Italian word of the day: ‘Prego’

It's only polite to know this crucial Italian term.

Italian word of the day: 'Prego'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

A reader recently wrote to ask about the use of a word you’ll hear at least a dozen times a day in Italy: prego.

It’s a great reminder that it’s always important to get the basics right – and this word is one you need to master from the get-go. It’s every bit as fundamental as per favore (‘please’) and grazie (‘thank you’), and arguably more versatile.

Click here to hear prego pronounced.
The most common translation is ‘you’re welcome’: prego is what you say when someone else thanks you.

– Grazie mille!
– Prego.

– Thanks very much!
– You’re welcome.

Similarly, it can means ‘that’s quite alright’ – whether someone’s thanking you for something that’s no big deal or asking your forgiveness.

– Mi scuso per il ritardo.
– Prego.

– Sorry I’m late.
– It’s fine.

But prego can also take on the sense of ‘please’ – when you’re encouraging someone to make themselves at home, for instance, or inviting them to follow you. Think of this version as ‘you’re welcome to [do something]’.

Ne prenda ancora, prego!
Please, have some more!

Prego, si accomodi.
Please, take a seat.

You can also use prego this same way to assent when someone asks you for permission – like ‘yes, please do’. 

– Posso prenderlo?
– Prego!

– Can I take it?
– Please do!

It all makes sense when you consider where prego comes from: the verb pregare, which means ‘to pray’ or ‘to beseech’. Remember how in English you sometimes hear “pray tell”? It’s effectively “please tell” – just the same as Italian, but we use it a lot less nowadays.

Prego is the first person singular in the present tense (‘I pray’), but you might encounter it in other conjugations in formal Italian – for instance, in the conditional tense or the impersonal third person – when someone’s making a really polite request. 

La pregherei di non fumare.
I would beseech you to please refrain from smoking.

Si prega di bussare prima di entrare.
You are kindly requested to knock before entering.

When you use a pronoun to address the request to someone in particular, it turns prego into more of a supplication: ‘I beg you’.

Ti prego, non farlo!
Don’t do it, I beg you!

But to go back to plain old prego, there’s one final use that comes in very handy.

You can also use it to ask someone politely to repeat themselves when you haven’t understood: like saying ‘pardon?’

Come hai detto, prego?
What did you say, pardon?

If you want to polish your Italian manners further, find out the difference between the phrases ‘per favore‘ and ‘per cortesia’ here.

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

This article was originally published in 2019.

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Farla franca’

You won't get away with neglecting to learn this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Farla franca'

If you like Italian detective or murder mystery novels, sooner or later you’re bound to encounter the phrase farla franca: to get away with something.

Con Poirot alle calcagna, l’assassino non riuscirà mai a farla franca.
With Poirot on the scent, the killer will never get away with it.

Pensavi davvero di potermi derubare e farla franca?
You really thought you could steal from me and get away with it?

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According to the Treccani dictionary, the expression comes from the bureaucratic use of the adjective franco to mean ‘free’, describing either people that are exempt from carrying out their duties (like off-duty naval officers) or goods that are exempt from tariffs and duties.

One of the first recorded uses of farla franca as a phrase comes from the early 14th century.

The Florentine historian Giovanni Villani wrote that in June 1322, the city of Florence celebrated the Feast of San Giovanni with a big fair, ‘la quale feciono franca‘ for non-citizens – in other words, foreign merchants who came didn’t have to pay the usual taxes.

By the mid-1800s, the expression to mean escaping from some illicit act or risky endeavour without having to pay a penalty. In English (if you were being old-fashioned) you might talk in the same way about someone ‘getting off scot free’.

The la in farla franca is the part of the phrase that stands in for the ‘it’. It doesn’t necessarily have to be attached to fare but can go somewhere else, as long as it’s there.

Non possiamo permettere che la faccia franca.
We can’t let him get away with this.

Pensa di poterla fare franca.
She thinks she can get away with it.

With this phrase now in your repertoire, there’s no telling what you’ll get away with.

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