Mr or Mrs President? First female Italian PM spurs grammar kerfuffle

Europe Letter: Grammaticians debate traditionalist choice of Giorgia Meloni to use the masculine article

Protocol officers, grammaticians and journalists have weighed in during Giorgia Meloni’s early days in office amid confusion over how Italy’s first female prime minister should be addressed.

Unlike the relatively androgynous English, gender runs through Italian. Nouns are either masculine or feminine and come with the gendered articles “il” or “la” accordingly, unlike the all-purpose “the”.

This has given rise to a dilemma over whether Meloni should be called il or la presidente del consiglio dei ministri – the Italian term usually translated as “prime minister” that literally means “the president of the council of the ministers”.

Those who decide to use the masculine at this point make a distinct choice. They make a political choice

—  Linguist Vera Gheno

The debate over the issue is weighted with political and cultural overtones, pitting traditionalists against progressives who advocate greater linguistic representation of women.


In a bid to clarify the issue, the civil service issued a communique to all ministries to inform them that Meloni’s formal title was il Signor Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri.

The missive leaked, causing fascination and hilarity. While preferring “il” to “la” was one thing, including “il Signor” or “Mr” in the title came off as taking things a little far; some joked that the right-wing firebrand had broken with form to request he/him pronouns.

A clarification to the clarification was then issued. While the protocol office had advised that “il Signor” was most correct, it stated, Meloni had specified that simply “il presidente” was fine and the initial instruction could therefore be disregarded.

A one-time far-right activist who has used “il presidente” as her title throughout her leadership of the hard right Brothers of Italy party, Meloni sought to puncture the fuss on Facebook.

“I read that the main topic of discussion today is internal bureaucratic circulars,” she wrote caustically. “Have at it. I am dealing with bills, taxes, jobs, criminal justice, the budget. As far as I’m concerned you can call me what you like, including Giorgia.”

Over the decades in Italy some women have preferred to be referred to professionally in the masculine form, finding feminine versions to be diminutive, just as many English-speaking people in film and television prefer to use “actor” over “actress”.

As a word, “presidente” has more ambiguity than most Italian nouns, which typically flag their gender by ending with “o” or “a”.

Once, it would have sounded strange to refer to presidents in the feminine because of the lack of women in high roles. But as more women have been appointed to presiding positions, the use of “la presidente” has increasingly become an unthinking choice in natural speech.

I think that everyone can and must maintain their full freedom of expression, opting from time to time for the masculine or the feminine, according to their own reasons

—  Claudio Marazzini, head of the Accademia della Crusca

Meloni indeed did it herself after talks with European Union chiefs in Brussels last week, telling journalists she had met “la presidente” of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and “la presidente” of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola.

Usigrai, the union of journalists of Italy’s national broadcaster, opined that journalists should not be compelled to use “il” in their reporting, which it cast as a regressive choice, noting that this was contrary to the RAI editorial policy that feminine forms should be used where available.

Vera Gheno, a linguist who teaches at the University of Florence, told Italian media that choosing the masculine article goes against how Italian grammar is developing.

“Those who decide to use the masculine at this point make a distinct choice. They make a political choice,” she said. “Until not many years ago choosing to use the feminine instead of the masculine was the pronounced choice, but now the reverse is becoming the case.”

The voice of authority spoke when the head of the Accademia della Crusca, the world’s oldest linguistic academy, weighed in to say that both the feminine and masculine forms were valid choices.

“Given that there is variation in use between the masculine and feminine, determined by ideological positions, I think that everyone can and must maintain their full freedom of expression, opting from time to time for the masculine or the feminine, according to their own reasons,” Claudio Marazzini said.

“Those who use these female titles accept a historical process that is now well under way... However, those who prefer traditional male forms also have the right to do so.”

It was natural for language to evolve, he explained, and the days in which authorities would issue dictats about how Italian should be spoken were part of the past.

During the time of Benito Mussolini, the dictator once revered by the political tradition that Meloni comes from, the pronoun that is used for formal address, “lei”, was suppressed.

The fascist regime considered it to be “servile” – it also happens to mean “she”.