Doing work and playing roles in Italian

Several constructions in Italian use the verb fare (‘do’, ‘make’). Two of these constructions look very similar on the surface but syntactically they behave in very different ways. A short book Fare: Elementi di sintassi, by Nunzio La Fauci and Ignazio M Mirto (2003) analyses them. Here are 2 examples:

  • (1) Adamo fa il medico
    Adam does the doctor
    ‘Adam is a doctor’
  • (2) In quella commedia, Max fa il medico
    In this comedy, Max does the doctor
    ‘In this comedy, Max plays the doctor’

The first construction says what the subject’s profession is. For ease of reference, La Fauci and Mirto label it FareLavoro (DoWork). The reasons for that will become apparent below. The second construction says what role the subject is playing. La Fauci and Mirto label it FareRuolo (DoRole).

To avoid pre-empting a discussion of the exact nature and status of the noun following the verb fare (il medico in sentences (1) and (2)), La Fauci and Mirto call it simply a post-verbal noun. For the same reason, I use that phrase in this post.

La Fauci and Mirto argue that the 2 constructions have different syntactic structures and that this difference drives the differences in their behaviour. The rest of this post looks at their analysis of the 2 constructions. The post then summarises their comparison of how the 2 constructions behave, linking differences in their behaviour to differences in their structure.

FareRuolo

In the FareRuolo construction, according to La Fauci and Mirto, some structure is hidden. For instance, in example (2) In quella commedia, Max fa il medico, the full structure is as follows:

(3) In quella commedia, Max fa un ruolo, il ruolo di medico

Some of that structure then deletes (or remains silent), as shown below.

(4) In quella commedia, Max fa un ruolo, il ruolo di medico

In this structure, the verb fare acts as a full verb. Unsurprisingly, it has a direct object. More surprisingly, the direct object is not medico, it is the (silent) noun ruolo. Medico modifies ruolo.

FareLavoro

In the FareLavoro construction as well, La Fauci and Mirto see some structure that they regard as hidden. But they argue that its structure differs from the structure of the FareRuolo construction.  For instance, in the example Adamo fa il medico, they see the full structure as being:

(5) Adamo fa un lavoro, il lavoro di medico

In this case too, some of that structure then deletes (or remains silent), as shown in example (6).

(6) Adamo fa un lavoro, il lavoro di medico.

They argue that the verb fare does not function in examples (5) and (6) in the same way as it functions in examples (3) and (4):

  • In the FareRuolo construction, fare acts as a full verb, with both a subject (Adamo) and object (ruolo).
  • In the FareLavoro construction, fare is a light verb—one that has no inherent meaning and serves merely a grammatical function. In this case, that function combines fare with the (ultimately silent) noun lavoro to form a verb with a grammatical subject. By itself, the noun lavoro cannot take a grammatical subject.

2 ways to make a noun into a verb

There are two ways to convert a noun into a verb (or verbal phrase) which takes a subject, just as there are two ways of doing this in English:

  • derive the verb lavorare from the noun lavoro
    (7) Adamo lavora (‘Adam works’)
  • add the light verb fare to create the verbal phrase fare un lavoro
    (8) Adamo fa un lavoro (Adam does work)

In the 2nd construction, fa and lavoro do not express 2 separate things about what the subject (Adam) is doing. The only component describing what Adam is doing is the noun lavoro. That fact is not surprising, because in the 1st construction, the verb lavorare conveys all the information that the phrase fare lavoro conveys in the 2nd construction.

Using the verb lavorare instead

Underlying the similarity between the verb phrase fare lavoro and the verb lavorare, the FareLavoro construction can be replaced by a phrase involving the verb lavorare and a preposition (come or da), with roughly the same meaning:

(9) Adamo lavora come / da medico.
Adam works like / as (a) doctor.

Although the light verb fare (in the FareLavoro construction) does not say what the subject is doing, it does indicate the tense (past, present, future). Sometimes, it also indicates the subject’s gender (masculine, feminine) and number (singular, plural). Moreover, the verbs lavorare both says what the subject is doing and indicates the tense (and sometimes also the subject’s gender and number). This post does not discuss how verbs and verb phrases indicate tense and mentions only briefly how verbs and verb phrases indicate gender and number.

