COURTESY pronoun in Italian: LEI or VOI?

If your doubt is “What’s the courtesy pronoun in Italian?”, then you’re in the right place! Today we’ll learn what’s the proper form to use to address a person you don’t know and what are the cases in which you must be formal and those in which you can be informal.

How to be formal in Italian: using Lei or Voi?

As you may know, in the informal relationships (among relatives, friends and, in general, people you know well) you use TU.

However, things become more difficult when you are in front of someone you don’t know or you’re not too close with (our doctor, professor, lawyer…).

In these cases, we have two possibilities: using Lei or Voi. Now you may be wondering “How can I determine which one is the best choice?”

Before answering this question, let’s have a look at the historical background!

In the Middle Ages, in Italian, LEI didn’t exist and the only two existing forms were TU and VOI (in fact, Dante, in the Divine Comedy, used TU with the people he already knew and VOI with the powerful people he didn’t know).

LEI was used only starting from 1500 as an extremely formal form reserved to powerful people who deserve respect. The spread of the use of Lei seems to come from the Spanish influence in the Italian peninsula.

During the Fascist regime, Mussolini decided to ban the use of Lei because of it being foreign and not “manly”. So he imposed the use of VOI and restored what he thought the true Italian character was.

However, what really matters is that, after the fall of the Fascist regime, VOI used as a courtesy form towards a single person has become extremely rare and you might hear it only in the South of Italy and only among old people.

Therefore, the answer to the question whether it is better to use Lei or Voi is: it should always be better to use Lei.

Now, speaking of Lei, there are some rules you must know:

1) First of all, according to many grammar books, when you write, it should be better to highlight Lei as a courtesy pronoun with a capital letter at the beginning (for example: “Per caso Lei gradirebbe un altro po’ di tè?” – Would you like some more tea?), in order to differentiate it from the common pronoun of 3rd person singular (for example: “Eccola, lei è Maria” – That’s Maria).

2) Another thing you must keep in mind is that even the direct and indirect pronouns, just like the possessive adjectives and pronouns, must be highlighted with a capital letter if they are referred to a person we want to address with more respect. Here you are an example of email:

Egregio Dott. Rossi,
Le scrivo per chiederLe se fosse possibile prenotare un appuntamento nel Suo studio domani. La ringrazio.
Cordiali saluti 

(Dear Dr. Rossi, I am writing to you in order to ask whether I can book an appointment in your office tomorrow or not. Thank you. Cordially)

If you want to know more about how to correctly write a formal email in Italian, don’t miss our video dedicated to this topic!

3) One last thing to know, but that you must have already noticed, is that even when you’re addressing a man, the formal form is unchanged!

For example:

La ringrazio, dottore! (Thank you, doctor!)
La ringrazio, dottoressa! (Thank you, doctor!)

Same thing…

Now let’s see some contexts in which we use TU and some other contexts in which we use Lei:

1) two young people that don’t know each other generally use TU;

2) two adults that don’t know each other generally use Lei, no matter their economic and social condition;

3) young people use Lei with adults and old people, but adults and old people tend to use TU with young people…

4) … with the exception of schools and universities, where the reciprocal Lei between students and professors is used;

5) in family, between parents and children, or relatives in general, we generally use TU.

In any case, don’t forget that, during a conversation, if you want to create a more informal atmosphere, you can always ask your interlocutor for TU: “Possiamo darci del tu?

In the same way, if someone uses Lei with you but you think it’s too much and you prefer to reduce the formality, you can tell them: “Dammi del tu!” or “Mi dia del tu!

Now, in the comments, let us know if in your country there are courtesy pronouns like in Italian and when they are used!

If you want to revise the word PROPRIO, have a look at our video!

3 thoughts to “COURTESY pronoun in Italian: LEI or VOI?”

  1. There is, or was, clearly a hierarchy involved with lei and voi. Witness this passage from Pirandello’s ‘Lumie di Sicilia’: A questa risposta il cameriere stimò innanzi tutto conveniente ritirare il lei e riprendere il voi.

  2. Graziana, La ringrazio per Learnamo! Trovo che tutte le sue spiegazioni sono chiare, ma allo stesso tempo i suoi video sono anche molto divertenti. In questo test, tuttavia, non capisco perché Lei ha indicato che si deve usare vai e compri invece vai e compra. Non é corretto che l’imperativo informale del verbo comprare é compra?

  3. Caio, grazie mille per questa lezione. In più mi è stato detto che si deve usare “La” quando si parla con un cameriere, ad esempio in un bar o in un ristorante. Anche se il cameriere è giovane e io sono più vecchio. è vero?

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