A little / a little bit: Poco and un po’
Poco and un po’ are two expressions that mean “a little / a bit” in Italian.
Po’ is the contraction of the word poco – as the apostrophe indicates the omissions of the sound co – but despite this and despite looking very similar, these two expressions have different meanings and usage.
Poco and un po’ are both used as adverbs of quantity. These kinds of adverbs indicate the quantity of an action (the main verb of the clause) and are used to express magnitude or degree.
In general, these answer the question “how much?”.
Poco vs un po’: difference explained
Poco can be used to express a small amount of something. In English, it can be translated with “a little/very little”.
Ho fretta, ho poco tempo.
I’m in a hurry, I don’t have much time (= I have very little time).
Oggi ho avuto poco da fare a lavoro.
Today I didn’t have much to do at work (= I had little to do).
Marco è poco paziente.
Marco is not very patient (= only a little patient).
Un po’ is instead used to indicate an uncertain quantity. In English, it can be translated with “a bit”. Un po’ can be somewhat confusing for Italian learners.
Similarly to the English expression “a bit”, un po’ can express a relatively small or big undetermined quantity, and its correct interpretation depends on the context of the sentence.
Parli italiano? – Un po’.
Do you speak Italian? – A little bit.
Marco è un po’ impaziente.
Marco is a bit impatient.
Let’s compare poco and un po’
The differences explained in the previous section can be summed up by saying that poco usually means “a little/ very little” while un po’ means “a bit”, referring to an undetermined quantity that can be either small or big.
This means that un po’ and poco sometimes have almost opposite meanings!
Let’s compare the following two sentences:
Ieri ho avuto poco da fare = Yesterday I didn’t have much to do (= I had little to do)
Ieri ho avuto un po’ da fare = Yesterday I had quite a bit to do (= I had quite a lot to do – relatively big quantity)
Poco and un po’ + nouns
Poco and un po’ can also be used with nouns. In this case, they mean “a little/ a few/ a bit of”.
It should be noted that:
- In this case, un po’ is always followed by the preposition di + noun. It is used to express an uncertain quantity.
- When referred to a noun, poco is used as an adjective, and its form changes according to the grammatical gender and number of the noun. So, it can be: poco (masculine, singular), poca (feminine, singular), pochi (masculine, plural), poche (feminine, plural).
Let’s look at some examples of un po’ di:
Ho comprato un po’di mele.
I bought a few apples (= a bit of apples – a relatively small quantity).
Nella minestra c’è poco sale.
There’s (too) little salt in the soup.
C’è poca benzina nel serbatoio.
There’s (too) little fuel in the tank.
Poco vs un po’: Italian grammar
Poco and un po’ are two expressions in Italian that translate to “a little” or “a bit.
Po’ is a contraction of poco, with the apostrophe signifying that the sound co has been left out.
Un po’s interpretation depends on the context and can refer to a small or large, undetermined quantity.
You can also use poco and un po’ with nouns. They mean “a little”, “a few” or “a bit of” in this case.
The phrase “un po'” is always followed by the phrase “di + noun” and is used to express a variable amount.
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There is also ‘poco a poco’ (bit by bit, little by little, and/or, gradually) that I run into often.
This reminded me of when I was in band, and we’d see the musical notation ‘poco a poco’ which is usually shortened to ‘cresc.
You’re right 🙂 poco a poco is a locuzione avverbiale that means gradually.
And it’s also used as a musical notation meaning little by little.
re Ho fretto, ho poco tempo
Does affretarsi have both Essere and Avere as an auxiliary verb, as conjugation tables suggest Essere is the Auxiliary verb, yet, more often I see “ho fretto” not “sono in fretto’ (while I understand Italians may in fact like to use ‘sono in fretto’ even when it’s not necessarily grammatically correct ?
Before answering your question, I must make a minor correction: in Italian, it’s fretta instead of fretto.
It is correct to say avere fretta or essere in fretta and they are interchangeable. But affrettarsi, the reflexive form, has always essere as an auxiliary verb.
In this case, un po’ is always followed by the preposition di + noun. It is used to express an uncertain quantity.
But in the audio we found the expressions “ho un po’ sonno/ paura”. Are these exceptions to this rule about un po’ and nouns?
E’ vero, in quelle espressioni è più naturale non usare “di”. Ma non è sbagliato usarlo. 😀