Be polite and avoid Italian false friends

There are some Italian words you shouldn’t use, especially when you don’t know people so well. If you want to speak correctly, follow some basic rules and avoid “Italian false friends”.

When your Italian language level is close to intermediate, it’s the right moment to knock some rough edges off. In order to become more natural, avoid the inappropriate use of some words (“Italian false friends”), be polite and follow a few basic rules.

  • Dare del “Lei”. Use the formal “Lei” instead of the ubiquitous “Tu”

Italian is more formal than English. There are several degrees of familiarity with different people, of different ages and status. If you have been studying Italian for a while, you should know that addressing adult and senior people directly saying tu is rude. Italians speak to strangers or people deserving some respect using the formal Lei. Ask the permission for switching from Lei to Tu only when the ice is broken. People usually say “Diamoci del Tu!”.

  • Limit the use of imperativo

For the same reason, the imperativo is too rude if you don’t know the person you are talking to. The alternative is the so-called imperativo cortese or congiuntivo esortativo, used in conjunction with the formal Lei. Basically, instead of using the imperativo, Italians use a form of congiuntivo presente.  Instead of saying ” (tu) studia l’italiano”, we say “(Voglio che Lei) studi l’italiano”. 

Some examples:

  • vieni con me = venga con me
  • torna presto! = torni presto!
  • spegni la tivù = spenga la tivù
  • entra in casa = entri in casa
  • telefonami = mi telefoni
  • vai a letto = vada a letto
  • Ciao is not for everyone

The word ciao comes from the Venetian language, still widely spoken in North Eastern Italy. “S-ciào vostro” is not used any more but it means “I am your slave”. It was a form of reverence, meaning that I am at your service. Now the word ciao is very informal (hi, rather than hello) and is used only with friends or people you know. It means both hello and goodbye. It is very rude to say ciao to people you don’t know or to senior people. When you meet someone, always say buongiorno in the morning, buona sera in the evening and arrivederci when you say goodbye.

  • Translating straight from English won’t always work: Italian false friends

Whenever I’m in trouble and I don’t know English words, I shoot the translation from Italian, close my eyes and pray it will work. You may be tempted to do the same with Italian. It could work, but there are plenty of  “Italian false friends” ready to stab you in the back:


  • Actually
  • Agenda
  • Argument
  • Attend
  • Camera
  • Canteen
  • Comprehensive
  • Convenient
  • Crude
  • Cucumber
  • Educated
  • Fabric
  • Factory
  • Fastidious
  • Fatal
  • Firm
  • Gentle
  • Gross
  • Library
  • Lunatic
  • Lurid
  • Magazine
  • Maroon
  • Morbid
  • Noisy
  • Ostrich
  • Pace
  • Parent
  • Patent
  • Pavement
  • Principal
  • Rumor
  • Sensible
  • Stranger
  • Support
  • Sympathetic
  • Tenant
  • To Confront
  • To Pretend
  • Vacancy

Italian False Friend

  • Attualmente
  • Agenda
  • Argomento
  • Attendere
  • Camera
  • Cantina
  • Comprensivo
  • Conveniente
  • Crudo
  • Cocomero
  • Educato
  • Fabbrica
  • Fattoria
  • Fastidioso
  • Fatale
  • Firma
  • Gentile
  • Grosso
  • Libreria
  • Lunatico
  • Lurido
  • Magazzino
  • Marrone
  • Morbido
  • Noioso
  • Ostrica
  • Pace
  • Parente
  • Patente
  • Pavimento
  • Principale
  • Rumore
  • Sensibile
  • Straniero
  • Sopportare
  • Simpatico
  • Tenente
  • Confrontare
  • Pretendere
  • Vacanza

Meaning in Italian

  • Currently
  • Diary
  • Topic
  • To wait
  • Room
  • Basement
  • Understanding
  • Cheap
  • Raw
  • Watermelon
  • Polite
  • Factory
  • Farm
  • Annoying
  • Inevitable
  • Signature
  • Kind
  • Big
  • Bookstore
  • Moody
  • Filthy
  • Warehouse
  • Brown
  • Soft
  • Boring
  • Oyster
  • Peace
  • Relative
  • License
  • Floor
  • Main
  • Noise
  • Sensitive
  • Foreigner
  • To bear
  • Nice
  • Lieutenant
  • To Compare
  • To Expect
  • Holiday

We hope this overview about Italian false friends and the difference between Tu and Lei was useful.

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About the author

Riccardo Cristiani

Head Teacher at Dante Learning, I was born in Milan, where I graduated in Italian Language and Literature at the "Università degli Studi". I started to teach Italian online in Japan back in 2003, well before the Skype era. I usually spend my winters in Tokyo and come back to Italy after the cherry blossoms lose their petals.

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