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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Perbene’

You’d better take care to make proper use of this word.

Italian word of the day: 'Perbene'
Photo: DepositPhotos

Perbene means upstanding, respectable, decent, although it’s more widely used in Italian than any of those words are in modern-day English.

It typically combines (or if you’re feeling less charitable, conflates) the concept of being a good person and of being well-to-do or proper. In most cases, it has more than a touch of snobbery about it.

Una bambina perbene non si sporca le mani!

A good little girl doesn’t get her hands dirty!

A hectoring adult might say.

Ma non hai le scarpe decenti? Ricordati che sei figlio e nipote di persone perbene!

Don’t you have any decent shoes? Don’t forget that you are the child and grandchild of upstanding people!

Is something my boyfriend’s mother once wrote in a note to him (this is true).


A nonna whose grandson isn't perbene. Photo: Olly18/Depositphotos

However, it can also simply mean someone honest, scrupulous, incorruptible.

Non ti preoccupare, il giudice lo conosciamo, è un uomo perbene.

Don’t worry, we know the judge, he’s a good man.

Perbene is one of those adjectives that generally wants to be placed right next to the noun it’s describing, which is very often some variation on ‘people’ or ‘person’ (un uomo/una gente/un gruppo/delle ragazze perbene = “(a) respectable man/people/group/girls”).

However, it can also be used in a less direct fashion to describe an aura or impression someone gives off, and on rare occasions to describe a physical location (again, in reference to the aura a place generates).

Avevano un’aria perbene.

They seemed respectable (literally, “they had a respectable air about them”).

Lavora come domestica in una casa perbene.

She works as a maid in a respectable house.


Two men who likely consider themselves perbene. Photo: everett225/Depositphotos

Unlike most other Italian adjectives, perbene is invariable, i.e. you don’t need to worry about changing its ending depending on whether the noun it’s describing is masculine or feminine, single or plural.

In all the above examples it’s used as an adjective, but perbene is one of those words that can also handily double up as an adverb.

When used in this way it’s separated into two parts, per bene, and simply denotes doing something properly or in the correct way.

Scrivilo per bene!

Write it down well!

Vogliamo assicurarci di fare tutto per bene.

We want to make sure we do everything by the book.

If you’re feeling creative, perbene and per bene both have diminutive forms in perbenino/per benino. As with all Italian diminutive forms, its meaning remains basically the same but it’s a bit more friendly or informal.

Il fuoco ti fa scaldare per benino?

Is the fire warming you up nicely?

L’hanno ricucito per benino.

They stitched it back up good and proper.


A fire warming up a family per benino. Photo: Valentyn_Volkov/Depositphotos

So there you have it: per bene. Try writing it down in a sentence today.

Don’t forget, scrivilo per bene!

Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan with your suggestion.

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ITALIAN LANGUAGE

Italian expression of the day: ‘Può darsi’

This might be just the Italian phrase you need.

Italian expression of the day: 'Può darsi'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s expression is one I learned courtesy of my Italian in-laws, who frequently use it as a non-committal response to my suggestions.

This isn’t a phrase that ever came up in Italian class, and at first I wasn’t sure what they were saying. But from the context it was obvious that it meant something like “perhaps” or “possibly”.

– Forse sono in ritardo a causa del traffico

– Può darsi

– Maybe they’re late because of the traffic

– Possibly

When può darsi is used alone as a response, it’s not always clear just how likely the speaker thinks something is.

In fact, it can mean anything from “maybe” to “probably”.

Literally translated, the phrase doesn’t make much sense to English speakers. It’s a combination of può (the third-person singular form of the verb potere, ‘to be able‘) and darsi (the reflexive form of the verb dare ‘to give‘). It could be translated literally as “it can be given”.

As well as being used alone, this phrase can be used within sentences instead of forse (maybe) or magari, which is altogether more complicated.

With può darsi you’ll need to pay more attention to the grammar. But it’s worth mastering, as the phrase is very commonly used in spoken Italian.

Unlike forse and magari, sentences using può darsi need to be constructed in a particular way.

The formula you’ll need is può darsi + che + a verb in its subjunctive form.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

– Può darsi che Gianni sia in ritardo.

– Maybe/it’s possible that Gianni is late

Compare that to the simpler structure of:

– Forse Gianni è in ritardo.

– Maybe Gianni is late

Both sentences effectively mean the same thing.

In the first example, the form of the verb ‘to be’ used is sia because we’re speaking in the subjunctive.

Understandably, language learners often want to run for the hills when they start hearing about the subjunctive mood (congiuntivo). But it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Put very simply, it’s used whenever you’re not stating a fact. It expresses doubt, possibility, or uncertainty. It may also be used to talk about emotions, or when making suggestions – so for most normal everyday conversations, then.

So, while this is often taught as a more ‘advanced’ bit of grammar, you may want to get on friendly terms with it ASAP in order to partake in everyday chit-chat with Italians. Read a more detailed explanation of it here.

It pays to remember that with può darsi you don’t need to use the verb in the subjunctive form if you’re speaking in the future or conditional tense.

For example, you could also say:

Può darsi che Gianni sarà in ritardo

– Maybe Gianni will be late

Here, the verb refers to the future, so we used sarà – the future simple form of essere (to be).

And once you’ve got the hang of that, you can take things a step further by inserting the word anche (also) in between può and darsi to add emphasis.

Può anche darsi che sia un disastro totale.

– It may well be a total disaster

As mentioned earlier, this phrase is used for things you think are possible or likely.

If you’re a bit more certain about something, it would be better to use probabilmente or è molto probabile (‘probably’ or ‘it’s very likely’).

Will your Italian friends be impressed if you master the use of può darsi?

Sì, è molto probabile!

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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