Ciao, piacere, and welcome to your handy guide to writing one of those pesky formal letters in Italian!
Writing a formal letter in any language – even your own – can be stressful. Add to that the uncertainty of whether or not your grammar is correct, or if you’re even using the right vocabulary in a WHOLE DIFFERENT LANGUAGE!
But never fear: this step-by-step guide is here to rescue you from any embarrassing mistakes. Perfect for any formal letter/email, from job applications to writing to your boss. So what are you waiting for? Start reading!
While most people are vaguely familiar with the right layout of a formal letter or email, there are a few peculiarities that are often missed. And, to make matters even more complicated, these little details are actually quite different between English and Italian. A good example of this can be found in formal email structures.
Italian formal letter example:
As you can see from the examples above, something’s a little different. In an Italian formal email, the starting letter of the first word following the recipient’s name is in lower case, while in English it is always lower case. Although this doesn’t seem like a big deal, it makes a huge difference to the reader, and shows that you really know your stuff!While emails are pretty straightforward in their structure, letters often require quite a lot more detail and information. The information that should always be included in the upper-right corner of an Italian formal letter is as follows:
Following this, on the left-hand side of the page, you should include the contact details of the person you’re writing to. Makes sense, right? This should include:
After this, heading back over to the right-hand side of the page, you should include the date and the location you’re writing the letter from. After all this, you can finally start writing your letter. Simple!
When structuring a formal letter in Italian, the general structure is pretty much the same as it is in English! You need to make sure you open with the REASON you’re contacting that person – otherwise known as the INTRODUCTION. This should be a relatively short paragraph explaining a little about who you are, and the reason for which you’re getting in contact with them.
After this, you should move on to the MAIN BODY. It’s slightly harder to guide you through this, as the context of your letter should almost entirely determine the content and the length of this section. For example, if you are applying for a job, you should be sure to include:
Although, as I’ve said, this guideline will differ depending on the nature of your letter. If you’re writing to a hotel, for example, to make a reservation, they will definitely not be interested in the ins and outs of your high school education, will they?
Make sure to keep this section short, sweet and to the point. Remember – if you’re writing a job application, it’s likely that this person has already received a good few other applications. Don’t bore them. Make it snappy.
Another important factor – before you can get into the real nitty-gritty of your letter – is how you address it. In this sense, an Italian formal letter is fairly similar to the English style.
Unlike in English, the way you sign off a formal Italian letter or email doesn’t have to match the way you start it. There are a few different options here, with differing meanings. Some of the most common are:
Cordiali saluti / Distinti saluti
In attesa una Sua risposta
I hope to hear from you soon
Vi porgo i miei cordiali saluti
Sending you my warmest regards
If you’re wondering about the different ‘Sua’s and ‘Vi’s, and what they mean, read on to learn about the super confusing topic that is the ITALIAN FORMAL ADDRESS.
So, if you know even the most basic Italian, you’ll know already that “Lei” means “She” or “Her” in English. So why does it keep popping up all over formal documents and letters?
That, my friends, is thanks to a concept that – thankfully – doesn’t exist at all in the English language. It’s also known as the Formal Address.
Different countries use different pronouns to address someone formally, and it’s usually used for bosses at work, customers if you work in a shop or restaurant, or anyone who’s older than you. Any formal letter should ALWAYS use the formal address – otherwise, it’s not formal, is it?
At first glance, this all seems pretty simple. Instead of “Tu”, just use “Lei”, and conjugate everything accordingly, right? Kind of. The main problem is, honestly, remembering to use it in the first place. Forgetting to address your reader with this pronoun actually comes across as quite rude and, if they don’t know you’re not a native speaker, could cost you the job/promotion/hotel booking/etc.
Below is a quick example of a real-life situation which would require you to use the formal “Lei” address, without expecting it back.
As you can see from this example, the elderly man talking to the girl is using the informal “Tu”, while the girl is using the formal address “Lei”. Why? As Aretha Franklin would say, R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
Now for the complicated bit. In a formal letter or email, not only do you have to use the formal address, but you also have to make sure to capitalise every pronoun and reflexive pronoun relating to the person you’re speaking to. Hard to remember, right? Take a look at this example:
So it sounds kind of complicated – but if you just remember your capital letters, that job/promotion/hotel booking will be yours!
