When approaching a foreign language, we all tend to apply the grammar rules of our mother tongue at the beginning. So it’s common that English speakers get confused when they have to say “you” in Italian, as they’ve been told that, for Italians, there is a difference between “dare del tu” (using the informal form of “you”) and “dare del Lei” (using the formal form of “you”). But if you read on, you’ll realize that it’s not that complicated as it might seem.
As we have already seen in one of our previous articles, the Italian “you” can take different forms. In English, “you” can be used both for addressing one or more people; in Italian, the use of the pronoun depends on the situation and on the number of people addressed. There are three commonly used forms that you need for everyday conversation. Let’s have a look at them:
When to Use “Tu”
When you talk to family members, friends, and children, you should use the pronoun “tu”.
“Tu” is informal, but sometimes it can also be used when having a conversation with someone you don’t know. For example, a shop assistant or a waiter at a pizzeria may choose to “dare del tu” (address you in an informal way), and it’s meant to be friendly, not disrespectful.
- Ciao! Come ti posso aiutare? - (Hi! How can I help you?)
- Ciao. Mi fai vedere quel rossetto? - (Hi. Could you show me that lipstick?)
- Ciao, Sandra! (Tu) Come stai? – (Hi, Sandra! How are you?)
- Ciao, Jessica! Bene! E tu, come stai? – (Hi, Jessica! I’m fine. What about you?)
“Tu” is commonly used among young people, even if they don’t know each other. Being too formal would sound strange.
When to Use “Lei”
There are situations in which using “tu” can be a bit “fuori luogo” (inappropriate). Formal situations and talking to someone you don’t know at all require the personal pronoun “Lei”.
- Buona vacanza, Signora Bianchi! - (Happy holidays, Signora Bianchi!)
- Anche a Lei! - (And to you, too!)
“Lei” is also used when addressing a person much older than you, as a form of respect.
Sometimes the pronoun “Lei” can also create confusion because it also means “she”. To tell them apart, in written language, “lei” with a lowercase “l” means “she“, while “Lei” with a capital letter “L” means formal “You”. Today, however, it’s becoming more common and acceptable to write the formal “Lei” with a lowercase “l”.
Note the difference:
“Signora, Lei è veramente bella!” - (Signora, you are really beautiful!)
“Mi piace Marta, lei è così simpatica!” - (I like Marta, she’s so nice!)
When to Use “Voi”
After having seen the previous cases, let’s see what happens when you talk to a group of people. Here it’s difficult to make a mistake, as there’s only one pronoun: “voi”.
“(Voi) venite a cena con noi?” - (Are you coming to dinner with us?)
“(Voi) Siete liberi sabato prossimo?” - (Are you free next Saturday?)
The Importance of Verb Endings with Tu, Lei, and Voi
When speaking Italian, it’s essential to use the right ending of the verb, because this is what tells you who is speaking or who someone is talking to or about. In fact, subject pronouns can generally be omitted and only used for emphasis.
Let’s take a look at the regular verb cantare and its forms for “tu”, “Lei” and “voi”.
Cantare [kan-ta-reh] – to sing. You take the ending –are off and add:
-i for the “tu” form - (tu) cant-i [tu kan-tee]
-a for the “Lei” form - (Lei) cant-a [le-ee kan-ta]
-ate for the “voi” form - (voi) cant-ate [vo-ee kan-ta-teh]
Knowing this, next time you can complement someone for his or her beautiful voice: “Canti bene!” - (You sing well!)
Here’s an example with another important Italian verb ending in –are:
Mangiare [man-jee-a-reh] – to eat
- (tu) mangi
- (Lei) mangia
- (voi) mangiate
Now, a closer look at a verb ending in –ere. Let’s take the verb vendere (to sell). As before, you should take off the ending –ere and add:
- i for the “tu” form - (tu) vend-i [tu ven-dee]
- e for the “Lei” form - (Lei) vend-e [le-ee ven-deh]
- ete for the “voi” form - (voi) vend-ete [vo-ee ven-de-teh]
“(Voi) Vendete questa casa?” - (Are you selling this house?)
Another example: vivere [vee-ve-reh] – to live
“Scusi, Lei dove vive?” (Excuse me, where do you live?)
Finally, let’s have a look at the last group of verbs which end in –ire, for example a verb sentire (to hear). With this type, as before, you take off the –ire and add:
-i for the “tu” form - (tu) sent-i
-e for the “Lei” form - (Lei) sent-e
-ite for the “voi” form - (voi) sent-ite
“(Tu) Senti la musica?” - (Do you hear the music?)
Up to now, it seems quite easy...but pay attention because there are some irregular verbs ending in –ire that require different forms. For example the verb capire [ka-pee-reh] (to understand).
With this type you take off the –ire and add:
-isci for the “tu” form - (tu) cap-isci [tu ca-pee-shee]
-isce for the “Lei” form - (Lei) cap-isce [le-ee ca-pee-sheh]
-ite for the “voi” form - (voi) cap-ite [vo-ee ca-pee-teh]
“Scusi, Lei capisce la mia lingua?” - (Excuse me, do you know my language?)
Among the verbs you are most likely to need at the beginning are the verbs “essere” and “stare”, which both mean “to be”. The main difference between these two verbs is that the verb “essere” is used to characterize someone or something, while “stare” refers to a condition. For example,
“Mario è intelligente.” - (Mario is smart.)
“Greta sta male. Ha mal di testa.” - (Greta is feeling unwell. She has a headache.)
These verbs are irregular, so you just have to learn them, but it’s not difficult at all:
Essere [es-se-reh] (with a stress on the first syllable)
“Sei bravo!” - (You’re good!)
Now that you know “stare” you can ask people how they are. Ask your friend “Come stai?”, an acquaintance “Come sta?”, or a group of people “Come state?”.
So, “come stai?” after having dealt with all these pronouns and verbs? Don’t be scared! No one gets offended if you don’t use the correct form of “you” in conversation or make a mistake in a verb! Try to keep in mind the rules, but don’t be dragged down with a desire to speak perfectly at the beginning of your language journey. Stay tuned to learn new things about the Italian language and try to practice every day.
(Note: This article was originally written for Italy Magazine by Pat Eggleton on Aprile 15th 2010. It has been updated and expanded.)