach the SDLP.

In fact, it was never realistically going to leave his own party’s candidate, unless he lost his seat comfortably. If your first preference vote is cast for a candidate who does not reach quota on the first count but is subsequently elected (or runner-up), no part of it ever transfers. The only time a portion of your vote transfers is if it happens to count towards an elected candidate at the time of election (i.e. on the count which elects that candidate). Mr Nesbitt’s vote was only ever going to transfer if his own party’s candidate, Andy Allen, performed so terribly that he was eliminated before it was clear which five candidates would be elected (which was never likely).

So in fact the immediate next question for Mr Nesbitt should have been to point out that his vote was not going to transfer, and even if it did it was never reaching the SDLP. Was he really just engaged in a bit opportunism to try to scramble some of his own candidates in the West home on SDLP transfers (if so, this actually worked in Fermanagh & South Tyrone)? And indeed, why go for the SDLP second preference ahead of the potentially relevant Alliance Party, whose MLAs would be needed for him ever to command a majority as First Minister?

The electoral system is complex, and for that reason I personally do not like it. However, the media do need to get a better grasp of it.

“Unionist Unity” now certain

Unionists, as ever, instantly misdiagnosed the cause of their calamity last Thursday, suggesting it was due to Unionists “not coming out”.

Actually, more people voted Unionist first preference than in any election since the first Assembly Election in 1998. What happened was not that Unionists did not come out, but that non-Unionists did.

Only ten months ago, non-Unionists saw no real issue with the constitutional status quo. It was possible to live in Northern Ireland with the benefit of the UK subvention and UK-standard public services while, if you so choose, living an all-island life (trading freely across the border, accessing Dublin Airport, playing GAA or whatever). From June to December, all that changed. Suddenly, the all-island life came under threat – it may no longer be straightforward to trade or travel freely across the island; your identity was openly abused by DUP Ministers; and on top of that DUP Leaders were blatantly taking money from your public services (at best through incredible incompetence).

The DUP was primarily responsible but it had been backed to nearly every intent and purpose by other Unionists. They had been involved in pacts not just to unseat abstentionist MPs but also perfectly capable and hard-working ones such as Naomi Long; Mike Nesbitt’s sudden attempt at moderation on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to Europe was rejected by most of his colleagues and most of his voters; and Unionism as a whole suddenly looked not just unattractive but outright dangerous. The UK itself, with its obsession with Trump-like figures such as Nigel Farage, also became much less attractive.

Therefore, on Thursday, the voters decided to remind Unionism that it is a minority.

Still, Unionists are in denial about that. At the last census, fully six years ago, the number of people ticking “British” was 48% and the number of people ticking “Protestant background” was 48% – noting that Alliance voters like me were among that number! Thus “Unionism” was a minority interest even back then, shielded from this reality at elections only by the low Nationalist turnout.

Going by census trends, it is now almost certain than there are more people of Catholic background than Protestant background in Northern Ireland. If the Union were such a brilliant idea, this would not be a problem for Unionists; but Unionism presents itself consistently as a Protestant and socially conservative front. There is zero chance, with the DUP to the fore, that that will change. It is therefore a minority and declining interest.

The inevitable response to this will be to deny it is true, but also to recognise at some level that it is. It is the heritage of Unionists that the response will, more than ever, be appeals towards “unity”, even though this unity will not appeal to any more than 45% of the population (and, given its likely social stances, probably rather less).

Unionist Unity is now a matter of when, not if. Yet it is not Unionists who will decide Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.

#AE17 Analysis

There has been some electoral analysis since results came through on Friday which has focused on transfers. However, transfers are like away goals – they only matter if it is close in the first place. In fact, the story of this election is as much if not more about first preference votes, which are the real determiner of where most seats go.

