Italian Language/a vs al, alla

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QUESTION: hello, I have been studyimg the Italian language using Rosetta Stone for the last few months now, and I can seem to find a pattern of when to use "a" or "al and alla"

Lui mangia del pollo a casa
Lei mangia della carne al ristorante.

From my understanding, al or alla means "at the" and a means at. Can these articles be used interchangeably?

ANSWER: Hi Jonathan,
What you are asking about is the combination of the preposition "a" and the definite article "il" or "la". For example, a + il = al and a + la = alla. Most books will give you an easy, at-a-glance chart so you can see how the different prepositions and articles act when they are combined--Rosetta Stone might not have this so I have included for you below.
The definite articles are used much more often in Italian than in English, so you will need to be clear on the gender and number of your noun in order to use the correct article (I'm assuming you have understood this lesson; if not, feel free to ask me further). Once you have your article and preposition, just follow the chart to find your combined "prepositional article". With practice you will recognize the patterns (Italian is very regular in its structure), but until then, at least you have the chart for reference.


        ITALIAN PREPOSITIONAL ARTICLES
DEFINITE
ARTICLE   A   DA   DI   IN   SU
il        al   dal   del   nel   sul
lo   allo   dallo   dello   nello   sullo
l'   all'   dall'   dell'   nell'   sull'
i   ai   dai   dei   nei   sui
gli   agli   dagli   degli   negli   sugli
la   alla   dalla   della   nella   sulla
l'   all'   dall'   dell'   nell'   sull'
le   alle   dalle   delle   nelle   sulle




---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: My question is when to use just a, and when to use a + la or a +Il..for example

Io sono in ritardo alla scuola
Io sono in ritardo a scuola

Are they both correct?

ANSWER: Jonathan, there are no hard and fast rules governing the use of prepositions and articles. In general, I would say to include the article with the preposition (in your example, "alla").
However it's ok to say "a" and in fact in some cases makes more sense, for example, "Vado a casa" (meaning "casa mia").
But remember the reason Italian grammar books make a big deal out of combining the articles with the prepositions is because they are very often used together, so that's what you will do most of the time.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Ok..,and how about a vs in?

Questo edificio e a New York
Questo edificio e in Australia

Is there a rule here?

Answer
Good question. There is a rule here, or at least a pattern. It's always "a" a city but "in" a country, state, or province. There is no grammatical reason for this, it's just how the prepositions are used. This is why the proper use of prepositions is the last thing you learn in a foreign language--when you are making an error, it doesn't "sound" odd to you they way it would to a native speaker.
If you can, listen to Italian speakers when they are speaking English--their errors will give you some insight as to how they like to structure things in Italian. I had an Italian professor in Italy who would say in English "I do not know BY sure". She couldn't have known that it sounded funny unless and English speaker told her.

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