Use of the courtesy form in Italian

How to use the courtesy form in Italian: LEI

Elegance and discretion

In Italian, there are two ways to address people:

MODO INFORMALE

MODO FORMALE

Dare del TU

Dare del LEI

LEI is the polite form used to address someone in a more formal or respectful manner.
It’s generally used between adults who don’t know each other and are meeting for the first time, especially in professional and formal contexts. It’s also used to address an older person, a teacher, or a superior (How to introduce yourself formally in Italian).
This form is written with an initial capital letter (especially in official communications) and is accompanied by verbs in the 3° person singular.

Let’s compare the two forms

MODO INFORMALE

MODO FORMALE

Luca come stai?

Sig. Rossi, come sta?

2° pers. sing.

3° pers. sing.

Other examples:

  • Come ti chiami?
  • Come si chiama?
  • Di dove sei?
  • Di dove è?
  • Vuoi un caffé?
  • Vuole un caffè?

Which pronouns are used with the formal form?

MODO INFORMALE

MODO FORMALE

Luca, sono felice di rivederti!

Sig. Rossi, sono felice di rivederLa!

Luca, avrei voluto telefonarti!

Sig. Rossi, avrei voluto telefonarLe!

As seen in the example, direct and indirect pronouns are in the
3° person singular FEMININE even when addressing a man.

Agreement of the past participle with the pronouns when using LEI: for the more advanced

When the auxiliary AVERE is required, the past participle of verbs agrees in gender and number with the pronoun that precedes it:

La pasta, l’ho mangiata molto volentieri!

l’ = la femm. sing. sostituisce PASTA che è femm. sing.
quindi: mangiata è al femminile

What happens when using LEI?

Professore, ieri l’ho ascoltata molto volentieri alla lezione.

l’ = la femm. sing. sostituisce PROFESSORE che, che, però, è masch. sing.
allora: mangiata è comunque al femminile
SI USA LA FORMA FEMMINILE ANCHE SE CI SI RIVOLGE AD UN UOMO

The plural form of the formal LEI: a dilemma for many Italians!

Yes indeed, many Italians actually make mistakes with the plural form of LEI!
Let’s see what it is: LORO.

MODO FORMALE

MODO INFORMALE

Sandra e Luca, come state?

Sig. Rossi, Sig. Bianchi, come stanno?

2° pers. plur.

3° pers. plur.

Other examples:

  • Ragazzi, cosa volete mangiare?
  • Signori, cosa vogliono mangiare?
  • Bambini, fate silenzio!
  • Signori, facciano silenzio!
  • Dove siete stati?
  • Dove sono stati?

Summing up:

MODO FORMALE

MODO INFORMALE

Sing. TU

LEI

Plur. VOI

LORO

Where do Italians make mistakes?
Often, very often, they use VOI (plural “you”) instead of LORO (3° person plural) in the formal context.

This use is so widespread that it’s not considered an error in contexts that are not particularly formal.

Conclusion

The LEI form, the formal form of the Italian language, is accompanied by a more distant and respectful language compared to TU, which is the informal form used in more familiar contexts or among close friends (How to introduce yourself informally in Italian).
The use of LEI depends a lot on the situation and the relationship between the people involved. In some informal contexts, it might be more appropriate to use TU even among adults who don’t know each other, while in more formal or professional situations, the use of LEI is more common.
Remember!
The use of LEI isn’t immediately intuitive, and if you’re starting to learn Italian, it might be difficult to use it at first.
Don’t worry!
Italians, in general, are very understanding toward those who are starting to learn their language, and they’re proud that someone wants to do so. They’ll welcome any potential mistakes with grace and kindness. Nobody will be offended if you ask them on the street:
Scusa, dove si trova il Colosseo?”

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