Clearly the SDLP did benefit from transfers; notably a lot of transfers originating from ex-DUP Ulster Unionist candidate Jenny Palmer did not go to the DUP, enabling the SDLP to take an unexpected Lagan Valley seat. Fermanagh & South Tyrone is arguably more freaky, with an SDLP elimination helping the Ulster Unionist over the line (but, without that elimination occurring so soon, it would in fact have been an Ulster Unionist helping the SDLP over the line). It was always likely the SDLP would sneak the last seat in East Londonderry and Upper Bann on the back of Ulster Unionist transfers and the simple fact it is very hard to balance two candidates ahead of one even if you have close to two-and-a-half times as many first preference votes. So it is not that transfers do not matter, but it is worth noting that these are almost always transfers from eliminated candidates.

In the end, however, you get nowhere without first preference votes, and it is here that the Ulster Unionists were unlucky or foolish, depending on how you look at it. The Ulster Unionist first preference vote share actually rose by 0.3 points to 12.9% and back over 100,000 votes, yet yielded a calamitous result. Here, we need to look at the geography.

I have noted before that Northern Ireland can be split electorally into four distinct unit – trends in each unit are usually the same way, but can vary significantly between them. These units are:

  • Belfast City (the four Belfast constituencies);
  • Belfast suburbs (the five constituencies around Belfast);
  • Border/Rural (South Down, Upper Bann, Newry/Armagh, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, West Tyrone); and
  • North Coast/Lough (Foyle, East Londonderry, Mid Ulster, North Antrim).

The Ulster Unionist performance in these is most marked. In its best ever election for first preference vote, in 2003, the party scored 18.0%, 33.6%, 21.1% and 16.5% in these areas respectively, adding up to 22.7% overall; but by 2011 these had changed to 8.8%, 17.4%, 16.9% and 7.7% for 13.2%. Clearly this was a dip everywhere, but it was much less pronounced in Border/Rural. However, fast forward to 2017 and we find 7.3%, 22.1%, 12.6% and 8.1% for 12.9% – the same vote share more or less, but yielded in quite different locations. The marked rise to 22.1% in the Belfast suburbs, the best for 14 years, saw only one gain (East Antrim) and actually two losses (Strangford and Lagan Valley) in the five-seaters. It also constituted stacking up votes in places like North Down where they were not required. However, in the Border/Rural areas disaster struck – the marked comparative decline saw a near wipe-out, with only one seat out of five retained. We can see here, therefore, how the different geographic trends led to markedly different outcomes – had the party been able to “lend” some votes from the Belfast suburbs to Border/Rural, that would have cost it little in the former but saved it a lot in the latter. To a degree, this is luck of the draw, but it again points to what a strategic error Leader Mike Nesbitt’s transfer remarks (broadly welcomed in the Unionist majority suburbs but not at all in the Nationalist majority border area) were.

Another note here is the beginning of the evening up of the Alliance performance. These figures for the party in 2011 were 13.1%, 14.9%, 2.8% and 2.9% for 7.7% overall; in a similarly impressive election they are now 14.9%, 15.0%, 4.5% and 3.6% for 9.1%, with the added 1.4 points thus coming primarily away from Greater Belfast. On this occasion, this yielded no more seats (although the eight holds were very comfortable), but even a slight improvement in future surely would.

We live in interesting times…

Arlene is not a bad person, just a bad Leader

Politics is a bloodsport, as we found out over the last few days. However, we should remember the human side, even with regard to people who have made mistakes.

Arlene Foster is a capable and kind person. Much of the criticism of her as a departmental and party leader is justified, but we should not forget the human being.

I can take you to people, indeed even among my wife’s canvass team, who will confirm her warm nature. It is small wonder Fermanagh people are so loyal to her at a human level, even if it is baffling for some of us at a political level.

Arlene Foster is a fine public servant and is someone who has delivered much good in her own locality. What she is not, is a political leader. She did not deliver significantly as a Minister and one particular oversight saw half a billion pounds disappear from the public purse. This is serious, of course, but on balance of probability I do not believe it was intentional on her part. It shows she has poor judgement as a Leader, but we must distinguish that from the human being capable of good work and kindness.

