When I first started learning Italian, the verb whose usage confused me more than any other was piacere, which means to like.
To understand why this verb is so confusing for English speakers, let’s take a look at our phrase of the week:
(Tu)* mi piaci!
I like you!
*Note: personal pronouns like tu are often dropped in Italian because the verb inflection (piaci) already gives us enough information about who the subject is – in this case, “you”.
In the case of piacere, what is normally the object in an English construction becomes the subject in the equivalent Italian construction. In other words, the sentence structure is reversed.
If we were to translate the Italian phrase literally, it would be something close to You to me are pleasing.
[ You ]
[ to me ]
[ are pleasing ]
So what happens to what is traditionally the subject in English? Well, it turns into an indirect object pronoun (in this case, mi = to me). Unlike direct objects, which receive the action of the verb, indirect objects demonstrate whom the action is affecting.
Yet another way of phrasing this sentence in Italian is:
Tu piaci a me.
I like you.
Mi and a me mean the same thing in Italian, but the latter is more emphatic. In English, we might place additional emphasis on the word “I” or rephrase the sentence (e.g. I’m the one who likes you) to express the same concept.
Let’s take a look at a few other piacere examples that could potentially cause some confusion:
- Mi piacciono i gatti. = I like cats. (lit. To me, cats are pleasing.) – Here the third person plural piacciono is used because “cats” is plural.
- Ti piaccio. = You like me. (lit. To you, I am pleasing.) – In this case, “I” am doing the pleasing, so the verb is piaccio (I please).
Mi piaci: a romantic or friendly compliment?
One important thing to understand is that in Italian, the phrase mi piaci on its own very often implies a romantic sentiment. One classic situation is a teenage boy saying it to a girl he wishes to date.
Mi piaci, Laura. Vuoi uscire con me?
I like you, Laura. Do you want to go out with me?
This means that you have to be careful when talking to a person that you are not interested in from a romantic point of view, or it could be interpreted the wrong way. The tone of your voice may be enough to avoid misunderstandings, but safer alternatives to consider are:
- Mi sei simpatico/a. = You’re nice person. / You’re fun.
- Sei forte. = You’re great. / You’re a great person.
- Sembri / Sei un tipo (una tipa) in gamba. = You look like / You are a smart person.
Mi piaci may be used if it is followed by another phrase that adds more context or demonstrates the intention of the compliment. But more generally, Italians will say they like what the other person does or who the person is, rather than just saying they like him or her.
Mi piace il tuo modo di fare, Marco. Sei un tipo in gamba.
I like your way of doing things, Marco. You’re a smart guy.
If you’re talking about a third person and your intention isn’t romantic, it is best to elaborate with an additional explanation to avoid ambiguity, as in the following example:
Mi piace questo ragazzo. Ha la testa sulle spalle.
I like this guy. He has a good head on his shoulders.