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Tu and Lei – Part 1 Posted by on Nov 9, 2011 in Grammar

In Italian we have two main forms of addressing people: the informal tu and the formal lei. We normally use tu with family, friends, and children. Lei is used with people we don’t know, and professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, the police etc. Have a look at the following examples in which the informal is highlighted in red and the formal in blue:

Ciao! Come stai? = Hi! How are you?

Buongiorno come sta? = Good day, how are you?

Ti è piaciuto il film? = did you like the film?

Le è piaciuto il film? = did you like the film?

As you can see from the above examples, two main grammatical changes take place: 1. the verb, in this case stare (to be), changes from the informal stai (second person singular) to the formal sta (third person singular), and 2. the personal pronoun, ti (to you) in the informal form changes to le (to you) in the formal form.

Now let’s look at some common forms of greeting and a few sentences which illustrate the difference between using the tu and using the lei:

Informal Formal Translation
Piacere di conoscerti Piacere di conoscerla Pleased to meet you
Come ti chiami? Come si chiama? What is your name?
Che lavoro fai? Che lavoro fa? What is your job?
Dove abiti? Dove abita? Where do you live?
Sei sposato/a? È sposato/a? Are you married?
Hai figli? Ha figli? Do you have any children?
Sai che ora è? Sa che ora è? Do you know what time?
Mi puoi dire se c’è una banca qui vicino? Mi può dire se c’è una banca qui vicino? Can you tell me if there is a bank near here?
Ti dispiace aspettarmi un attimo? Le dispiace aspettarmi un attimo? Do you mind waiting for me a moment?
Ti chiamo più tardi La chiamo più tardi I’ll call you later
A te piace il caffè? A lei piace il caffè? Do you like coffee?
Ti andrebbe un aperitivo? Le andrebbe un aperitivo? Would you like an aperitif?
Quanto ti devo? Quanto le devo? How much do I owe you?
Vuoi lavarti le mani? Vuole lavarsi le mani? Would you like to wash your hands?

In Part 2 we’ll have a look at the changes that take place when we give polite orders such as ‘take the next road on the left’, and so on.

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  1. Cheryl:

    Hi Serena, I have only just become a huge fan of your page after a good friend recommended you. Thank you for the great lessons. I am learning italian at my local Dante school and .. mi piace molto… but I have a long way to go and will enjoy having extra study via your lessons. Grazie mille! Cheryl

    • Serena:

      @Cheryl Salve Cheryl e benvenuta nel nostro blog! Grazie per i complimenti.
      Tanti saluti

  2. Khvalovsky:

    Ciao, Serena! Mi piace di conoscerla! Sono Alessandro di Russia.
    And how should you guess in translating the single sentence who is ment there the third or the second person? The form looks like the same one for the both cases of using, doesn’t it?

    • Serena:

      @Khvalovsky Salve Alessandro, piacere di conoscerti e benvenuto nel nostro blog.
      As it’s often the case, it’s the context that clarifies whether you talking directly to a person using the polite form (= you) or you are talking about a woman (= she). For example, if I’m on the train and I’m talking to someone whom I’ve just met, “Ha figli?” means “Do you have children?”. If I’m talking to my friend Anna and we are talking about her sister Maria, then the question “Ha figli?” means “Does Maria have children?”.
      Spero di esserti stata utile.
      Saluti da Serena

  3. Khvalovsky:

    Happy Coming New Year!
    Buongiorno, cara Sirena.
    Grazie mille per la risposta. It looks like an isolated sentence of such a type can have a few meanings as I’ve once thought of it. The context is very important here for our correct understanding. In Russian we have no analogue difference as the verbs have different endings depending on the pronoun in use even if it isn’t added. Buona fortuna!

  4. Stazie:

    I am a bit confused like when do we use lei and tu in formal and informal speeches
    As you can see I am a beginner learner . Do you have skype or something

  5. Stazie:

    Do you know any good websites in Italian

    • Geoff:

      @Stazie What sort of thing are you looking for Stazie?

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