Arlene Foster is obviously, clearly, under immense strain. Again, having cost us all so much money and cost her movement the electoral majority it had always had by misreading the public mood, it is hard to feel any political sympathy. Nevertheless, such pressure rarely brings the best out of anyone at a human level.

There is much speculation about her political future, but I just hope someone is thinking of her personal future. Arlene Foster still has much to offer as a capable and kind public servant. But she is not a Leader. Her Leadership was not good for the Department of Enterprise, it was not good for Unionism, and it was not good for her personally. I sincerely hope people in her circle are gently telling her that.

How to learn languages – Portuguese

Portuguese, a significant global language given its predominance in Brazil, comes next among Latinate languages and then we will move back east and north.

But here we have a problem. Because, ahem, a verdade é que não falo Português…

Mind, let us compare that straight away to Vulgar Latin:

  • I had shown words the development of words such as veritate, which developed to Portuguese verdade ‘truth’ (see also here);
  • Late Latin –(i)one generally becomes a full nasal in Portuguese, written –ã(thus, for example, o ‘not’);
  • I had mentioned in Vulgar Latin fabulare had taken on the broad meaning ‘speak’, developing in Portuguese to falar.

So, the above means ‘the truth is I do not speak Portuguese’. Easy…

Actually I do speak a little rusty Portuguese (otherwise I could not write this), having spent some time over several years near Lisbon in my late teens. Nevertheless, how would I or anyone else go about learning it properly?

(In this case, particularly, all corrections welcome…)


For European football fans, Portuguese is the language of the moment after all, so let us take a look!


Portuguese is characterised by distinct nasal sounds, marked variously (nacão ‘nation’, portagem ‘[toll] gate’, muito ‘much’); that of Portugal is additionally particularly recognisable from its slushy sound (<s> before a consonant or at the end of a word is pronounced like English <sh>, e.g. nacões ‘nations’, escola ‘school’; <d> is also somewhat palatalised before <e> or <i>, almost like English <j>, in words such as cidade ‘city’ or dia ‘day’).

Marked also, again particularly in Portugal, is the shortness of vowels. These can almost be clipped between consonants and at the end of words (final <e> is generally silent).

Double consonants are often written etymologically but not pronounced (e.g. passar ‘pass’). Palatised /l/ and /n/ are written with a following <h> (filho ‘son’; Espanha ‘Spain’). A complex series of initial consonant clusters ending <l> in Latin has been reduced to initial <ch> in words such as chover ‘rain’ (< Vulgar Latin plovere), chama ‘flame’ (< flamma), chave ‘key’ (< clavis).

Brazilian and European Portuguese are easily distinguishable – the latter seeming a lot faster due to its slushier and clipped nature (those are, admittedly, not technical terms!)

What in English is known as a “tilde” (e.g. ãõ) was originally a following letter n, marked by both Portuguese and Spanish calligraphers above the previous letter to save space.


Portuguese has a bizarre history well beyond the scope of this blog post, because its first identifiable form came not in modern Portugal at all, but in the now Spanish region of Galicia to the north. Essentially three major modern Latin-based languages spread south from the northern Iberian peninsula – Catalan to the east; Castilian (what most now call “Spanish”) in the middle and Galician to the west. Those Galician speakers heading south during the Reconquista of the Peninsula ended up founding the Kingdom of Portugal (while those who remained in Galicia ended up tied to Spain – in fact, the current Prime Minister of Spain is Galician).

The standardisation of Portuguese, begun when it was recognised as the common language of the people distinct from Latin in the 1290s (at the same time as the foundation of the first university in Portugal, now in Coimbra), was complex. The emergence of literary norms struggled to deal with a significant sound shift in the late Middle Ages. The practical outcome is that the language has far more variations in vowels than neighbouring Castilian Spanish, thus requiring a much wider range of accent marks. (For the record Galician remains a regional language of Spain with its own written system, now linguistically somewhere between Castilian and Standard Portuguese.)

