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This morning my husband Geoff had to write an e.mail to the dentist to make an appointment, and before sending it he asked me to check it for spelling and grammar mistakes. Well, I must say that it was well written, but had one recurrent mistake: the confusion between the various formal personal pronouns. Despite being fluent in Italian, Geoff still struggles when he has to address someone formally, because, unlike me, he didn’t grow up with the distinction between formal and informal. He has learnt Italian mainly by interacting with Italian friends and family so he’s had little practice at speaking formally, and tends to use the informal tu all the time, but occasionally, of course, he has to use the lei. Well, here’s an extract from Geoff’s e.mail, highlighting the various forms of the personal pronoun lei, e.g. lei, le, and la with which he ‘struggled’:
Salve, mi chiamo Geoff Chamberlain e ho fatto una visita da lei preso l’ASL di Pontremoli suppergiù un anno fa. Le ho chiesto il suo biglietto da visita … Vorrei fare una visita da lei appena possibile. Ho provato il suo numero di telefono ma non riesco a contattarla.
Hello, my name is Geoff Chamberlain and I had a check-up with you at Pontremoli National Health Centre about a year ago. I asked you for your visiting card … I’d like to have a check-up with you as soon as possible. I tried your telephone number but I can’t contact you.
Below is an explanation of the different forms of the formal pronouns followed by some practical examples. Notice that in the examples I intentionally used Signor Rossi = Mister Rossi (male singular) to show that the formal pronouns lei, le and la, despite being feminine, are also used for men:
1. lei (indirect object) preceded by a preposition (e.g. di = of/about, a = to, da = from, in = in, con = with, su = on, per = for, tra/fra = between); e.g.:
Signor Rossi, che piacere! Ho sentito parlare molto di lei = Mister Rossi, what a pleasure! I’ve heard many things about you
Signor Rossi, c’è una lettera per lei = Mister Rossi, there’s a letter for you
2.le (indirect object) is short for ‘a lei’ (to you), e.g.:
Signor Rossi, devo parlarle in privato (or: Signor Rossi, devo parlare in privato a lei) = Mister Rossi, I must talk to you in private
Signor Rossi, le presento mio marito (or: Signor Rossi, presento mio marito a lei) = Mister Rossi, this is my husband (literally ‘I introduce my husband to you’)
3. la (direct object) is used after a verb and is not preceded by a preposition, e.g.:
La richiamo più tardi, Signor Rossi = I’ll call you back later on, Mister Rossi
Signor Rossi, desideriamo ringraziarla per il suo aiuto = Mister Rossi, we would like to thank you for your help
4. lei (verb subject). In Geoff’s e.mail there isn’t any example of lei used as verb subject, i.e. the person doing the action, the reason being that in Italian we don’t tend to express the subject very often as it is implicit in the verb conjugation. We only use it to put an emphasis on whom we are talking to or about, or when we need to make clear who is carrying out an action. Here are a couple of examples in which lei is used as the subject:
Non ho mai visto il film “Il Caimano”, lei l’ha visto? = I’ve never seen the film “Il Caimano”, have you seen it?
Io prendo un Prosecco , e lei? (i.e. lei cosa prende?) = I’ll have a Prosecco, and you (i.e. what will you have) ?
You can find out more about the formal pronouns in this article: Pronomi personali formali e informali