Italian Grammar: two words that can make anyone’s knees shake in fear. Because, as with any language, one little mistake can leave the reader in fits of laughter – and that is NOT something you want to happen when writing a formal letter.
One of the main differences between English and Italian is the use of punctuation. One wrong comma or apostrophe can change the entire meaning. A well-known English example of this is:
You might be laughing now – but Grandma’s not. And neither is the reader of your formal letter!
A particular difference between English and Italian lies in sentence length. As I’m sure you know, the English don’t tend to be known for their long, heartfelt declarations of passion.
The Italians, on the other hand, are a different story. You can expect to find whole paragraphs made up of one single sentence when you’re reading an Italian text – BUT this shouldn’t happen in a formal letter! I know, double standards.
One of the most common pitfalls for a non-native speaker writing a formal letter in Italian are the commas. While we English speakers love a good comma, it’s not really the done thing in Italian. In English, we use the Oxford Comma – if you don’t you often find yourself writing some pretty hilarious sentences.
However, this faux-pas doesn’t exist in Italian. So make sure, if you’re writing a list at any point in your formal letter/email, make sure that there’s no comma before the final ‘and’.
Most of the formal letters or emails you write, depending on the content, will usually be written in the present tense. So, that makes verb conjugations nice and easy for you, right? Phew. ‘Cause the rest of the letter can be pretty complex.
But sometimes, the future tense is also necessary. The context of most formal letters is with a view to asking for something, or applying to that job you’ve always dreamed about. So make sure, to show just how ambitious you really are, to use the future tense.
Hey dude, what’s up? How’s it going? Fancy giving me that job we were chatting about the other day? Thanks, mate.
A fine example of the WRONG tone to use in a formal letter or email. It seems pretty self-explanatory, but sometimes the line can be a little blurry – particularly if you have met the person face-to-face already, and aren’t quite sure where you stand.
My top tip? ALWAYS USE THE FORMAL – until they ask you to use “Tu”. Even then, colloquial language is a huge no-no, and should be reserved for when you’re in the bar with your mates.
The vocabulary you choose in an English formal letter is super important, because we don’t have a formal address. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t equally as important in Italian!
A good example of writing ‘properly’ would be avoiding any abbreviations in your writing. For example:
Ti scrivo ‘sta lettera oggi…
this is INFORMAL, both in address and in tone
La scrivo questa lettera per informarLa…
this is FORMAL, with no abbreviation
While both sentences mean the same thing, it’ll make a massive difference to your reader knowing that you took the time not to abbreviate your words.
That’s why I’ve compiled a handy list of KEY PHRASES for you to use, both in the main body of your letter and in the introduction and conclusion!
As promised, a fool proof list of key phrases for you, organised into categories of whereabouts you should be using them!
A chi di competenza
To whom it may concern
Alla cortese attenzione
For the attention of
In riferimento al colloquio telefonico...
Following our previous telephone call...
In riferimento alla Vostra richiesta...
In riferimento a quanto in oggetto...
Referring to the subject of...
Come anticipato telefonicamente...
As previously discussed on the phone...
Con la presente siamo a comunicare...
Please find attached the following...
In risposta alla Sua/Vostra lettera/mail...
In response to your letter/email...
Ringraziando per la cortese attenzione che vorrà accordarmi porgo cordiali/distinti saluti.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter/email. I send you my warmest regards.
In attesa di riscontro, resto a disposizione per chiarimenti e porgo cordiali saluti.
I hope to hear from you soon, and hereby send you my kindest regards.
Grazie e cordiali saluti.
Thank you. Kind regards...
Le porgo i miei distinti saluti.
I send you my warmest regards.
Hopefully, this handy guide really has been handy. Everyone hates writing formal letters and emails – so take away some of that stress by following our step-by-step instructions to the perfect formal Italian letter-writing technique. So, what have we learned?
So, arrivederci and buona fortuna from all of us!!
If you want to write better in Italian, you need to read, read, read! Here's a good place to start:
A FUN AND EFFECTIVE WAY TO LEARN ITALIAN
Abi is an Italian translator and editor from the UK. Currently living in Lisbon, she loves anything to do with books and travelling. You can also check out her work at https://www.abitranslates.com/