Unusually among European languages, the current Portuguese Standard is primarily the work of one man, Gonçalves Viana, tasked to carry it out at the beginning of the Portuguese Republic shortly before the Great War. Passing this task to one man, and assuming that the main aim was direct phonemic representation, caused its own problems, again beyond the scope of this blog post. Perhaps Portuguese spelling is best described as very complex, but at least quite consistent. (Brazil adopted its own similar but not identical Standard some decades later.)

A controversial spelling reform in the past few years sought to bring the varieties of Portuguese (predominantly “Brazilian” on one hand and “European” on the other; African varieties generally follow “European” literary norms) closer together. Nevertheless, although such things are difficult to quantify exactly, the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese are probably greater than between, for example, American and British English. Not only do some (albeit now fewer) spellings and words vary, but grammar is markedly different. By most accounts the Portuguese have little difficulty understanding Brazilians (as they are used to Brazilian soap operas etc), but the reverse is not always true, particularly when speech becomes more informal and colloquial.


Portuguese vocabulary is largely of Latin origin, though Portugal’s history under Arabic-speaking rule and subsequently as an imperial power in its own right have led to some other influences.

Key numbers:

  • 1 um; 2 dois/duas; 3 três; 4 quatro; 5 cinco; 6 seis; 7 sete; 8 oito; 9 nove; 10 dez;
  • 11 onze; 12 doze; 16 dezesseis; 17 dezessete; 20 vinte; 21 vinte e um; 100 cem;
  • 1000 mil; 456789 quatrocentos e cinquenta e seis mil setecentos e oitenta e nove.

A key word in Portuguese without obvious parallel is ficar ‘be, get’.

Key personal pronouns:

  • singular eu, me (mim); familiar tu, te (ti) or polite você; ele/ela, o/a (lhe);
  • plural nós, nos; vocês; eles/elas, os/as (lhes)


Portuguese nouns have one of two genders, masculine often ending -o and feminine -a (but note feminine -ão). Plural generally adds -(e)s but there are exceptions (and -ão becomes –-ões).

Verb endings in present tense (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • canto, cantas, canta; cantamos, cantatis, cantam.

Note also “infinitive” cantar; “past participle” cantado; “gerund” candando.

The Portuguese verb is extraordinarily complex. Not only has it endings to mark present, past preterite, past imperfect, future and conditional, it also includes endings for a pluperfect in use in daily speech; it also has the full range of past, present and future subjunctives all in use even colloquially. To this is even added a set of personal infinitives. Portuguese then uses ter (cf. Italian avere, Spanish haber) as the auxiliary verb to form the perfect.

Portuguese is a pro-drop language, meaning verbs can be used without the subject if the subject is clear: canto ‘I sing’; terminam ‘they finish’; o vimos ‘we saw it’.

However in the 21st century, unlike in other Latinate languages, there is a marked growing tendency to include the subject regardless, particularly in Brazil: eu canto; eles terminam; nós o vimos.

Portuguese adjectives agree with nouns in all positions; generally they appear attributively after them.

Portuguese articles are also exceptional as the definite has been reduced to masculine o (plural os) and feminine a (as). This is used before possessives: a meu chave ‘my key’. The indefinite article is slightly more complex, with masculine um and feminine uma also having plural forms uns and umas (used typically to mean ‘some, a number of’; umas chaves ‘a number of keys’).

Common Portuguese prepositions:

  • de ‘of, from’, com ‘with’, a ‘to’, por ‘for, on behalf of’, para ‘for, towards’.

Most of these are combined with the definite article where relevant, sometimes with amendments:

  • da ‘of the’ [feminine singular]; ao ‘to the’ [masculine singular]; pelas ‘for the’ [from para+os; masculine plural]; ás ‘to the’ [from a+as; feminine plural].

