In this article, I will talk about how to use the courtesy form Lei. The courtesy form isn’t so difficult to use, but sometimes it can be tricky for the students.

I hope this article will be helpful to understand it and to avoid any confusion.

Many languages ​​provide for the use of the courtesy for and even Italian is no exception. Sometimes, however, the use of Lei can create some confusion. Actually, I decided to write this article after a student of mine told me in a very worried way: “Last year I went to Italy for a vacation and a waiter at the restaurant kept turning to me using Lei. Why did he think I was a girl?”

Probably many of you know the answer, but for all the beginners, let’s clarity:

  • It is true, the translation of the word Lei is She, which indicates the third feminine singular person.

LEI è tua sorella? = Is she your sister?

  • It is also true that it is strange finding a waiter who tries to offend a client (man) by voluntarily calling him a young lady.

So how do we solve this mystery?

Very simple: the waiter was using the courtesy form with his client.
Let’s now analyze the following sentences:

  • Cosa (Lei) vuole ordinare (signora)? = What do you want to order (ma’am)?
  • Cosa (Lei) vuole ordinare (signora)? = What do you want to order (sir)?

As you can see, both of these sentences mean: “What do you want to order?”.
You can also see the pronoun Lei is used for men and women. In this case, therefore, Lei no longer assumes the meaning of She (third-person singular) but becomes You formal.

In conclusion, we can affirm that the pronoun Lei is used as a form of respect used with people just met and who we don’t know yet, with the people older than us or, as the waiter has done, with the customers.

Ready to read this article in Italian?! 

Find out more about the Italian allocutive Pronouns!

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