DOUBTS on THE POLITE FORM in Italian

How many times have you found yourself in Italy wanting to talk to someone but stopped because you were afraid of using the much-dreaded… FORM OF POLITENESS? Lei, la, voi… Let’s clarify once and for all the 5 doubts that all foreigners have about this topic!

POLITE FORM in Italian and how to use it

The Italian formal pronoun is solely and exclusively Lei (and not Voi).

Voi was used during Fascism, but not anymore. You might still hear it a bit in the South of Italy, but only among older people, as a legacy of the past.

1. When should I use the formal form in Italy and when can I avoid it?

In Italy, people use the informal mode (TU) with family, friends, colleagues, younger people, and generally when they want to create a friendly atmosphere.

The formal form (LEI), on the other hand, is used in more formal contexts, especially in certain circumstances:

  • with people of respect (a doctor, a lawyer, a president, a boss, a professor…)
  • in public places, with staff (such as shops, hotels, restaurants, banks, and the like)
  • with older people who are not well-known
  • with strangers, especially if they are older (for example, on a train, or someone in a restaurant at a nearby table…)”

If you want to switch from Lei to tu, just ask! By saying things like:

You can use TU with me! No problem!

Can I use TU with you?

We can use TU if you want/if you don’t mind!

Will Italians be patient with you even if you use the formal form incorrectly or forget it entirely? Of course, yes! But if you use it, you will certainly make a better impression and your self-esteem will increase! So, why not give it a try?

2. Is using the pronoun ‘Lei‘ always necessary?

For example, if I want to let someone go ahead, do I have to say “Vada!” or “Vada Lei“?

Very often, as with all other personal subject pronouns (io, tu, noi…), Italian language allows the omission.

Is there a risk of confusing it with the third-person feminine pronoun “lei”? No, because the context makes it clear whether we are talking about a third person who is not present or addressing someone directly in a formal context.

So, we can directly say to our interlocutor things like:

Salve signora Facchetti, come sta?” (Instead of “come sta Lei?”)

Prego, vada pure!

Dottor Rossi, cosa mi suggerisce di fare per le mie continue emicranie?

We can specify the pronoun Lei only when we need to emphasize the subject, or to make a comparison with someone else.

“La ringrazio per avermi chiamato. Io sto bene, e Lei come sta?”

“Credo che potremmo firmare questo accordo entro la fine del mese. Che ne pensa Lei?”

3. LA or LE? (La scrivo or Le scrivo? La vedo or Le vedo? La do or Le do?)

If “LEIis the polite subject pronoun, the object pronouns to use in the polite form are two: LA or LE.

These create a lot of confusion among foreigners. But how do you know when to use one and when to use the other?

Actually, it is very simple. Let’s look at these two examples:

“Cara signora Bianchi, Le racconto come sono andati i fatti.”

“Cara signora Bianchi, La ringrazio per il pensiero gentile.”

Why did I use LE in first sentence and LA in the other one?

Because it depends on the verb!

If the verb is transitive, that is, it takes a direct object, we must use La, which is the direct object pronoun in the polite form.

If the verb takes an indirect object, we must use Le, which is the indirect object pronoun in the polite form.

I used Le with raccontare because it is always “raccontare A qualcuno.”

I used La with ringraziare because it is always “ringraziare qualcuno.”

Let’s see another couple of examples:

“Posso offrirle un caffè, signor Calmi?”

“Vorrei salutarla se fosse possibile, signor Milo.”

Same reasoning: “offrire A qualcuno” but “salutare qualcuno.”

4. For a man: Lei è bravo or Lei è brava? Lei è andato or Lei è andata?

With the polite form we use the pronouns LE or LA (which are the same as the third-person singular feminine pronoun (lei).

And this applies both to masculine and feminine:

“Posso offrirle un caffè, signor Calmi?”

“Posso offrirle un caffè, signora Gozzi?”

What happens with adjectives and past participles? If we are referring to a man, do we still use the feminine form?

The answer is NO. Unlike pronouns, the agreement with any adjectives or past participles is made, according to the gender of the interlocutor:

“Grazie avvocato Rossi, (Lei) è stato davvero tanto bravo.”

“Grazie signora Fini, (Lei) è stata davvero tanto brava.”

5. Should I use capital letters with polite pronouns (Le, Lei, parlarLe…)?

In writing, the convention is to use capital letters for polite pronouns, in order to distinguish them from third-person singular feminine ones.

Clearly, you must be consistent and keep the capital letter throughout the text, with every polite pronoun, even if it is attached to another word.

Additionally, capital letters are used with adjectives and possessive pronouns referring to your interlocutor.

For example:

Gentile dottor Sabini,

Le scrivo per informarLa che la Sua proposta è stata accettata.

Mi hanno riferito che Lei era un po’ scettico sul nostro operato: sono pronta a rispondere a qualsiasi Suo dubbio o domanda qualora lo necessitasse.

Se Le fa piacere, può anche visitare il nostro sito web per leggere le recensioni di altri partner con cui lavoriamo.

Affinché Lei possa saperne di più, Le mando in allegato anche la storia della nostra società, al fine di dimostrarLe chi siamo e quanto è grande la nostra passione.

In attesa di una Sua gentile risposta, La saluto cordialmente.

Graziana Filomeno

Will people understand your text even if you don’t use capital letters? Almost certainly, especially because they will understand from the context. But if you need to write something very important and official, it’s better to use them!

And after studying well how to best use the formal form, we recommend starting from the basics and studying (or reviewing) how to construct and use the POLITE form in Italian.

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