Keep It Casual with Informal Italian: How and When to Use It
Take it easy!
Being formal all the time? That’s tiring.
It’s also not very fun, and it can be downright weird when you’re around people you’re already close to.
You’ve learned the formal constructs of Italian.
Now it’s time to loosen up a bit and get casual.
The use of formal and informal language is a pretty common concept in many languages, and Italian is no different.
Knowing which situations allow for informal speech and how to use it is crucial to navigating Italian conversations. It’s an important part of everyday speaking and etiquette.
This might sound tricky, but don’t worry: This post will be your guide to figuring out the essentials of informal Italian.
Just What Is Informal Italian?
“Formal” and “informal” language typically refers to the way your language choices relate to social situations.
In Italian, formal language conveys to the people you’re talking to that you’re being polite and respectful. It’s used for formal settings, hence the name.
On the other hand, informal language is the way people speak in more casual conversations.
The difference between formal and informal speech usually comes down to grammatical structure and social standing.
Things like verb conjugation and pronoun usage are impacted by the context of your conversation. Properly using informal Italian depends on a combination of being grammar savvy and understanding your position in the chat.
You might still be a little wary at this point. It looks like a lot of work at first. Fear not, however: informal Italian is simpler than it looks, and knowing it well can make a big difference in how fluent and polite you seem to native speakers.
Keep It Casual with Informal Italian: How and When to Use It
When to Use Informal Language
Knowing when to use informal Italian is important. Your choice in the matter is directly related to having good manners. Using it in the wrong situation could make you seem downright rude, and that’s something no language learner wants.
Using formal Italian
Formal Italian is best for, well, formal occasions like meeting an important figure or speaking to someone you don’t know. It’s also used in professional settings, like business meetings or when talking to someone higher on on a social hierarchy than you.
Speaking with formal Italian is a show of respect so it’s a good idea to use it any time you want to seem courteous. Feel free to use it anytime you want to seem well-mannered.
Using informal Italian
Informal Italian, on the other hand, is for when you want to be casual.
It’s typically best used around family and close friends, but it can also be used on social “subordinates” like young children or people below you on the corporate ladder.
It’s important to be mindful of which form you use and when, because it can make a big difference in your etiquette.
How to choose your level of formality
It can be tough to figure out which type of language to use, and a little unnerving when you consider the social importance of it. Here are a few tips for figuring out formality level:
- Follow your conversation partner’s example. If they speak informally with you (and they’re not in some position of power over you), you can probably do the same without an issue.
- When in doubt, default to formal. It’s ultimately the safe move. Being formal around close friends is a little weird, but being overly casual in a formal setting can be a big social faux-pas.
- Listen to authentic speech. As they say, practice makes perfect! The more authentic conversations you hear, the better you’ll get at judging when it’s okay to be informal and when it’s better to button up and dial up the formality.
The Grammar of Informal Italian
As we discussed earlier, informal Italian revolves around grammar. Speaking Italian informally almost entirely comes down to the choices you make with your words, based around a certain set of grammatical rules.
The big key to informal Italian is mastering the pronoun tu (you).
There are two different ways to say the singular “you” in Italian: tu and Lei, with the former being informal and the latter being formal.
Other pronouns such as voi (you all) and io (I) can be used in either formal or informal situations, with some particular exceptions like egli (he) being formal.
The key is to learn how to properly conjugate all the different levels of formality. The best way to do so it to simply memorize the conjugation rules.
A good set of verb conjugation tables is crucial for this purpose. Keep in mind that some verbs are irregular and don’t follow the rules. You can check the conjugation of any specific verb at the incredibly useful Italian Verbs website.
Making a conversation casual can often revolve around simply conjugating your verbs properly to suit the use of tu. For example, for the sentence “You have a job”:
Formal: Lei ha un lavoro.
Informal: Tu hai un lavoro / Hai un lavoro.
Here’s another example, using the phrase “How are you?”:
Formal: Come sta Lei?
Informal: Come stai?
A small difference in writing, but a big one in manners.
This specific example uses a common term, but the key difference is in how the verb stare (to be / to stay) is conjugated. Just knowing how to change one little syllable can make you seem polite (or casual) in an Italian conversation.
To take one more example, check out these two different ways of greeting someone:
Formal: Salve, piacere di conoscerla.
Informal: Ciao, piacere di conoscerti.
Both of these mean “Hello, pleased to meet you.” The key difference is in the greeting (“salve” is polite while “ciao” is very casual) and the conjugation of conoscere (to know someone).
If you want to know how to speak informally, figuring out just how tu works in any situation is the way to go.
Make sure to pay close attention to how it’s conjugated when reviewing your verbs, and take note of when it’s used in immersive material like dialogues and Italian media.
The Informal Imperative
Informal language doesn’t just come down to knowing how to use tu, though. You can also use the imperative informally.
The imperative form is typically used for direct orders and requests, as well as in some other situations such as when asking questions.
The imperative tense is usually only used in reference to second-person pronouns like tu and voi. This is because this form tells another person to do something directly.
The conjugation of these words naturally varies, so it’s important to know your way around conjugating Italian verbs when figuring out the imperative tense. You can learn how to conjugate the imperative form at ThoughtCo.
Here are some examples:
Eat! — Mangia!
Listen! — Senti!
The negative imperative is typically used when you’re telling someone not to do something. These can usually just be formed with an non and an infinitive, like this:
Don’t run! — Non correre!
Don’t speak! — Non parlare!
When the verb is reflexive, the pronoun is added in on the end. Take a look:
Wash up! — Lavati!
Stop that! — Fermati!
If you’re trying to specify who or what a negative imperative is referring to, you’ll also add the pronouns onto the end, this time for an infinitive:
Don’t touch it! — Non toccarlo!
Don’t give it to me! — Non darmelo!
Informal imperatives are often a little fragmented, said like an interjection. This isn’t exclusive, however, and they can be found in fuller sentences:
Eat your dinner now! — Mangia la cena adesso!
Wash up before leaving! — Lavati prima di uscire!
The second sentence above uses a reflexive verb, lavarsi (to wash oneself), so the reflexive pronoun ti is applied at the end. Whenever using a reflexive verb, the inclusion of its pronouns is mandatory.
Voice of authority
Know that when you’re using these types of phrases, you’re going to sound authoritative as a result. It’s important to not speak like this around someone who should be the one really giving orders, like a manager at work.
Like with any informal phrase, they’re usually fine to use around close friends or family, but always be aware of the potential connotations of your speech. Of course, as we’ve said, when in doubt, don’t be afraid to be formal instead.
Informal Italian can often come down to just knowing how to wrangle a verb and conjugate the pronoun tu. Don’t be so formal all the time!