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In Italian, much like in any other language, different rules apply based on the form of language you are using. Colloquial Italian – the one spoken between friends on the street – has to respond to less strict rules and is spiced with a lot more slang and terms outsiders need not understand. The story is much different when we look at newspapers, or official documents that need to be universally understood. Here, strict guidelines are followed, to make sure the text is not misunderstood.

So, when you are taking your first steps in writing in Italian, the important step to start with, is to choose the right tone of language for your writing. Today, we are taking a closer look at how to make the right choice, and how it might affect the following correspondence.

Differences in language

You need to write a letter in Italian and you are not sure about what type of language is appropriate for your specific recipient. The question “Should I use formal or informal Italian?” pops into your mind.

You were told to use formal language when you write to someone for the first time or when you do not know your recipient personally, and informal language when you write to friends or to people you already know. Moreover, when you use formal language you know you have to address you recipient as Lei, even if the recipient is a man, and as Voi when the recipient is the spokesperson of a firm.

But are these simple rules always valid?

The honest answer is, not really. In recent times, a new type of Italian is being used more and more often. It is a type of mixture between formal and informal language – semiformal Italian. And deciding when to use it is more complicated than first meets the eye.

The importance of the communication channel

These days, when business communications, not to mention personal issues, are solved online – through Internet, smartphone, and tablet more often than not, the differences between formal and informal language are starting to get more hazy. Your message can reach your recipients by email, text message, or even by chat. And, in these situations, the traditional rules do not always work.

The truth is that the channel in which we decide to communicate with people now determines a lot of the language that it is going to be used. This is the case even when you do not know your recipient personally.

Imagine writing a complaint to a company. There used to be a clear-cut way to do it: you take a piece of paper and pour out all of your disappointment and rage in language as formal as possible, to highlight the severity of the situation. But now, when more and more companies use Twitter and Facebook chat for customer service, this approach seems peculiar. You are free to issue your complaint without any hassle but how much outrage can you really fit into 140 characters?

So, what to do?

How to correctly choose between formal, informal, and semi-formal Italian?

Although it might be complicated to choose the right tone of language to use when you’re first starting out, here are some tips that can help you to understand how to do it.

Even if this is not a rule written in a grammar book (not yet, at least!), it can be said that you should use:

formal language when you write a letter or an email to someone you have never met;

informal language when you write an email, a text message or a message in a chat to someone with whom you are in confidence;

a mixture of formal and informal language when you write a text message or a message in a chat to someone with whom you are not in confidence.

And remember, even if you get it wrong – it’s not the end of the world. Your aim is to get your point across, and even if you come across as too informal, natives will forgive you when they realise you’re just learning Italian.

Conclusion – different forms of language are used with different communication channels

Many of the details of writing in Italian and dependent on what type of communication channel you are using. Although the traditional division between informal Italian used by friends, and formal Italian used in business communication still stands, there have been changes to the way these forms are used. Additionally, with the rise of social media customer care, semiformal Italian is now being used in everyday business communications.

In the second part of this article, we’ll take a closer look to some of the practical differences in writing in formal, informal, and semiformal Italian.

This post was written by Marzia P, our Italian teacher in Rome.


Sign up for lessons with her here:

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