Usage of pronouns, particularly personal pronouns, varies between dialects, even within Brazil and Portugal. In some areas, including most of Brazil, você (used typically with a third person verb) has taken over entirely for ‘you’, meaning second-person verb forms are lost entirely.

Word order is typically SVO or SOV where the object is a personal pronoun. However, the exact order of items where personal pronouns appear as objects is complex, and varies also between Brazilian and European usage.


Portuguese is a rhythmically very different language from Spanish or Italian; while structurally very similar to the former, it sounds utterly distinct.

It is a markedly verbal language, with a wide range of subtleties in tense and mood expressed through the huge range of endings (and combinations of auxiliary verbs) available.

What next?

Next week we will stay in Iberia with Castilian Spanish, an apparently similar (but in practice very different sounding) language.

Pai nosso, que estás no céu; santificado seja o teu nome; venha o teu reino; seja feita a tua vontade; assim na terra como no céu; o pão nosso de cada dia nos dai hoje; e perdoai as nossas dívidas; assim como nós perdoamos os nossos devedores; e não nos deixes cair em tentação; mas livrai-nos do mal.

#AE17 Predictions

At last year’s Assembly Election I was three seats out. The only prediction I make this time is I will be further out with these. But anyway…

  • Antrim, East DUP 2, UU 2, AP 1;
  • Antrim, North DUP 2, SF 1, TUV 1, UU 1;
  • Antrim, South DUP 2, UU 1, SF 1, AP 1;
  • Belfast East DUP 2, AP 2, UU 1;
  • Belfast North DUP 2, SF 2, SDLP 1;
  • Belfast South DUP 1, SDLP 1, AP 1, SF 1, Green 1;
  • Belfast West SF 3, PbP 2;
  • Down, North DUP 2, AP 1, UU 1, Green 1;
  • Down, South SF 2, SDLP 2, DUP 1;
  • Fermanagh & ST SF 3, DUP 2;
  • Foyle SF 2, SDLP 2, DUP 1;
  • Lagan Valley DUP 2, UU 2, AP 1;
  • Londonderry, East DUP 2, SF 1, SDLP 1, Ind 1;
  • Mid Ulster SF 2, SDLP 1, UU 1, DUP 1;
  • Newry & Armagh SF 2, SDLP 1, UU 1, DUP 1;
  • Strangford DUP 2, UU 2, AP 1;
  • Tyrone, West SF 3, DUP 1, SDLP 1;
  • Upper Bann DUP 2, UU 1, SF 1, SDLP 1.

The totals here are irrelevant because a lot of these are toss-ups and, to begin with, they are based on assumptions which no one could be sure about one way or the other. But, for what it is worth, they come to:

  • VI Assembly DUP 29, SF 24, UU 12, SDLP 11, AP 8, PbP 2, Green 2, TUV 1, Ind 1.

If this is remotely accurate (and we never know until the votes are counted), it would suggest a Sinn Fein strategic blunder. The fact is they went to the election too early – before the case against the then First Minister was proven. That enabled the DUP to present the case as uncertain or even as a Republican plot, and return comfortably as the largest party despite some losses.

Want to annoy DUP? Vote Alliance

Nothing annoys the DUP more than people voting Alliance.

Yes, it’s a bit irritating when they vote for other Unionists, but at least they’re still “one of us”. It’s quite annoying when they vote Nationalist, but that is what you expect from “themmuns”. In particular, a Sinn Féin vote is not ideal, but frankly they are not competition. Likewise the Greens. Actually a People Before Profit vote probably annoys Sinn Féin, so that’s borderline positive.

No, what really irks the DUP is an Alliance vote. These pesky progressives with their common sense, and considered positions, and rational outlook, and worst of all a Christian Leader who quite unbelievably thinks a God of Grace would be harsher on the deceptive and the corrupt than He would on someone marrying the person they love… I mean what kind of reasoned, sensible tomfoolery is this?