Near-synonyms that are not light verbs

The verb fare has some near-synonyms, such as esercitare (exercise), praticare (practise) La Fauci and Mirto make some comments about these near-synonyms:

  • It is possible to form constructions such as Ada esercita il mestiere di medico (‘Ada exercises the profession of doctor’), but not to shorten them further by deleting mestiere di, as occurs in the FareLavoro construction. This gives some indirect support for the idea that the FareLavoro construction is a shortened version of similar constructions containing other verbs of similar meaning. Perhaps the reason why only fare permits that further shortening is that only fare is a light verb: its near synonyms still retain some separate meaning, even if that meaning is often minimal.
  • Ada esercita il mestiere di medico is very similar in meaning to Ada esercita la medicina (‘Ada practises medicine’). This gives some indirect support for the idea that the FareLavoro construction conveys information about a profession, not about particular people who practise that profession.

Evidence from other languages

La Fauci and Mirto analyse fare in the FareLavoro construction as a light verb adding a link between the (silent) noun lavoro and the subject (Adamo in the example). They provide evidence for their analysis from other European languages. In those languages, they note that the normal way of saying what work someone does is by using the verb ‘be’ as a link (a ‘copula’ or ‘copular verb’) between the subject and the post-verbal noun:

  • (10.1) Adam is a doctor (English)
  • (10.2) Adam ist Artzt (German)
  • (10.3) Adam est médecin (French)
  • (10.4) Adam es médico (Spanish)

These copular verbs perform a similar function to the function played by the Italian light verb fare in the construction FareLavoro. They link the post-verbal noun to the subject and they express (a) the gender and number of the subject and (b) the time when the event or state expressed by the verb occurs.

La Fauci and Mirto note that the expression with the copular verb (essere, ‘be’) is also possible in Italian, but they suggest that it places emphasis more on ability and qualifications required for a job, rather than on the job that the subject is currently employed in.

(10.5) Ada fa la postina, ma è (una) biologa
Ada is working as postal worker, but is a biologist

However, La Fauci and Mirto point out that the expression with the copular verb essere can emphasise the subject’s current employment if more detail is added to the post-verbal noun:

(10.6) Ugo è ingegnere alla Microsoft
Ugo is working as (an) engineer at Microsoft

Results of the different structures

La Fauci and Mirto identify 6 main results of the different structures they posit for FareRuolo (FR) and FareLavoro (FL). The following table summarises those differences. Explanations follow the table.

 FareRuoloFareLavoro
Passive?YesNo
ArticleDefinitive or indefiniteDefinite only
Relative clause possible?YesNo
Interrogative pronounsChi (‘who’) or che / che cosa (‘what’)Only che / che cosa (‘what’)
Post-verbal pronouns and names?YesNo
Grammatical agreementWith post-verbal noun (role played)With subject

1st difference: passive

In the FR construction, the verb can be converted into the passive. The post-verbal noun of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive version. For example:

(11) Nell riduzione televisiva della Citadella, da chi è fatto il medico?
In the TV adaptation of the Citadel, by who was played the doctor?

In the FL construction, the verb cannot be converted into the passive. This is because the passive promotes the grammatical object of the verb, as discussed in https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/03/what-is-the-passive. In La Fauci and Mirto’s analysis, the grammatical object of fare is not the noun visible on the surface (eg medico), but the silent noun (lavoro).

La Fauci and Mirto do not explain why the silent noun lavoro is not eligible for promotion to subject.

2nd difference: article

In the FR construction, a definite or indefinite article can precede the post-verbal noun. Similarly, a post-verbal noun can be part of a partitive construction, such as uno dei medici (one of the doctors).

(12) In quel drama, Max ha fatto il medico / un medico uno dei medici
In that drama, Max played the doctor / a doctor / one of-the doctors

In the FL construction, the post-verbal noun inherits the definite article from the (silent) il lavoro.

So only the definite article can precede the post-verbal noun.

(13) Di mestiere, Max faceva il medico.
By profession, Max was a doctor.

