A little / a little bit: Poco and un po’
Poco and un po’ are two expressions which 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 meaning 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. In fact, similarly to the English expression “a bit”, un po’ can express a relatively small or big undetermined quantity, and its correct interpretation depends from 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 which ca be either small or big. This means that un po’ and poco sometimes have almost opposite meaning! 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 expresses 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 for un po’ di:
Ho comprato un po’ di mele.
I bought a few apples (= a bit of apples – 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.