And of course these galling Alliance types all want politics to be about irrelevant stuff like health, jobs and education. And they suggest there is something odd about Saudi-linked donors, fiver land deals, and ratepayers’ money going to Orange Halls! I mean it’s absurd.

And as for the notion that we should be doing something about sectarian segregation of public services, most obviously education… I mean anyone would think people actually wanted the money spent on cancer drugs or new school buildings instead. Such rational analysis defies belief.

It is very important therefore to accuse them of plotting when they do the normal things you do, terrify people about positions they don’t actually hold, and stand aside when their offices get arsoned by rioters. Remember, we can’t have Alliance being elected, because they might want to engage in radical reform – like having a competent government for all the people of Northern Ireland. I mean who could possibly desire such a thing?

So there it is.

Do you really want to annoy the DUP tomorrow? Vote Alliance first preference!


Health Transformation must not be hindered by Executive omnishambles

By Paula Bradshaw, outgoing MLA for South Belfast and Health Committee member 2016-17.

A frustration of this election campaign, like so many others, is that parties have sought to make it about things other than those which matter to people’s daily lives – jobs, education, health and so on. Those are in fact the areas of policy upon which the Executive makes decisions and where Assembly members can make a real difference – yet for reasons best known to themselves, the outgoing Executive parties have largely chosen to ignore them.

Making a real difference is why I got involved in politics. One of my first moves as an MLA in the Assembly was to present a petition of equal access to cancer drugs; my last act of the term was to meet the Minister and be informed that indeed a consultation was being set up to enable the complex administrative changes to take place so that equal access to cancer drugs could become a reality. I am a results person and I was delighted by this outcome.

Over my time on the Health Committee I was able also to ensure that there would be access to other drugs previously denied to us in Northern Ireland such as nivumulab; I was able to raise the profile of conditions which do not have a large lobby presence here such as ME; and I was successful in pushing for an inquiry to ensure Allied Health Professionals are more prominent in the process of Health and Social Care Transformation.

I was therefore utterly appalled that the Executive fell, for no good reason whatsoever. No politician should ever put their own interests ahead of the greater good, especially at such a key period in Health and Social Care reform (as well as tackling education gridlock, planning for Brexit and everything else). I was even more appalled that it fell without a Budget (due last year) and without a comprehensive overall Health Reform plan.

It is clear that institutional reform is required, otherwise the system would not have collapsed after only eight months; it is also clear that we need different political leaders determined to make the institutions work for all the people, not just for themselves and a select few. But, to be clear, I and my Alliance colleagues are seeking re-election to make it work and to get back to work.

I would dearly love to get back to work on the Health Committee too, where we had by and large put partisan priorities aside. However, Reform is a complex process and it is not enough simply to say it must proceed. The process will require significant financial investment; it will require the recruitment of change management expertise; and it will require highly competent risk management procedures. Nor is it good enough merely to consult on criteria or to produce one-year plans; an overall ten-year reform plan is necessary, with clarity about how success will be assessed and how failure will be countered. Such a complex process is no place for populists; it will be challenging and it requires political and administrative leaders prepared to meet the challenge.

I trust, therefore, that on 2 March the people of Northern Ireland will turn out to vote, and that they will reject the petty divisive populism of the past and instead return to Stormont people who want to get things done. That is the choice before us!

How to learn languages – Italian

Italian, spoken by about 70 million people as a mother tongue and over 100 million in all, is a major European language but, purely in terms of numbers, is not by any means of real global significance.

However, it is probably the best language to learn first of all those derived from Latin (the other relevant Western European national languages being French, Spanish and Portuguese), assuming your intent is to learn them all. This is because its vocabulary is closest to Vulgar Latin, its grammar reflects both French and Spanish (so is something of an intermediary between them), and in general it displays some typically Latinate complexity without being freakishly difficult to learn.


What do we need to know?