La Fauci and Mirto do not explain whether the definite article appearing on the surface is the same one that appears in front of the silent masculine singular noun lavoro, nor do they explain how the definite article appearing on the surface is marked for the gender and number.

When the definite article does precede the post-verbal noun, the sentence may be ambiguous between an FL reading and an FR reading. When that ambiguity could exist, the examples in this post add extra wording to clarify which reading is intended: for example, di mestiere (byprofession: FL), come lavoro (as work, FL) or nel dramma (in the play: FR).

3rd difference: relative clauses

In the FR construction, a restrictive relative clause can follow the post-verbal noun.

(14) Nel dramma, la Pritchard fa la donna che desidera il potere assoluto.
In the drama, Ms Pritchard plays the woman who wants absolute power.

In the FL construction, no restrictive relative clause can follow the post-verbal noun. For example, it would not be possible to say Come lavoro, Adamo fa il medico che desidera il potere assoluto. This is because sentences of this kind state what profession the subject is exercising; they do not describe the subject’s other properties.

For a similar reason, an adjective can follow the post-verbal noun only if the adjective is itself part of the description of the profession. As an example, this condition would be met for operaio specializzato (‘specialised worker’), but not for operaio sindacalizzato (‘unionised employee’)   

4th difference: interrogative pronouns

In the FR construction, questions about the grammatical object can contain the interrogative pronouns che / che cosa (‘what’) or ‘chi (‘who’).

(15) Nel film, (che) cosa fa Max?
In this film, what (role) does Max play?

When chi is present, the sentence may be ambiguous because chi could be either the sentence’s object or its subject.

(16) Nel film, chi fa Max?
In this film, who does Max play?   
or
In this film, who plays Max?

(In English, that ambiguity cannot exist. The form of the verbal phrase and the word order together show whether who is the subject of the sentence or its object. In addition, some formal styles of English mark the object as whom.)

In the FL construction, questions about the grammatical object can be formed with the pronouns che / che cosa (‘what’) but not with ‘chi (‘who’). This is because in the FL construction, the grammatical object is a profession (lavoro), not a person.

5th difference: post-verbal pronouns and names

In the FR construction, nouns are not the only item that can fill the position of the ‘post-verbal noun’. Any of the following can also fill that position:

  • a reflexive pronoun:
    (17) Marcello faceva se stesso
    ‘Marcello was playing / played / used to play himself.’
  • A personal pronoun
    (18) Marcello faceva lui
    ‘Marcello was playing / played / used to play him (ie someone other than Marcello).’
  • A name
    (19) Marcello faceva Federico
    ‘Marcello was playing / played / used to play Federico.’

In the FL construction, reflexive pronouns, personal pronouns and names cannot fill the position of the post-verbal noun. This is because the FL construction states what profession the subject is performing. It does not identify a particular member of that profession.

6th difference: grammatical agreement

Some nouns have separate forms for male and female. In the FR construction, the gender of the post-verbal noun must match the gender of the role being played.

(20) In quella commedia, Marcello fa la cuoca
In this play, Marcello (male) plays the (female) cook

In the FL construction, the gender of the post-verbal noun must match the gender of the subject.

(21) In quella pizzeria, Marcello fa il cuoco
In this pizzeria, Marcello (male) is exercising the profession of a (male) cook

Nevertheless, if the subject is plural, the post-verbal noun is typically singular. That is because the post-verbal noun refers to the profession, not to particular members of that profession

A final comment

La Fauci and Mirto say that they aim their book at a reader who is curious about language but not (or not yet) a specialist. I think they succeeded in writing something that works for such readers.

I find their analysis interesting, though they are not explicit enough about how the 2 structures differ. On the face of it, the two underlying sequences of words (examples (3)-(6)) are almost identical. In my view, they are not clear enough about what makes fare a light verb in the construction FareLavoro but a full verb in the construction FareRuolo.

This post looked at 2 of their 4 chapters. The other 2 chapters cover 2 other constructions involving the verb fare:

  • Adding fare to a verb to make a causative construction
  • Adding fare to a noun to make a verbal phrase—in cases other than the FareLavoro construction discussed in this post.

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