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Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day qualcosa non torna
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese. Il conto torna.
I added up the costs. The bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’ in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

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For members


Italian word of the day: ‘Merenda’

No need to chew on this word for too long.

Italian word of the day: ‘Merenda’

Merenda is a word you may come across pretty early on in your Italian language journey, especially if you happen to have Italian colleagues at work or simply hang out often enough with Italian relatives or friends.

A merenda (pronunciation available here) is a small meal usually enjoyed in the mid to late-afternoon to keep hunger at bay until dinnertime.

In English this would generally be called a ‘snack’, though a merenda can also be a bit more substantial than what would normally qualify as an afternoon snack in other countries.

Oddly enough for a country with dozens of food-related dos and don’ts, there are no precise rules over what should (or should not) be eaten as a merenda.

You might opt for sweet foods (for instance, a slice of cake, cookies, bread and jam, or some yoghurt with dried fruit) or go for something savoury (e.g., a slice of focaccia, salted crackers, a tramezzino sandwich or even a panino with cold cuts or cheese).

For schoolchildren, pane e nutella (bread with nutella cream) is by far the most popular option, though pre-packaged snacks, often referred to and advertised as merendine, or ‘little snacks’, have grown in popularity in recent years.

Regardless of exactly what they’re snacking on, Italians see their afternoon merenda not just a way to beat hunger but also a key break during their day, which is why the following workplace scenario isn’t all that rare:

Ma dove diavolo stai andando? Abbiamo una riunione tra 20 minuti!

Scusami, devo fare merenda. Torno subito.

Where the heck are you going? We have a meeting in 20 minutes!

Sorry, I need to have a snack. I’ll be right back.

Remember: Italians don’t ‘have’ a snack, but they ‘make’ a snack, hence the expression fare la merenda, or, for short, fare merenda.

Ho appena fatto merenda con due fette di torta alle mele.

I’ve just snacked on two slices of apple pie.  

As a nice bit of trivia for your next Italian general culture quiz, the word merenda comes from the late Latin verb merere (‘to deserve’), and means ‘things that must be deserved’. 

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