The Guide to the Italian Formal “You” for Socially Conscious Learners
English lost its secondary second person pronoun “thou” quite some time ago.
“Good riddance,” you might say.
Then you started learning Italian…Now, using the wrong form of “you” can mean offending friend and foe alike.
Not an ideal situation, especially considering how Italians aren’t exactly known for hiding their feelings.
Fear not! We’ve already covered the basics of Italian (in)formality before, and today we’ll take a deep dive into the formal version of the pronoun “you” in Italian.
- About Formal Italian: When to Use the Formal “You”
- Lei, the Formal Italian You
- Lei vs. lei: What’s the Difference?
- How to Conjugate the Italian Formal “You”
- Possessive Pronouns and Lei
- The Polite Plural “You”
About Formal Italian: When to Use the Formal “You”
The idea of formal and informal language might seem a little strange to a native English speaker, but try to flip your thinking a little. Odds are that you wouldn’t want to go into an important job interview and greet the manager with “Hey man, what’s up?”
Just as you change the way you speak based on context, Italian grammar and language changes to be more or less polite in certain situations.
You might be wondering when you should use formal and informal speech, though—especially since social norms vary across cultures. Let’s start with when and where are the best places and times to use formal Italian:
- Formal language is best used in situations where you want to show respect to the person you’re speaking to. This means that work situations as well as speaking to strangers and superiors would require using formal language.
- Informality indicates familiarity with your conversation partner, so try to avoid being informal with people you’re meeting for the first time or don’t know very well, regardless of social or power status.
- Informal Italian is usually used among close friends and family members, or people who are “lower” on a social hierarchy, such as a small child. As we stated previously, it expresses a sense of familiarity and closeness to the person you’re talking to.
- A relationship with someone may feel ambiguous, or you might not be sure where you fall on the social “ladder,” so to speak. The go-to tip here is to stay on the safe side and go with formal Italian.
Think of it this way: Being formal when it’s not necessary might just make you look a little stiff, but using informal Italian when you shouldn’t can be considered extremely rude! One of these options is definitely better than the other.
Now, let’s take a close look at the polite “you” pronoun in Italian, Lei.
The Guide to the Italian Formal “You” for Socially Conscious Learners
Lei, the Formal Italian You
When you study Italian, you may find yourself running into the subject pronoun tu when a sentence refers to “you.” This is correct… as the informal version of the pronoun. Whenever you refer to your conversation partner with tu, you’re using informal language. There’s a whole post on our blog about speaking informally in Italian if you need further information about casual speech.
This news might make you a little nervous, though. If you can’t use tu, then what do you use? We’re here to help.
Italian has three main versions of the pronoun “you.” Tu is one of them, for use in informal situations. Another is voi, which is used to refer to “you” as a group of people (think “you all” or “y’all”). When referring to multiple people, voi can function well in both formal and informal contexts, but can’t be used to refer to one single person.
The third option is the pronoun we’re going to focus on in this post: the polite, singular “you,” Lei.
There isn’t really a direct English parallel to this pronoun, as we use the same secondary pronoun, “you,” for just about everyone regardless of status or situation. If you’re familiar with other languages, though, you might recognize a similar concept in pronouns such as the Spanish usted or the French vous.
The importance of using the correct pronoun in the right context can’t be understated, so knowing how to use Lei is vital. Whenever you’re not certain about formality, it’s likely going to be your go-to pronoun.
If you want to learn more about the dynamic between people of different ages, social statuses and all other walks of life, getting exposure to native speakers using their language in context is a must. For example, by watching the authentic Italian videos on FluentU, you can develop a sense of how and when Italian people use polite speech and the formal “you” in particular—and you could even add the formal vocabulary you come across to your flashcard decks for more targeted practice.
Lei vs. lei: What’s the Difference?
If you have some knowledge of Italian already, you might be a little bit confused. Lei isn’t just the formal way to say “you”—it’s also a homograph for the Italian pronoun “she,” lei. This could seem pretty complicated at first glance, especially when you factor in spoken language. How are you supposed to tell them apart, especially when they sound identical in conversation?
