Deciding when to use buono (good) and when to use bello (beautiful) isn’t so cut and dry.
Do you want to say something is good, beautiful, fine, or well done? Welcome to the world, and the question, of buono or bello. Then, add the word “bravo”, the other positive adjective in this family, and you’ll soon realize you don’t always make an even exchange of these words from English to Italian. Don’t worry, it’s not super complicated, and if you mess up, it’s not the type of mistake that will get you in trouble. But, if you don’t get it right, you’ll be broadcasting that you haven’t mastered some of the basics of speaking Italian. Until recently, I wasn’t getting it right on a consistent basis, which is why I decided to share a bit of what I’ve learned.
Normally, both of these adjectives precede the nouns they modify, unlike most other adjectives.
And, their form changes based on the gender of what they’re modifying. That’s why fine/lovely weather is “bel tempo” and not “bello tempo”, whereas a lovely day is “una bella giornata”. But, let’s set that aside and talk about some general guidelines for deciding when to choose buono or bello.
What are the general parameters for buono?
• To express good/best wishes. Examples: Buongiorno (Good day), Buon viaggo (Have a good trip), Buona vacanza (Have a nice vacation), Buone feste (Happy Holidays).
• To describe flavors and smells. Examples, Un buon vino (a good wine), Una buona pizza (A good pizza), Un buon profumo (A nice smell). It makes perfect sense to exclaim “Che buono!” (How delicious!) when you are eating really good food. You might say “Che bello!” (How beautiful!) if a plate of food has been placed in front of your and it has been artfully presented. You also can use bello in relation to food and drink, but that’s reserved for a concept or action (more on that below), and it’s more the exception, than the rule
• To offer a positive opinion of personal qualities.
That is, when it pertains to people or animals, with a few exceptions. This is where it starts to get a little tricky. You can say “Un uomo buono” (A good man) or “Un buon ragazzo” (A good boy), but this use of buono is more reflective a someone who is well-behaved. Also, when describing things like books or films, you can say “Un buon libro” (A good book) or “Un buon film” (A good movie), but in these examples it connotes being good because they’ve handled or presented a subject well. It could also mean it’s a good/okay book.
What are the general parameters for bello?
• To describe someone or something that is beautiful or good-looking. This one’s pretty much a no-brainer. Examples: Una bella donna (A beautiful woman), Una bella vista (A beautiful view), Un bel cane (A good-looking dog), Un bel fiore (A beautiful flower)
• To express something of superior artistic quality. This is why, if you’d just seen an amazing movie, you’re more likely to say “Che bello!” (How good/beautiful!). You’d say “Un bel libro” (A good book) to describe a well-written book. If you want to be effusive, you’d say “Un bellissimo libro” (A beautiful/amazing book). You wouldn’t say “Un buonissimo libro” (A really good book) as a general rule.
This is one of the things I love about Italian – using the word for beauty to compliment artistry!
• To describe a concept or action. Examples: “Ho fatto una bella passagiata” (I took a nice stroll), “Vorrei un bel bicchiere di vino” (I’d like a nice glass of wine). That’s a bit more dramatic than the more frequently used “Vorrei un buon bicchiere di vino”.
Now, let’s talk about bravo.
You can’t talk just about buono or bello, without touching upon bravo. Most Americans are used to hearing “Bravo!” shouted at performances to express pleasure at how the artist has performed. And, many come to Italy, using the term only in its masculine form. And, let me tell you, Italians cringe when they hear a foreigner shout “Bravo!” to a female singer. Please don’t make that mistake.
• Bravo is used to compliment something that a person, or animal has done well. Let say your dog fetched and behaved really well at the dog park. You’d say “Bravo Fido!”. If a woman ran a triathlon in good time, you’d shout or say “Brava!”. You’d say “Meryl Streep è una brava attrice.” (Meryl Streep is a good/accomplished actress). Hey, what am I thinking? Wouldn’t it be correct to say “Meryl Streep è una bravissima attrice.”? (Meryl Streep is a brilliant actress.)
Now, what about when to use buono and bene?
Hopefully this little primer on the art of deciding “Is it buono or bello?” has proven helpful. Related, and equally important (if not more so), is the understanding of the differences in using buono and bene. And, who better to explain this important subject than Manu of ItalyMadeEasy.com. In his engaging, articulate style, he explains it all and helps you to get it right. Don’t forget, he has tons of free online videos!