Italian: Using the Formal Tense with Style

Formal tense in Italian is anything but polite.

With all due respect sir, you are a complete dickhead!

I have a love/hate relationship with the Italian language.

Italian is full of sounds we don’t have in English, and as if rolling your r’s and pronouncing gl weren’t hard enough you also have to add in the fact that there are more tenses and moods, and adjectives and nouns change endings depending on whether they’re masculine, feminine, singular, or plural.

Italian is also a highly eloquent and exaggerated language that will expound upon the virtues of anything given the chance in run-on sentences and word stuffing that rivals only a first year college student with a word count. I kid you not. I once helped a student translate his company’s letter of introduction into English and took it from two pages to a short paragraph. 

Then we get to the fun part, the formale. If you are speaking to someone who is older, or that you don’t know well, or who has a position of authority you will give them “the Lei”. Essentially, you are speaking in third person to someone right in front of you.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has given me the Lei and I’ve turned around to see who they were talking to.

“I’m sorry, this register is closed. Could she please go to the next available one?”

I turn around looking for the ignorant woman who has just put all her things down on the closed register to tell her to skedaddle and no one is there. I look at the cashier and point to myself “Io?” “Si, Signora.”

Ah right.

But, perhaps one of the most gratifyingly ironic and amusing things of the Italian language is the use of the formale when swearing at someone. 

For some reason, this really tickles my fancy. It’s not enough that you’re already insulting someone and cursing at them with some of the most colorful and creative expressions that I have ever heard, (sure, we have the “F” word, but do we have “a curse on your dead ancestors!”? No…no we do not. Italy wins.) you also have to maintain that distance between yourself and a stranger by using the formale. Italians wouldn’t dream of giving someone the “tu” (the informale, or, how we speak in English. Everyone is addressed directly using “you”.) and breaking all those lovely rules of society. Calling you a testa di cazzo (dickhead)? Certainly! Telling you to go and….well, you know…Yes! But, saying this with the informale? Ma Lei è matta…(You’re crazy!)

If you’d like some tips on how to use the formale when you’re practicing Italian, just do what I do:

1. Imagine you are speaking to your husband who has been feeling particularly entitled that day. “Would his majesty like another beer, or is he fine there on the couch watching football?”

2. Tone down the sarcasm. A LOT.

3. Smile.


If, on the other hand, the above 3 steps were not detailed enough, I give you Wikipedia’s Italian Grammar page. Oh, come on, I was just kidding. I’m here to help Lei too.  

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