Don’t panic! There’s a way. Quite a few ways, actually.
When used formally in writing, Lei (formal you) generally has its first letter, l, capitalized. By contrast, lei (she) will have its first letter written in lowercase unless it starts a sentence.
If you know anything about German, you might recognize an almost identical dynamic between the pronouns sie and Sie. For English speakers, the distinction feels a little bit like the way we make proper nouns stick out in a written sentence by capitalizing them.
This capitalization isn’t a hard rule, however, and it doesn’t really help in spoken conversation or audio exercises. You can’t hear capitalization.
But don’t worry: You can figure out the difference between Lei and lei in speech just by paying a little attention. Context is a big factor in understanding language, and it’ll help you understand the difference.
For example, if someone’s speaking to their manager at work and using the word, it’s practically a guarantee that they’re using Lei. If they’re talking about their little niece and using lei, it’s almost just as certain that this is the pronoun “she.”
There’s also the important distinction that “you” is secondary and “she” is a third-person reference. If someone’s speaking in a way that must be referring to a “she” rather than a “you” (or vice-versa), you can figure it out from there. Here’s an example of that particular concept:
Io parlo con mia nonna e lei sta bene. — I speak with my grandmother and she’s well.
Lei è molto gentile, grazie. — You’re very kind, thank you.
How to Conjugate the Italian Formal “You”
This part is particularly important. Every subject pronoun in Italian has its own conjugation system to ensure correct grammar. Lei is conjugated as its own pronoun and is done in a completely different way from tu or voi.
While Lei and lei are completely different in use, their conjugations are actually identical. Take a look at these verb samples for comparison:
Leggere (To read)
Mangiare (To eat)
Avere (To have)
So, when you’re conjugating the formal “you,” look to “he” and “she” for reference. Make sure you don’t mix them up with tu, as that can undo your efforts to speak formally. Check out these examples to see the difference in action:
Tu vai a casa? — Are you going home? (informal)
Lei va a casa? — Are you going home? (formal)
One letter can make all the difference. Voi can be considered formal and usually fulfills a fairly different role, but just in case, an example of how that same sentence would go is:
Voi andate a casa? — Are you (all) going home?
Possessive Pronouns and Lei
You may be familiar with using possessive pronouns with tu: (La) tua indicates “yours,” like tua madre (your mother) or la tua amica (your friend). With Lei, of course, the rules change once again.
Once again, look to the way that “he” and “she” are used. As possessive pronouns, they become il suo or la sua, depending on the gender of the noun they’re attached to. When you want to indicate a formal possession with Lei, you also use these terms.
Let’s look at that example from before, tua madre. Formally, you’d say instead sua madre. Remember that the gender on the possessive pronoun must agree with the gender of the modified noun:
il Suo — yours (masculine)
la Sua — yours (feminine)
Here’s an example to compare the levels of formality:
Tu incontri con la tua amica. — You meet with your friend. (informal)
Lei incontra con la Sua amica. — You meet with your friend. (formal)
Make sure to take note of the difference in verb conjugation in these sentences, too.
Like Lei, the possessive version of the polite “you” is sometimes capitalized to differentiate it from “hers” or “his.”
The Polite Plural “You”
Finally, Lei is rarely used as a plural. As we said before, when referring to multiple people, voi can be used in a formal situation without much trouble.
You may, however, occasionally see loro (or Loro) used for a formal plural “you.” This is uncommon, and is conjugated identically to the loro pronoun that means “they.”
Al cinema, voi pagate per i biglietti. — At the movies, you all pay for the tickets.
Al cinema, Loro pagano per i biglietti. — At the movies, you all pay for the tickets.
These sentences both mean the same thing, but the first one’s much more commonplace and should be your go-to in Italian.
Now that you know the building blocks of using the formal Italian “you,” Lei, be sure to work it into your study routine! Pay close attention to social context and conjugation and you’ll be speaking properly in no time.