It is not for nothing that Italian is regarded as a lyrical and romantic language. With the exception of some common short words, native Italian words must end in vowels. This is what makes it, in every sense, a musical language. Indeed Italian generally lacks characteristically hard sounds.

Double consonants are so pronounced, as they were in Latin (but no longer are in any other major language derived from it).

English speakers are often confused by the <ch> (and to a lesser extent <gh>) spelling, which marks a hard consonant /k/ (or /g/) before a high vowel (<e> or <i>).


“Now we have created Italy, we must create Italians” goes the famous quote from the 1848 Risorgimento. Even now, Italians generally speak of the Italian “languages” (plural), reflecting a wide range of traditional regional dialects.

The standard language, which still allows some significant variation, is based on the Tuscan of Dante, thus with a slightly northern and slightly conservative bias. The standard written form is therefore based on the speech of Florence around 1350, but (unlike English and French) the spoken version is based directly on it. Therefore, despite this conservatism (meaning Italian remains the closest national language to Latin), pronunciation does reflect spelling (in that order).

Italian rules around written accents allow for some variation, but generally only a grave to mark a closed vowel (lattè ‘milk’) or strengthened vowel in a diphthong (più ‘more’) is used.


Italian vocabulary is overwhelmingly of Latin origin, with relatively few other influences. There was a re-influencing from French around and after the Renaissance (as French became the language of High Culture and philosophy across Europe), and there is significant recent influence from English.

Key numbers:

  • 1 uno; 2 due; 3 tre; 4 quattro; 5 cinque; 6 sei; 7 sette; 8 otto; 9 nove; 10 dieci;
  • 11 undici; 12 dodici; 16 sedici; 17 diciassette; 20 venti; 21 ventuno;
  • 100 cento; 1000 mille; 456789 quattrocentocinquantaseimila settecentottantanove.

Italian personal pronouns have shifted markedly in recent centuries. Notably, it has a peculiar and widely used pronoun ci, used both as a dummy subject (e.g. ci sono ‘there are’) and since late Medieval times as a first person plural object (replacing nos as it switched towards ni).

Key personal pronouns:

  • singular io, me, mi; tu, te, ti, lui/lei, gli/le, lo/la; 
  • plural noi, ci; voi, vi; loro, li/le.

Generally feminine third person pronouns (Lei, La; Loro, Le/Li) tend also to be used as polite second.


Italian nouns are one of two genders, marked singular or plural. Masculine nouns often end singular -o plural -i; feminine singular -a plural -e, with another set of either gender ending singular -e plural -i.

Verb endings in present tense (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • canto, canti, canta; cantiamo, cantate, cantano.

Note also “infinitive” cantare; “past participle” cantato; “gerund” candando.

Verbs are marked for tense (and aspect) and agree with their subject noun; the subjunctive mood is widespread. Non-subjunctive endings may mark present, imperfect, conditional or future tenses (also past, although this is generally reserved for writing); combinations with the verb avere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ may also mark perfect (or general past in speech), pluperfect or future-perfect (he creduto ‘I have believed’; eravamo andati ‘we had gone’; avranno visto ‘We will have seen’). Immediacy can be marked with andare ‘to go’ and progressive aspect with stare ‘to stand’. Fewer tense endings are in use with the subjunctive, although the full range with avere, essere, andare and stare are available.

Italian is a pro-drop language, meaning verbs can be used without the subject if the subject is clear: amo ‘I love’, finiscono ‘they finish’, lo hanno visto ‘We saw it’.

Adjectives agree in number and gender with nouns in all circumstances, with the same endings as for nouns above (uomo piccolo ‘small man’; costa verde ‘green coast’; canzoni italiane ‘Italian songs’). Attributively, they tend to go after the noun, but not always (dolce vita ‘sweet life’).

The singular articles are il/lo and un/uno (masculine), and la and una (feminine); plural i/gli (masculine) and le (feminine) – there is no indefinite plural article although di may be used as a quantifier (vorrei delle mele ‘I would like some apples’). Elided singular forms (masculine and feminine l’ and even feminine un’) are in use.

