How to Use Formal and Informal Italian Subject Pronouns

Learn How to Choose Between the "Tu" and the "Lei" Forms

Young woman talking to bartender in Italy
Young woman talking to bartender in Italy. Bob Barkany

When you go to a grocery store and say “thank you” to the cashier, do you say it any differently than you would with a friend?

While we might differ in word choice during informal and formal situations, in English, we don’t change the forms being used. However, Romance languages such as Italian have separate forms of address in formal versus informal situations.

I know. As if learning a new language wasn’t difficult enough, right?

In this lesson, I hope to make it easier on you by explaining step-by-step instructions on how to use the formal and informal subject pronouns.

How Many Ways Can You Say “You”?

There are four ways of saying you in Italian: tu, voi, Lei, and Loro. Tu (for one person) and voi (for two or more people) are the familiar forms.

Here Are Some Differences :

Tu / informal: Di dove sei? - Where are you from?

Lei / formal: Lei è di dove? / Da dove viene Lei? - Where are you from?

Voi / formal + informal: Di dove siete? - Where are you all from?

While it’s taught that “tu” is used only with family members, children, and close friends, it can also be used with people around your age.

For example, if I’m around thirty, and I go to a bar to get a cappuccino, I can use the “tu” form with the barista who seems around my age, too. It’s likely that she’ll give me the “tu” form first anyway. However, in more formal situations, like at the bank, the employee will always use the “lei” form with you.

For Example:

Barista: Cosa prendi? - What are you having?

You: Un cappuccino. - A cappuccino.

Barista: Ecco. - Here you go.

You: Grazie. - Thanks.

Barista: Buona giornata. - Have a good day!

You: Anche a te! - You too!

TIP: If you’re really not sure and you want to avoid choosing between “lei” or “tu” entirely, you can always use the generic “altrettanto” to mean “likewise” in place of “anche a lei / te.”

If you’re older and you’re talking to someone younger than you who you don’t know, it’s also safe to use the “tu” form.

And What About the Formal “You”?​

Use Lei (for one person, male or female) and its plural Voi in more formal situations to address strangers, acquaintances, older people, or people in authority. Unless you’re talking to royalty, you don’t have to use the formal Loro like most textbooks teach.

TIP: You’ll often see Lei capitalized to distinguish them from lei (she) and loro (they).

How Do You Know When to Start Using the “Tu” With Someone?​

An Italian may propose: «Possiamo darci del tu?» which figuratively means "May we switch to the tu form?" In response, you can say “Sì, certo. - Yes, certainly.”

If you want to tell someone to use the “tu” with you, you can say “Dammi del tu. - Use the the “tu” form with me.”

Finally, it’s tough to figure out when you should use the “tu” or when you should use the “leI” form, so if you get it wrong, don’t worry. Italians know that you’re learning a new language and that it can be difficult, so do your best.