Tu vs Lei

"You" in Italian

The distinction between tu and Lei is one of the most confounding aspects of Italian, and one of the most basic. The influence it has on verb conjugations and pronouns is considerable,* but more than that, the choice of tu or Lei is a matter of etiquette: it defines the relationship between two people and how they interact, and using the wrong pronoun can have negative consequences.

Italian is what linguists call a "pro-drop" language, which simply means that the pronoun can be dropped. It’s not necessary for comprehension, the way it is in English, because the subject of the verb is evident from the conjugated verb. "You go" can be translated by tu vai / Lei va or simply vai / va (from the verb andare – to go). It also has a plural equivalent for each of these pronouns, explained below.

While there’s only one word for "you" in English, formality and familiarity are of course alive and well.

Per esempio…

Hello sir, how are you? vs  Hey man, how’s it going?
Buongiorno signore, come sta?   Ehi amico, come stai?

English makes the distinction between formal and familiar relationships with word choice, varying grammatical structures, and optional titles. Italian does all of this too; it just adds another layer of complexity with different personal pronouns. So how do you know which one to use?

Singular Pronouns

Tu = informal

The informal, singular subject pronoun tu (listen) indicates an intimate, amicable, and/or equal relationship between two people, and as such it is used with family, friends, lovers, colleagues, and classmates. Kids always use it with one another, as do most teens, even when meeting for the first time. Likewise, adult friends of friends often use it upon being introduced. Tu is also used when talking to God, children, animals, and inanimate objects. Using tu with someone who doesn’t fit any of these categories is likely to cause offense.

Positive Negative
– love
– intimacy
– camaraderie
– equality
– disrespect
– contempt

Lei = formal

The formal subject pronoun Lei (listen) indicates a respectful and/or distant relationship. It’s used between strangers and in professional situations, such as doctor-patient and clerk-customer. It’s also used in professional and academic hierarchies, like boss-employee and professor-student. Using Lei with someone who doesn’t fall into one of these categories demonstrates a certain distance, or worse.

Positive Negative
– respect
– professionalism
– formality
– politeness
– deference
– distance
– coldness
– dislike
– snobbery

Lei can also be used when addressing an elderly relative (e.g., grandmother, grandfather) to emphasize respect over family ties.

  Note that Lei (formal "you") must be capitalized to distinguish it from lei (she).

The distinction between tu and Lei is furthered with the verb conjugation. While tu is conjugated in the second person singular, Lei is conjugated in the third person, grammatically showing distance between the speaker and the listener.

Plural Pronouns

Voi = informal

In additional to a familiar vs formal distinction in the Italian equivalents for "you," there’s singular vs plural. Voi (listen) is the familiar plural pronoun, used for the same reasons as tu (camaraderie, intimacy, etc.) when talking to more than one person.

Loro = formal

Loro (listen) is conjugated in the third person plural and must be capitalized to distinguish it from loro (they). It’s used to show respect, distance, etc. to a group.

  However, in modern Italian, Loro is exceedingly rare. While not considered wrong exactly, Loro sounds very antiquated. For all but the most formal of situations (e.g., international diplomacy), Italians use Voi (capitalized) whenever they need a formal plural "you."

In sintesi

  singular plural
familiar tu voi
formal Lei Voi (Loro)

* The choice between the different words for "you" isn’t limited to subject pronouns and their verb conjugations; it also affects several other areas of grammar:

Subject pronouns tu Lei   voi Voi (Loro)
Direct object pronouns ti La   vi Vi (Li, Le)
Emphatic direct object pronouns te Lei   voi Voi (Loro)
Indirect object pronouns ti Le   vi Vi (Loro, Gli)
Reflexive pronouns ti si   vi si (si)
Possessive adjectives tuo
tua
Suo
Sua
  vostro
vostra
Vostro
Vostra
(Loro)
Possessive pronouns il tuo
la tua
il Suo
la Sua
  il vostro
la vostra
il Vostro
la Vostra
(il Loro)
(la Loro)
Expressions dare del tu
"to use tu"
dare del Lei
"to use Lei"
       
             

 Note that all formal pronouns are capitalized, with the exception of reflexive pronouns.

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Tu vs Lei - You in Italian