Prepositions take strong personal pronouns: con te ‘with you’.

Key prepositions:

  • di ‘of, from’, ‘to’, in ‘in’, con ‘with’, per ‘through, by’, da ‘originating from’.

A complex range of preposition+article combinations exist (di+lo=dello; a+la=alla; in+gli=negli etc.)

Word order is typically SVO (but SOV if the object is a pronoun). When forming the perfect, participles agree with any object appearing before them: la hanno vista ‘we saw her’; le canzoni che hanno scritte ‘the songs we wrote’.


Modern Italian is literally a very musical language, for which it is well suited given the predominance of vowels. It is spoken as such, generally towards the back of the mouth with an emphasis towards the end of the clause.

However, Italian does have a perhaps surprising preference for nouns combined with a relatively small number of key verbs (e.g. ho fatto una investigazione del caso ‘I investigated the case’, literally ‘I did an investigation of the case’).

What’s next?

We will move over the sea to Iberia to cover Spanish (and Portuguese) next, as they are fundamentally more similar to Italian than French is.

Padre nosto, che sei nei cieli, sia santificato il tuo nome; venga il tuo regno; sia fatta la tua voluntà, come in cielo, così in terra. Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano e rimetti a noi i nostro debiti, come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori, e non ci indurre in tentazione, ma liberaci dal male.

Wenger will go – and Arsenal will decline further

In 2004, Arsenal’s “invincibles” completed the season undefeated and the world seemed at their feet. Swap a Champions’ League defeat to Chelsea with an FA Cup win over the same club, and Arsenal could have ended the season as undefeated European champions. The club’s place at the pinnacle not just of English football but perhaps also European seemed assured.

The following season was deemed a disappointment – 83 points secured a runners-up spot, and there was a fortunate FA Cup Final victory on penalties. Things still seemed good. In the last season at Highbury, the club reached its first ever European Cup Final.

So ended the first half of Arsene Wenger’s reign, and the second half has not built on the promise. It is worth emphasising that by historical standards it has not been disastrous: consistently top four in England and top sixteen in Europe. Just rarely much better. With a new glittering stadium and a renowned brand of football, people expected at least a bit better – and they may have had a right to.

It should be noted that Arsenal came second in the Premier League last season, ahead of every other big club. Many clubs of similar stature would love to be in Arsenal’s position. Clubs with big support and tradition such as Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Newcastle United find themselves not even in the Premier League, after all! Current champions Leicester City may soon be joining them.

Nevertheless, last week’s thrashing by Bayern was one of those moments – alongside the 6-0 at Stamford Bridge or the sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United – which reminded Arsenal fans that, for all the promise, they do not truly belong to Europe’s elite. Come up against a Barcelona or a Bayern, and the gulf in class is immediately apparent – not just technically but also seemingly mentally.

The problem remains the Board. Arsenal’s Directors do not share the fans’ objective. They do not want to win trophies, they want to make money. The best way to do that is to qualify constantly for the Champions’ League, without ever having to invest enough to challenge seriously to win it (or the Premier League). That is how you make money from a top football club. But it is not how you win trophies.

We are now into the transition phase of Arsene Wenger’s parting and replacement. He cannot be replaced by one man, any more than Sir Alex Ferguson could. We are in an era now of three-year managerial stints, and that is probably what will follow; but equally important will be the new Executive team at the club who will have to fill in the club management (not just team management) role currently carried out by the manager. It is almost certain that this phase will see Arsenal slip out of the Champions’ League altogether – which is why the Board has been so slow to start the transition in the first place.

Fans will need to be patient. It is thirteen years since Arsenal won the League and never since its first title in 1931 have eighteen years passed without one. My bet is it will be more than another five before Arsenal is really up there again. We’ll miss Mr Wenger when he is gone; but he himself will realise he has to go fairly soon.