Italian Language Blog

Lei, Le or La? Posted by on Aug 27, 2013 in Grammar

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

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  1. Jackie:

    At last! These little words have bothered me for so long, and your explanation helps me to understand them.
    Many thanks.

  2. andreas:

    Ciao Serena.
    Grazie per il blog. La mia domanda è: ‘Lei, Le, La’ non si scrive con maiuscola?
    Saluti da Andreas

    • Serena:

      @andreas Salve Andreas! Lei ecc. sono scritti con lettere maiuscole solo quando si manda un messaggio, una lettera, una comunicazione scritta, diretta e molto formale. Per esempio il mio internet server quando mi manda una mail usa la maiuscola (anche per Suo, Sua, ecc), così pure il mio avvocato quando ci manda una lettera ufficiale. Ma quando si scrive, come nel mio caso, riferendo una conversazione, non si usa la maiuscola. Spero di essere stata chiara.

  3. andreas:


  4. Maximillian:

    I was taught that one should always capitalise the “L” when using “Lei” in the formal. Is that not correct?

    • Serena:

      @Maximillian Salve Maximillian, the capital ‘L’ for the formal pronoun is only used in letters and e.mais when you want to be extremely polite. When you are just transcribing a conversation, such as newspapers interviews, or most of my examples in my blog, the capital letter is not necessary, it looks too artificial and over the top. You can read more about it in this post:
      Saluti da Serena

  5. Tadele:

    Dear Serena,

    I was searching for my confusion and I found the post very helpful. lots of thanks.

  6. Ellen:


  7. Mikey:

    Serena – beautifully explained.
    Until I had read your spiegazione, this hospital sentence below was somewhat troublesome:

    “Tra poco, le metteremo il gesso e poi la trasferiremmo al reparto ortopedia.”

    I now understand the indirect usage (literally “we will put to you the plaster”) versus the direct “transfer you”.

    • Serena:

      @Mikey Grazie Mikey! Sono contenta che la mia spiegazione ti sia stata utile.
      Saluti da Serena

  8. Carol:

    Thank you so much for the clear explanation of a problem I just could not understand

    • Serena:

      @Carol Salve Carol, non c’è di che!
      Saluti da Serena

  9. Dean Langis:

    Dear Serena,
    Thank you so much–this discussion on Lei was so helpful! But I do have two questions about Lei. One time a professor of Italian who is from Milan told me that although Lei is feminine, when you ask the question, “Mr. Rossi, did you go yesterday?” the correct way to say it is, “Signor Rossi, Lei è andato ieri?” and NOT “Signor Rossi, Lei è andata ieri?” Thus, according to this professor, the verb “andare” in this case follows the masculine gender of Signor Rossi instead of the feminine gender of the pronoun Lei. Does that sound correct to you also? I so appreciate your help on this.
    For my second question, the same professor told me that the use of the Lei for the formal you is the common practice in northern Italy, but that in the South of Italy the common practice is the use of “voi” for the formal “you” even if it is for just one person. For example, in Mascagni’s opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” based on the short story and play by the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, one of the famous arias is “Voi lo sapete, O Mamma” in which the character Santuzza addresses the older character Lucia as “Voi” and not as “Lei.” Is the use of “voi” for the formal singular “you” still the current practice in Southern Italy or has “Lei” become the common practice even in the South? Thank you so much for your kindness and consideration in helping all of us on the internet with our Italian!!
    Respectfully yours,

  10. Serena:

    Salve Dean!
    Yes, Lei is a feminine pronoun, but if you are addressing a man, past participles and adjectives are in the masculine, e.g. “Sig. Rossi, Lei è mai andato a Roma?”, or “Sig. Rossi, Lei è molto bravo”, ecc.
    As for the voi vs, lei, the voi was more common in some regions, such as Emilia Romagna, Sicilia and Campania. However, I believe (but not sure 100%) that nowadays is quite rare amongst younger generations.
    Spero di essere stata utile
    Tanti saluti da Serena

  11. Dean:

    Thank you so much for your kind assistance, Serena! So, do I correctly assume that “Mr. Rossi, I saw you yesterday” would be translated as “Signor Rossi, L’ho visto ieri (Le ho=L’ho)” and not as “Signor Rossi, l’ho vista ieri”? I so much appreciate all your gracious help for us Italian learners!
    Respectfully yours,
    Dean (Costantino in Italian but Konstantinos in Greek!)

    • Serena:

      @Dean Salve Costantino! (mi piace di più di Dean)
      Quando ho letto il nuovo quesito ( “Signor Rossi, L’ho visto ieri (Le ho=L’ho)” and not as “Signor Rossi, l’ho vista ieri”?) ho avuto qualche esitazione, perché la risposta giusta è il femminile, e non il maschile. Ho cercato una risposta in una fonte seria e valida e ho trovato la risposta nella grammatica Treccani (la ‘Bibbia’ della lingua italiana!). Si usa il maschile quando Lei è pronome soggetto. Quando si usa il Lei per il complemento oggetto o indiretto (= la/le), la concordanza è al femminile.
      Spero di essere stata d’aiuto
      Tanti saluti da Serena
      Ecco il link:
      Mamma mia come siamo complicati!
      P.S. Nella sua frase “Signor Rossi, l’ho vista ieri”, “l’ho” = “la ho”, non “le ho”!

  12. Dean:

    Dear Serena,
    Please forgive me my extreme “Greek time” (my father was from Greece and my mother was from Cyprus) in not seeing your gracious response until today!! We are in the middle of Greek Orthodox Holy Week right now (April 4th) as we are getting ready for Greek Orthodox Pascha this upcoming Sunday, April 8th, and I am so far behind in my correspondence and so I ask your forgiveness–“mea magna culpa!” I really appreciate all your help with “Lei. le and la”–the proper use of these pronouns can get really complicated–but that’s what makes language study always so challenging and interesting! Thank you again for your kind and considerate help for us who are trying to learn the most musical of all languages–Italian!!
    Respectfully yours,

  13. Rob P.:

    So helpful! It’s been so hard to find a chart online that contains the formal forms of the second-person, direct pronouns. Thank you! What about plural, though? If I want to say, “I’ll call you back later on, Messrs. Rossi and Russo,” I say, what? “___ richiamo più tardi, Signori Rossi e Russo.”

  14. Gilles:

    Vraiment très utile…. merci beaucoup à tous et toutes !
    Really very useful… thank you very much to all !
    Davvero prezioso… grazié mille a tutti !

  15. Bolla:

    Thanks a lot – I have been wondering for so long about the ‘le’ – that’s the price for not bothering with grammar books I guess

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