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!
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