Italian expression of the day: ‘Ti voglio bene’

In Italian, saying 'I love you' is harder than you might think.

Italians are demonstrative people, by and large – certainly compared to Brits like me. So why do I tell my mum 'I love you' more often than my Italian friends do with their mammas?

Obviously I'm not suggesting that Italians love their parents any less (heaven forbid!). It's just that those three little words we use in English don't always translate. 

In fact Italian has three other little words that are just as important: ti voglio bene. Literally they mean 'I want good things for you' or 'I wish you well' and, while that might sound a bit formal to English ears, in Italy it's used more widely than 'I love you' (ti amo).

The simplest distinction to make is that you'd say ti voglio bene to your friends and family, whereas ti amo is generally reserved for someone you've fallen for. It's the difference between loving someone and being in love with them, or between platonic and romantic love.

Ciao mamma, ti voglio bene.
Bye mum, I love you.

Ti amo, patatina mia… Vuoi sposarmi?
I love you, my little potato (or: my darling)… Will you marry me?

If ti amo is the kind of 'I love you' where you hold someone by the hand, gaze into their eyes and declare your passion, ti voglio bene is more like the 'Love you lots!' you might use to sign off a text message (also abbreviated to 'tvb'), or the 'Love ya, buddy' that friends hug it out with.

Depending on the context, you can also translate the phrase as 'I care about you', 'you mean a lot to me' or even simply 'I really like you'.

While most English speakers wouldn't think twice about telling a good friend they love them, to Italians it can sound a little… inappropriate. So remember to think about which 'I love you' you really mean before translating it directly.

Of course that's only a general rule, and some Italians say ti amo (or to multiple people at once, vi amo) more readily than others – especially if they're being deliberately over-the-top. 

But don't you just love having more than one way to say it?

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


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