Many people asked me: “When do I have to use prego? And also, what does it even mean?!”
Well, let’s start saying that prego is not a sauce nor a reference to an expecting lady.
When you first approach Italian, your teacher, your book, or even your app will tell you that “prego” is the appropriate answer to “grazie” (which, FYI is pronounced graah-tsee-eh and not groh-tsee!). You would, therefore, assume that it means “you’re welcome“.
But wait. There’s more to it. Prego fits in that category of basic words that you have to have a good understanding of, otherwise the whole meaning of a conversation – or even a social interaction – would be completely misunderstood.
So, let’s go over the most common uses (and meanings) of this apparently obscure word.
As we said, is the standard answer to “Grazie” and it means you’re welcome. As simple as that.
Now let’s move forward…
The second meaning stands for “please“. Let’s say you’re standing on a crowded bus and a gentleman gets up from his seat, looks at you and says “prego”: in this case, it does not mean you’re welcome, but it implies “prego, si sieda” (please, sit down). This applies to a number of situations, such as keeping the door open for someone and saying “prego” (please, go ahead), or when being interrupted by something when talking and then continuing the conversation we use “prego, continua/vai avanti” (please, keep going).
It is commonly used when entering a household as well. It is polite and very well seen to ask “permesso?” (Can I come in?) to the owner/who’s letting you in (even if it’s OBVIOUS that they want you to come in, otherwise why leaving the door open and stare at you from the hallway?!) to which they will asnwer you with an informal “Vieni, vieni!” or with our new favourite 5 letter word!
Hint: usually this use is associated with a hand gesture featuring an open palm with closed fingers in a movement going outward.
In this case is a nice and slightly formal way to say excuse me? instead of “whaaat?” (cheeeee?) for when you don’t understand something and you want the person to repeat what just said.
“Deve scendere a Castellammare…”
4. Ma ti prego!
Mostly used with a very indignant tone, “ma ti prego!” simply means oh come on! Like when your best friend comes out from the fitting room with an outrageously ugly outfit and you exclaim in disdain “Oh come on! Are you kidding me?!”
Literally, it means: “But I pray/beg you!” which lead us to the next meaning…
Usually pronounced with a very long and whiney “eeeeeh” (do the world a favor and skip the whiny part. Yes. Thank you), this is the best request performance from daddy’s girls or clingy girlfriends.
It means “pleeeeeeeease”, but if taken a little bit more seriously can mean also I beg you, like in the following sentence “Ti prego, andiamo a vedere i Musei Vaticani, ci staremo poco!” (I beg you, let’s take a look at the Vatican museums, it won’t take long! – said NO ONE EVER).
If taken super seriously, like in a thriller or a horror movie, when the victim begs the killer to spare her friends (which always conveniently separate!) saying “Ti prego!! Non li uccidere!” (I beg you, do not kill them!) and eventually, the most underrated and forgotten of its meanings… (which also happens to be the original one)
5. (io) Prego
For those of you who are just going with the flow of vocabulary and random concepts, and have not gathered the courage to work on conjugations yet, it stands for the first singular person of the verb pregare (to prey).
Henceforth (gosh, I love this word!), you can say “I pray [insert here whatever God/Thing/Superior power you believe in and you think it deserves a pray]”, or you can also use it for a less holy sentence like “Ti prego, non ti scusare!” (I pray you, do not be sorry!)
So, here you go. These were the most common – and most used – meanings of this simple five letter words. It is important to remember, though, that the intonation changes it all! Therefore listen carefully when you hear an Italian say it… You might find new meanings in the conversation!
I said “intonation changes it all” – if you want to see how, you can check it out on The Little Guide to Italian Pronunciation, a FREE EBOOK I have created just for you!